I was worried about not asking the right questions, digging deep enough, or sounding “stupid.” Thankfully, this was mainly imposter syndrome at play, but my worry wasn’t without reason.
When it comes to hiring a content manager, two skills are likely top of mind for you: writing and editing. Content managers have to be able to deliver a well-written, engaging piece of content to attract the traffic, leads, and sales your business needs to achieve its goals.
But the buck doesn’t stop there.
One important skill that often gets glossed over is the ability to interview others as easily as you breathe, effortlessly extracting incredible stories from those around you.
For those who haven't heard of it before, the term simply refers to a stage in the hiring process during which we have a job candidate participate in an activity that approximates a common situation or task they'll be asked to complete through the duties of their potential role.
This will give you a glimpse into how the candidate will actually perform on the job rather than relying on gut feelings, references, resumé, or carefully curated portfolios.
It also gives candidates an opportunity to see what kind of work they will be involved in and the standards you’re looking for.
In the case of a content manager position, here is the activity we put our candidates through:
The job candidate is scheduled to interview an internal expert on our team to whom they have never spoken before.
The interview can last up to 30 minutes and takes place over video (we use Zoom for our video conferencing). It should be recorded.
They are told in advance what the topic will be. For example, in the past, ours has been "How to Create Content Like a Thought Leader."
Following the interview, they have up to 48 hours (from the time we send them the recording of our interview) to submit a 600 to 900-word article on the topic.
Once all of this is completed, we review the recording. Did they ask follow-up questions? Did they cut off the expert or let them speak? This gives us a good idea of whether the candidate has the chops to be our content manager.
What does a great interviewer look like?
When reviewing an interview, hat exactly should you be looking for? Let’s break it down.
World-class content managers understand one fundamental thing — the way to get the true expert "goodness" out of a subject matter expert is to make them feel as comfortable as possible with you.
In other words, they are skilled rapport-builders. They know how to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere that immediately puts someone at ease.
Instead of awkwardly (and selfishly one might add) diving into the questions they have prepared, they start the interview with a bit of small talk and light conversation.
During those few minutes, not only can they quickly find a few areas of "common ground," but they can also give your subject matter expert the chance to relax and be more themselves. Great interviewers know how to create a space where someone doesn’t need to "perform."
A content interview should be a conversation, not an interrogation.
You need a content manager who can make your in-house experts — who may not always come to the table feeling totally ready to share all of their knowledge — feel comfortable.
Otherwise, people won't want to make time for the interview, and the discomfort of your experts will be reflected in the final product of whatever content pieces are created.
Asking follow-up questions
A content manager should come to an interview with prepared questions. However, the best interviewers know one thing — the meat of any story often lives in the follow-up questions you ask.
For example, whenever I go into an interview with an expert, I usually have between three and five questions in mind that are designed to provide the basic "beginning-middle-end" architecture an article needs.
Beyond that, however, I know the goods I'm looking for will lay in the answers I get when I ask clarifying follow-up questions.
Often, initial answers — while serviceable — only scratch the surface of what you're really looking for.
Look for content manager candidates who ask follow-ups that get someone to:
Stop using the canned language they’re used to parroting when faced with the "usual" questions about what they do.
Start talking like themselves and sounding like a human being, instead of a big bottle of homogenous jargon.
Phrase ideas differently, so the answers are accessible and relatable to the audience you’re trying to reach.
I don't care how wonderful or seemingly "thorough" their initial prepared questions are; there’s always more than meets the eye (or ear in this case).
This is because they got the expert to do most of the talking, without them probing or leading.
You want to hire a content manager who makes it easy for someone to just talk about what they love to do and what they know the most about without a ton of intervention.
The goal of an interview is to get the expert talking — and not the other way around.
Remember, you're looking for the total package
Here's the sad truth: Great writing and interviewing aren’t necessarily a package deal.
A candidate may have built rapport like a champ, asked killer follow-up questions, and got your expert talking in the best way possible only to deliver a completely lackluster draft.
Sure, if you’re hiring for a video interviewer, perhaps this is OK, but with blogging and written content in mind, if a content manager can't deliver a great article, that seemingly wonderful interview is a big fat waste of time.
It may take time, but hire someone with both skills, or at least the potential to level up in the interview arena with a little bit of training.
Finding your perfect content manager match
At the end of the day, you need a content manager who fits your needs and your business.
The above activity can easily be adapted to any company, industry, or team, but here are three things to consider as you customize it to your needs:
Choose the right interview topic. Intentionally choose a topic that weeds out folks who don’t have at least a willingness to embrace what you do and take it seriously. Since the best content manager candidates can come from outside of one's industry, it’s important to create a self-qualifying (or self-disqualifying) opportunity for someone to see if your industry is for them.
Throw in a curveball. When it comes to the interview, make sure your expert occasionally goes off script or launches into a "somewhat related" monologue to see how they react or manage the situation. Try to find those natural "And another thing!" moments that would easily happen in real life to avoid it coming off as an obvious test. It's always interesting to see how long someone will let the expert go, and most of all, what their strategies are for reeling someone back in.
Go above and beyond. Intentionally give enough information for a 1,500- to 2,000-word article, close to double the word count of the original assignment. This happens a lot "on the job" for a content manager: You work with a brilliant subject matter expert, and you walk out of your interview with a mountain of raw materials that far exceeds the needs of the piece you're working on. The right candidate knows how to zero in on the most important elements of the story, as well as what needs to be "left on the cutting room floor."
Subject matter interviews are often far from neat, so throwing in these evaluatory challenges will help you see how your potential candidate rolls with the punches.
Use these tips, the steps, and the qualities we outlined and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect content manager for your team.