It’s a waste of everyone’s time to bring someone in to an interview without a little preparation and research on the interviewer’s side. Hiring a new employee is an important decision, and bringing in the wrong person can sink a small business or destroy a team’s morale. Therefore, an interview should be planned and prepared for to maximize the time involved –to get to know the candidate as much as possible. So, why “wing it” and ask the same questions to every candidate? Every candidate is unique, and deserves to be treated as such.

Often, the pressure is on the candidate when preparing for the interview. They’re supposed to know all about the company and the job’s requirements. Also, they have to give detailed, thought provoking answers after being told to “tell me your biggest achievement” or “tell me a little about yourself.”

As the one conducting the interview, put yourself in that position. Do you think you’d be able to give a good answer to such vague questions? Do you think you could name your “biggest achievement?”

Maybe if you’re interviewing for a senior-level executive position –a late-career job– you could ask that question. Otherwise, asking a 30-something candidate (can you tell I’ve been asked that question before?) questions like that is an unproductive waste of time. If they have a “biggest achievement” then it should be on their resume, right?

So, we can rule out any vague questions, and also any of the “common questions” that you always see when you google “how to prepare for an interview.” These questions can be rehearsed, and, unless you”re a theater director holding auditions, you don’t want to allow your candidates to answer questions they have memorized their lines for. If you do that, how do you expect to separate good candidates from bad ones? They’ll all sound the same!

If you listen to podcasts or other interview shows, you’ll find that the interviewer (if they’re good) is already familiar with the person’s background. The interviewer knows enough details about the other person’s background to make connections and ask thought provoking questions. Because of this, the interviewer and the audience get information and entertainment from the discussion.

Remember, with social media, you can find a lot of information out about a person without having to look too deep. The idea is to find things that the candidate wants to talk about –hobbies, civic activities, projects they contributed to –try to choose career or activity-related topics (not personal or controversial topics) that the candidate is excited to share with you. You can start by researching the things listed on their resume, and work out from there. Look up their volunteer group website, their online blog, their previous company’s website, the reviews about their previous company –the information you find will give you ideas for good questions to ask. Even if you don’t get much from your search, you’ll be able to show interest and ask for more info (I visited the website of the foundation you volunteer for. Can you tell me a little about what they do? What is your role there?)

Think about how your own interviews are conducted. Would anyone want to watch or listen to them? Maybe you think your candidate isn’t interesting enough for people to want to listen. That’s an important mistake–everyone has a story to tell, and almost everyone wants to be heard. Keep asking good questions, be interested, and be honest with the candidate until that story comes out. Then, will you have a real understanding of the person sitting across the table from you.

The key to asking good interview questions is to know enough context about the candidate’s life. How do you do that? Look into their background before they arrive, and pull out the details that you’ll use to develop your questions.

So, maybe you’re thinking “…but I’ll break all sorts of ethical and legal rules by prying into a person’s background like that.” Sure you can, if it turns into a casual conversation –but that’s when you have to bring the focus back to the job’s requirements. Preparing beforehand with notes about your candidate will be essential to staying on course. Always try to tie the questions to something related to the job or company; and if the candidate wanders into areas that are too personal for interviews, then steer them back on course with a job-related question.