It’s no easy task to get people together and ask them to discuss – reasonably, politely and calmly – the most contentious issues of the day. Yet Louise Minchin’s experience as a broadcast journalist and presenter of the BBC’s flagship morning news television programme means that she is used to doing this well before most of us have woken up and made ourselves a strong cup of coffee. Who better then to moderate a debate by a panel of senior audit professionals at the Chartered IIA’s annual conference this year?
There is still no better way to learn what’s really happening in the profession, and the latest thoughts on dealing with the most pressing issues of our time, than hearing leaders from a wide variety of sectors discussing them face to face. This is why the debate at the Chartered IIA’s annual conference always ranks among the most popular sessions. At Internal Audit 2019, a panel of audit committee chairs will discuss the present and future role of internal audit and attendees will have ample opportunity to pose their own questions. This opportunity is, understandably, much prized, according to delegate feedback (if more proof were needed than the number of intelligent and searching questions that the event always generates).
The value of the debate depends both on the knowledge and experience of the panellists and on the questions put forward by the audience. One of its greatest appeals is that it is truly interactive, and no one can accurately predict the full content of the discussion, no matter what overall theme is chosen. This is why the institute invited Minchin, accustomed to interviewing politicians and business leaders live on television every day, to moderate the debate and help to draw the best responses out of the panellists and ensure that all get their chance to speak and express their thoughts.
So what are her tips for ensuring that no one person dominates the conversation and that it coaxes the best, most pertinent, responses from the panel members without becoming acrimonious or aggressive? And how does she ensure that interviewees remain focused on the question, rather than spinning off on to some related, but less relevant issue?
Internal auditors should take note of her advice. Not only are interviewing skills a core part of their everyday tool box when conducting audits, but auditors may often be the best people to spot opportunities for face-to-face discussions and to help organise and coordinate wider conversations about the control environment and culture across the organisation. They are in a strong position to ensure that managers with differing priorities and perspectives focus on the key risks for the entire organisation and reach agreements about the best processes to mitigate and manage these risks – and who should be responsible for them.
Right from the start, Minchin suggests that preparation pays dividends. “A good interviewer tends to know a bit about the people they are talking to in advance – a bit about what they do and who they are is the basic requirement, but it really helps to talk to them first even if just for a few minutes,” she says. “You can get an idea about how confident they are, whether they will try to dominate the conversation or whether they will need encouragement to open up and express their thoughts.”
Generic good interviewing techniques are always helpful. Many of these, such as asking open questions, are well known but take practice to get right. Internal auditors will benefit from a strong grasp on interviewing skills in almost every part of their jobs, so it pays both to take lessons from the experts and to practise improving the core techniques at every opportunity.
“I don’t know the answers to the questions I pose,” Minchin points out. “So I have to ask and then pave the way to enable those who do know the answers to speak, rather than shutting them down with a possible yes or no answer. For example, you get a much better conversation when you ask ‘How did you feel when this happened to you?’ than if you ask simply ‘Did this make you feel happy?’”
Once you’ve asked the right question, it is equally important to listen to the answer – and demonstrate that you have listened and understood it. “This is why I don’t write down questions before an interview,” Minchin says. “You can’t respond to what people say if you’re going down a pre-written list. It’s better to note the points they make for future questions and learn from, and respond to, what they’ve said to you.”
An experienced interviewer can also learn a lot from people’s body language, and this is also a vital tool in their own armoury. “I can make people get to the point and wind up their answer without them even realising it, just by my expression and gestures,” Minchin explains. She adds that it’s much easier to do this in face-to-face meetings than via a video screen, which tends to make such information harder to share and interpret.
This can be important in a one-to-one meeting, but becomes even more vital in a group, when the interviewer needs to give everyone an equal opportunity to speak. It is particularly relevant if some of the people in a meeting are far more senior than others, or are more confident about expressing their opinions. Internal auditors will miss a trick if they listen too much to the side that shouts loudest, since they may end up with a skewed impression of risks and they may find that any agreements are later resented and ignored by the party that spoke least or felt that their voice was drowned out.
How does Minchin encourage quieter or more nervous interviewees to speak? “I tell them to focus on talking to me,” she advises. “I remind them that they are the experts – they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know their stuff. It’s not a test and I can always come back to them a minute or so later if they need to gather their thoughts.”
