You’ve gone to the trouble of tracking down an industry expert (often found hiding in home offices surrounded by a forest of coffee cups). But, what do you do next to ensure your interview is a roaring success? Don’t worry. This article has you covered.
First, let’s look at the power of interviews in general.
Interviews are the catalyst of good writing
If you want to learn how to start a blog, the easiest and best way to become a better writer is to learn to see the world from your reader’s viewpoint. What matters to them? What are their problems? What excites them? What do they do when they aren’t reading your articles - and how can you get them to stop?
Interviews are the best way of understanding a complicated situation and seeing it from someone else’s perspective. Interviews are the foundation of good reporting. This is just as true for business writing as it is in journalism.
The word ‘interview’ has negative connotations in business. You go for a job interview or you face a press interview with equal anxiety. But, it is nothing more than a focused, professional conversation. Think of it as a chat, a meeting or a conference call. No need for sweaty palms on either side.
How to prepare for an interview
Preparing for an interview is critical. Here’s how to do it well:
#1 Find the right interviewee
This is process is straightforward. Find someone good who you think will give you enough quality material. And then, hope that they say yes to being interviewed. At Articulate, we tend to find our clients are quite obliging in this regard, offering up a buffet of expertise for us to choose from. It is a truth universally acknowledged: people like talking about themselves.
#2 Approach them nicely
People find it quite hard to say ‘no’ to requests for help, but make sure you explain why you want to interview them and what you hope to get out of it. It can be helpful to say that the interview will be anonymous or that you will let them approve any quotations you write afterwards.
#3 Choose the right format
Sometimes a face-to-face interview is good, other times, a phone interview will work best. The phone interview is easier to schedule, less intrusive and more focused on speaking rather than appearances and body language. It’s all about putting the interviewee at ease.
#4 Phone interview
There’s something confessional about phone interviews, and it’s easy to strike up a rapport with someone. Type quickly enough to take a more-or-less real-time transcript during the interview and you’ll become a master of the phone interview.
Also, a phone interview cuts out travel time and waiting around for people to turn up. And, it makes interviews much easier to schedule as most people can find 20 or 30 minutes in their diary, but a face-to-face interview seems to require an hour and a lot more commitment.
#5 Avoid email interviews
The problem with email interviews is that they tend to create results that are stilted and unnatural. Avoid if possible.
#6 Have a backup
For face-to-face interviews, it’s best to use two recorders or one recorder and hand-written notes. Nothing could be worse than getting back from an interview and finding that you didn’t have any record. That said, our CEO, Matthew, once spent 15 minutes of an interview with Google’s Sergey Brin talking about digital Dictaphones instead of Google’s future.
#7 Have enough time
It’s important not to find yourself too up against the clock. If an interview gets cut down to anything around 15 minutes, it can be difficult to get enough value from the interview.
#8 Don’t go too long
Don’t plan on a really long interview. Churchill said that the mind cannot absorb more than the seat can endure. A telephone interview that goes past 40 minutes can begin to pale.
#9 Don’t give questions in advance
Try not to give out questions in advance and say ‘no’ to those people who ask for a list of questions beforehand. This is down to personal preference to some extent, but it’s helpful not to let people become over-prepared.
#10 Avoid group interviews
An interview is essentially a one-to-one situation, but many people like to have a colleague join them. Often, they do this if they feel that their technical knowledge isn’t up to scratch or they want a PR minder.
However, if you interview two people, it’s harder to attribute quotes. Also, you miss out on potentially valuable contributions. Only one person can talk at a time. If there’s two people, aim to do two separate interviews.
#11 Prepare and research in advance
It’s personal preference whether you want to prepare questions, but at least having a list of topics to cover is advisable. Googling and researching the interviewee can be helpful, as is reviewing other interviews for angles and questions.
It’s helpful to have an interview template saved in Word or Dropbox Paper. You can then tailor this before the interview with contact information, possible topics and your thoughts.
#12 Confirm the time and date in advance and send reminders
More often that you would like, interviewees don’t turn up or are unavailable when you call them. To combat this, send out Microsoft Outlook meeting invitations, which form a sort of contract because they must be accepted or rejected by the interviewee. It’s also helpful to send an email reminder the day before.
If you’ve done your preparation well, there’s no need to feel nervous during the interview itself. In fact, it should be an enjoyable and thought-provoking conversation for both people. Your job is to steer the interview while not getting in the way of the flow of conversation or the interviewee’s thoughts.
How to get the most out of an interview
There’s an art to a good interview. It doesn’t just happen. Follow these guidelines to optimise your interviews and get the quality material you need:
#1 Introduce yourself
At the start of every interview, it makes sense to introduce yourself. Tell them who you are, your relationship to the business/publication you’re writing for and what the piece is about. It’s like a government health warning. It’s a courtesy. But, it’s also a kind of protection. Doing it consistently means that any interviewee knows exactly where they stand.
