I have been talking to a lot of executives over the years, gathering information for press releases, case studies, and strategic plans. And as I have become more involved in customer relations, I spend a lot of time talking to IT managers and C-level executives about tactical issues that affect their business. Interviews are tough, because you don’t want just the Jack Webb interview – “Just the facts” – but you want to get the Piers Morgan interview, with deep and colorful, quotable responses.
Many marketing and PR pros (and even journalists) are being consumed by the ever-increasing demand for content. They have lost the fine points of conducting a really meaningful interview that yields more than just who, what, when, where, and why. Interviewing is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced or you get rusty. I want to thank Carol Tice for providing a refresher course from the freelance writer’s perspective. Here are some of her tips on the best way to conduct an interview, adapted with some of my own experience to make them more relevant for the marketer:
1. Email exchanges are not interviews. I have been relying more on email questionnaires for convenience, but the information I get from those exchanges is always sparse. I have seen more journalists and analysts doing the same thing, and I have to urge my clients to dig deeper and provide a little color with the facts when they write their responses. Carol also notes that emails are not really quotable as part of best journalistic practice; live interaction is always preferred. You always get more from a spontaneous exchange that is fresh and quotable.
2. Make a connection. I find that the best interviews come when you establish a rapport with your contact. Take the time to set the stage with a couple of ice breaker questions about family, sports, the weather – something to forge a connection. If you need to use that contact in the future, then be sure to leave the door open for future discussions, and try to leave a thread to reestablish the link. If they are fans of the Red Sox, for example, open with a baseball reference they next time you call.
3. The subject is as worried about the outcome as you are. Your job is to gather the information for that killer case study, application profile, or for use in a press release. You have something at stake in the conversation. So does the other party. He or she wants to make sure you get your facts straight and don’t make them look foolish to their boss, their peers, or their customers. Use that mutual concern to work together toward the common goal – getting the best story down on paper.
4. Be prepared. Don’t walk in cold saying, “tell me what you do.” Do your homework. Read the company web site. Understand the basics of their business. Research their business challenges. You want to bring sufficient knowledge to the interview to ask meaningful and revealing questions, not waste time asking questions to which you should already have the answers.
5. Respect the interviewee’s time. Schedule your interview in advance, be prompt, and be brief. Executives don’t want to waste a lot of time talking to you so be focused and get the information you need. If possible, leave the door open for a follow-up call or contact for clarification or more information, when you can go into greater depth if you have to.
6. Be prepared to follow up. Thank your sources. Keep them apprised of the progress for a specific project. Get them to review the content as part of your fact-checking. Be sure that you have your subject’s complete contact information, and determine who else in their organization should be involved in reviews and approvals, or who else might provide additional information.
Developing marketing content is not the same as writing for a newspaper or a magazine, but the rules of a good interview are still the same. Your objective is to get the best story you can, with all the facts and in living color. The final approval process will be different. You will won’t just be fact-checking, but you usually share the finished product with the interviewee for formal approval. That doesn’t mean you should put the onus on them to fill in the blanks or correct a sloppy interview. Think like a reporter and get everything you need the first time around. It saves a lot of effort and embarrassment later on.