Good interviewing techniques are often a mixture of practice and intuition. For example, when does time to think become an awkwardly long pause, embarrassing the speaker and possibly flustering them further? “You need to pause to give people space to talk and some people need longer than others,” Minchin says. “However, a millisecond too long can become an awkward silence – you need to step in a moment before it reaches that point.”
She adds that as a “natural filler of silence” she has to curb her instinct to cut in too soon. Seconds count, but she recommends counting slowly and silently to one to give interviewees an important extra moment.
“You also sometimes need to guide people through their answers to ensure that important points are dealt with adequately and that everyone has expressed their view before you move on to something else that may be equally important and related,” she adds. “It’s natural for people to want to move on to the next pressing issue, especially when they are connected, so I will say ‘wait a moment, I’ll come back to you on that point’. It’s important to show that you’ve heard them and registered that they want to talk about something else, but that we need to finish this subject first.”
Once this happens, it’s essential that the interviewer remembers to return to the second issue. Minchin says she writes notes so that she won’t forget when people want a further chance to talk or have indicated where they want the conversation to move to next. This is as much a question of maintaining trust in the authority and judgment of the interviewer as it is about ensuring that any conclusions are perceived to be fair.
Of course, not all interviews go according to plan and not all interviewees are straightforward. When interviewees are defensive or evasive, the interviewer has to work harder, but there is never any excuse for aggression, Minchin says. “You get a much better answer if you are polite and ask them to explain how or why something occurred, rather than confronting them with statements. It’s important not to put a judgment in the question but to leave them to have their say.”
It’s also important to remember that you never know quite how a story or events will play out later, once other facts are uncovered or things progress. This is as relevant inside an organisation as it is in the wider world of business and politics.
“I was presenting the news the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed and that clip is the one of me that gets most replayed every time anyone discusses the financial crisis of 2007,” Minchin recalls. “At the time, although we knew it was a big story, we had no real idea that this was the beginning of a game-changing crisis that would shape the future.”
Access to trustworthy information at the right time – and the ability to question it – is vital for both auditors and journalists, and the proliferation of news sources has made trusted providers even more valuable. At the same time, technology offers more targeted channels for specialist audiences. Minchin believes that journalism still has an important role in the internet age – and that podcasts are an increasingly important tool for professionals as much as for general interest or hobbies. The Chartered IIA will run a series of podcasts based on the panel discussion that should enable both delegates and those who cannot attend the conference to think more deeply about some of the important issues raised.
“It’s vital that journalists continue to ask crucial questions about political and economic developments that matter to all of us,” Minchin says. “This is where podcasts are becoming increasingly important, because they give the opportunity for in-depth interviews that can go deeper and explore specialist subjects for those who want, or need, to know more than the general listener.”
She is also interested in the opportunities that podcasts offer for people to explore their hobbies and outside interests as well as their professional concerns. “I’m passionate about radio, and podcasts are an extension of radio. I have a podcast on triathlons and it’s enabled us to go back to basics – for example, we had one that was about open-water swimming and Chris Hoy did one on how to cycle.”
This project is particularly close to Minchin’s heart, because she is a committed amateur triathlete and is keen to encourage others to find time for non-work interests. At a time when a good work/life balance is being seen as increasingly important for mental and physical health, this should strike a chord with both managers and employees in all sectors.
“We all spend a lot of time at work and doing something that’s outside this world is not only good for you, but can bring lots to the way you do your job,” she explains. “I recently did an extreme triathlon in Patagonia and it taught me so much about resilience. I took five weeks off work and I came back with huge amounts of energy and enthusiasm – I was on a high for about two months.”
Significantly, key topics at Internal Audit 2019 include risk and determination. These are vital to success in triathlons, but are also important in internal audit careers. As Minchin points out, taking on challenges that teach you about how you manage personal risks and motivation could prove as useful as anything you learn in the office.
She believes that employers gain lots back when they allow employees to explore their interests and bring what they learn back into the office. “You need to invest in your passions and I’m a fan of the benefits of exercise. It’s so important to put down your phone and leave your computer and go for a walk or a swim – let your brain off the hook and get some distance.”
This article was first published in July 2019.