Growing up, there were two phrases I heard most often from the adults in my life: “I love you” and “Would you please stop asking so many questions?” The joke was that I would become a lawyer because I could “argue with a brick wall” and loved to interrogate people. Instead, I found a way to combine my love of questions with my passion for writing. I became a journalist and then a content marketer.
This summer it will have been 10 years since my first professional interview—a short profile of an up-and-coming glass sculptor. I Googled “interview tips for journalists” and created a list of questions, which I read to her verbatim during our call. As a newbie journalist, I was too nervous to go off the book or ask any follow-up questions. Since then, I have interviewed CEOs, senators, scientists, celebrities, the Speaker of the House, a former spy, and hundreds of ordinary business professionals with extraordinary ideas and insights. Along the way, I have learned one very important lesson, an insight that would have made my ten-year-old self far less annoying: Interviews should feel less like interrogations and more like conversations.
Granted, interviews are conversations where the other person does most of the talking, but unless you hold up your end of the dialogue, you’ll get surface answers or sound bites—neither of which will help you tell a good story.
Great content marketing, like great journalism, requires writers to ask intelligent questions, challenge common assumptions, make interesting connections, and tell stories that engage people. For content marketers, one of the best ways to do this is by interviewing customers and telling their stories—anecdotes and case studies that intrigue readers and shine a positive light on the brand.
In a recent post, “The Key to Brand Storytelling Isn’t Telling, but Showing,” I explained why people are 22 percent more likely to remember and engage with marketing that tells a story. But how do you get interview subjects to tell you a unique tale that hasn’t been told a dozen times? How do you get them to share details and takeaways that will inform, entertain, or persuade your readers?
Start with these six tactics:
Learn all you can about interview subjects before your conversation. As Barbara Walters said, “I do so much homework, I know more about the person than he does about himself.”
Research is particularly important when you’re talking to a high-profile person who has already given countless interviews on the same topic. Reading previous interviews and media coverage can help you avoid writing the same article everyone else has already written. This background information also helps you have a more informed discussion and craft more insightful interview questions. For example, if your subject talked in a previous interview about an upcoming project or event, or if he made predictions about what might happen in the near future, you can refer to the original quote and ask how it turned out.
Some people don’t need permission to talk at great length about themselves or topics that excite them. Without much prompting, they’ll offer side notes and plenty of examples that illustrate their ideas. Others feel the need to self edit, to be concise and articulate. This often translates to boring, as they edit out the seemingly insignificant details and nuances that would give your content depth and personality.
I like to put nervous or tight-lipped interview subjects at ease up front by saying, “People often apologize for rambling in interviews, but I find that’s where the most interesting details come out. So don’t worry about being concise. Let’s just chat, and I’ll edit out any wordiness when I write it up.”
My favorite follow-up question has always been, “Give me an example of a time when…” So if someone says her success secret is determination, then I ask, “Give me an example of a time when your determination helped you successfully overcome a challenge.” Or if a marketing leader says social media has made his team more effective, I say, “Give me an example of a time when social media helped you engage or convert new customers. What were the outcomes?”
Before-and-after questions also prompt interview subjects to think in stories rather than sound bites. For example, when discussing an idea or innovation that has somehow improved people’s lives, you could ask, “How would people have accomplished this task in this past, and how can they do it more effectively now?”
If you’re busy taking notes or transcribing quotes, you don’t have the mental space to think about the meaning behind the words or to formulate new questions.
In a recent appearance on Conan, Larry King shared an interview tip he cultivated in nearly 60 years as a talk show host: “I asked short questions and listened to the answer. Listening is as important as what you ask because you have to follow up…with good questions.”
For example, I recently interviewed a top neurosurgeon about what his job is like. While answering one of my questions, he briefly mentioned something about staying up on the latest medical innovations and technology. I hadn’t even thought to ask him about technology until he made this comment, but when I followed up on the topic and probed deeper, he told me about an innovative, noninvasive approach to tumor removal that only a handful of surgeons in the world know how to perform—a fascinating story I would have never heard if I hadn’t been listening closely.
Years ago, I interviewed a woman video game executive for an article about women in male-dominated fields. In the beginning she seemed painfully shy. I had a list of 20 specific questions but had only been able to get one- or two-sentence answers to each of them. And I still had no interesting quotes about gender and her workplace.
I was almost ready to give up and scrap the article altogether, but I was on a tight deadline and didn’t have time to find a new interviewee. So I pretended to have another call coming in and put her on hold. I would never actually answer call waiting during an interview, but I needed to buy myself time to think. I drafted three or four more questions—all basically asking the same thing: What is it like to be a woman surrounded by men all day at work? When I got back on the phone and asked these slightly altered versions of my original questions, she suddenly had plenty to say on the topic. I just hadn’t been asking my questions in the right way for her to make the right connections.
Remember the old adage: You don’t know what you don’t know. Even if you start out with a long list of insightful questions, you probably haven’t asked about everything your reader would find interesting. Before wrapping up the conversation, ask if there’s anything your interview subject would like to add. If you haven’t already, clearly describe your audience and the goal of your content. Then ask what else might be relevant to your topic.
Want to learn more about interviewing? Read “The Best Interview Tips: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process.” Plus, become a Content Standard Insider to receive more helpful hints about brand storytelling.