Interviews are a rich source of content – for your website, content marketing campaign or background research. Asking the right questions opens the door for the people who matter to your organization to tell their story: an employee talking about what makes their job unique, an expert sharing insight into the challenges of your industry or a satisfied customer telling us why they bring you their business. Whoever is answering the questions, interviews give a human face to your content.
Throughout my writing career I’ve conducted dozens of interviews. No matter who you’re talking to – from CEOs to engineers, scientists, medical professionals and people-on-the-street – each interviewee has a unique story to tell. Your job as the interviewer is getting them to share it. Sometimes the goal of the interview is just one good sound bite; other times you want to scratch the surface and discover the deeper story. No matter what the objective, each interview is different, as is each individual’s personality, story, mood and agenda.
One key quality of interviewing that should run throughout the discussion is empathy. The ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes will enable you to ask the right questions: the ones your audience wants answers to, and the ones the interviewee wants you to ask. That, combined with a certain killer instinct for probing questions, is the hallmark of the great interviewer.
Conducting a successful interview requires some advance planning and a lot of listening. Here are five tips to ensure you make the most of yours:
Choose the person to interview carefully – someone who knows his or her subject and is happy to talk about it. Make sure you do your research so that you know enough about the topic to ask smart questions. Prepare a list of questions – 5 to 10 is a good benchmark depending on the complexity of the subject matter and the length of the final piece you wish to publish. Keep your questions short and open-ended – you want the other person to do the talking, and not be able to respond with yes and no answers. Examples: “Tell me about how you built your business…” or “Can you describe for non-specialists the process of…” or even: “What advice would you have for someone who wants to be successful at….”
Interviews can be conducted in person, over the phone, online or on camera. Depending on how you intend to use the material, make sure you have an appropriate, distraction-free setting. If you’re recording the interview, you’ll want to ensure there’s no intrusive background noise. Before you start, do make sure all mobile devices are on silent mode!
If possible, I record my interviews for note-taking purposes – after requesting permission to do so. This enables me to remain fully focused on the conversation, rather than madly taking notes. I still take notes, though, as they are a valuable roadmap for storytelling (and vital in case of technical failure!).
Take the first few moments of your interview to put the person being interviewed at ease. Ask a couple of get-to-know-you questions and really listen to the answers – they will provide valuable clues about the speaker’s style and how they share information. Make sure they’re comfortable and have whatever they need to facilitate your conversation. Try to keep the interview flowing naturally like a good conversation, rather than reading from a list of questions.
Don’t be afraid to probe for deeper, more accessible answers. Some people, especially those with technical knowledge, tend to use jargon and technical language that your audience may not understand. Your job as an interviewer is to bring out the meaning behind the words. If it sounds like gibberish to you it will likely sound that way to your audience. If the person goes off on a tangent that is too technical or off-topic, interject with another question to bring them back on track. Be curious about what they are telling you. It will make for a far more interesting result.
Active listening is the most important interview skill of all. It’s not enough to show up: you need to be present and pay attention. If you’re already thinking ahead to your next question, you may miss something important – an authentic insight, even an unexpected revelation. You may not be an investigative journalist but you need to be all ears to make the most of an interview.
Once you’ve completed your interview, the real work begins. How are you going to use it? Will it be published as a Q&A or an editorial piece with quotes? The first step is to reconstruct the conversation and highlight the juiciest bits, the ones that you can use as leads and teasers, tweets and intros.
Want to hone your interview skills? Here are some additional resources from the pros:
Would you like some professional help with an interview or writing project? Let’s talk!