#2 Get the right tech
A headset is a must for a conference call interview. This leaves both hands free for typing notes. A good ergonomic keyboard that’s quiet is also important, so that the sound of typing doesn’t intrude on the interview.
#3 Observe the legalities
In the UK, you have to tell people you’re recording a conversation because of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA, as it is charmingly known. Just say something like, ‘I’m keeping a record of this conversation to make sure I don’t forget anything’. Even if it weren’t a legal obligation, it’s a courtesy to say so. Don’t feel like you have to record all your interviews.
#4 Transcribe interviews, if you can
Transcribing your interviews is always a good idea for future reference. It’s much easier to write something if you have a document in one window and interviewee comments open in another.
#5 Be yourself
The best interviews are often the ones where you find common ground with the person you’re talking with. The more you can try and be yourself, the easiest this will be.
#6 Be enthusiastic
People like people who like them. They are also conditioned to think of an ‘interview’ as a potentially hostile situation and be on their guard. Consequently, you should be upbeat and positive. Do this genuinely if you can.
#7 Shut up
You should be talking about 10-20 percent of the time at most. Don’t end up talking too much and interviewing yourself.
#8 Listen hard
Sometimes you can pick up a word or a phrase in an answer that you can play back to the interviewee and get something much more intimate, interesting or honest. Interviews aren’t scripted Q&As, they are intense professional conversations. You need to concentrate.
#9 Capture the basic information
Use a template for you interviews that captures name (get the spelling right), job title, contact details, time, and date of interview and intended publication.
#10 Job titles can be difficult
Sometimes, people have very long-winded or obscure titles. Tech companies are notorious for acronym-laden job titles. These don’t work well on the printed page or the screen. If this is the case, consider getting a more informal job description agreed with the interviewee.
Ask: ‘how would you like me to describe you in the article?’
#11 Get past the canned speech
If an interviewee has been media trained, things can become difficult. Usually, it means you’ll have to listen to 10-20 minutes of self-important waffle prepared for them by their PR department. Sometimes, you have to let people do their duty and then you can to the interview. Sometimes asking the same question three times will elicit, on the third go, a more honest, human answer.
Building a rapport with them on non-controversial subjects (like their job title or their recent career history) can put them at their ease. You’re not trying to trick people into saying something they don’t want to say. You’re trying to trick them into saying something in a natural, human way. A good interview sounds like an intelligent conversation over coffee, not a stand-up PowerPoint presentation.
#12 Don’t lose control
Sometimes, especially with self-important interviewees, you can get into a bit of a tug-of-war over who oversees the interview. Never forget that you are the CEO of the interview. You don’t have to be bossy, but it’s important you get what you need from the interview and you steer it in the direction you want to go.
#13 Focus on what you need
Sometimes people get absorbed in the details or get too waffly and abstract. Sometimes, you need a specific quote or a good story. A timely intervention can be required to redirect the interview. Phrases like ‘do you have any stories that illustrate that point?’ or ‘how does this relate to the bigger picture?’ can be very useful ways to do this.
#14 Ask for collateral
It’s always worth asking if your interviewee has any written material that could add more colour, depth or detail. Many corporate interviewees – usually experts in their fields – have PowerPoint presentations, a blog or other material and they are usually happy to share it. Often, this is as useful as the interview itself because it is the considered articulation of their ideas.
#15 Ask if there’s anyone else you should talk to
They might have a colleague or know an independent expert in their field who could give you additional information or a contrary opinion. One introduction beats a hundred cold calls.
#16 Be courteous
Say thank you. If you can provide a copy of the final article, do so.
How dedicated are you to getting better?
If you’re willing to take your interview skills to the next level, here’s a challenge for you...
Conduct your own interview.
Plan it, book it, do it, take notes, write up your observations and use in something you write. Here are some examples of people you could interview:
- A potential customer who might buy a product you want to sell.
- An expert inside your company who has something to contribute to a piece of marketing, like a leaflet that your team is producing. (If you work in a technology firm, when was the last time you talked to a programmer or engineer?)
- Avoid spokesrobots. Skip the usual suspects – the VPs and the CEOs – and get quotes and input from the guy who designed the hinge and the woman who optimised the code. Go to the shop floor; find the story behind the story.
Great interviews, great writing, great marketing
Wow. We’ve covered a lot of ground. When you apply all of these tips, you’ll be a real life Peter Parker. (Because you’ll be great at interviews, not because you’ll be websling-ing around town.)
The pay-off to being an expert interviewer is that you’ll get the answers you need to create amazing articles and written content. And great content is a core pillar for a marketing campaign that gets results.
But that’s only part of the puzzle – it takes the right strategy, tools, and principles to deliver a marketing campaign that drives meaningful growth for your business.
Be a good friendly neighborhood Spiderman, and Download our free guide to learn more.
See also: how to start a blog
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