Woman being interviewed
Storytelling Content Creation

“But I’m a Marketer, Not a Journalist!” How to Get Usable Content from an Interview

7 Minute Read

Imagine this: You’re about to dial up a client or subject matter expert for an interview, and suddenly you’re afraid you have no clue what you’re doing. You’re a marketer, not a journalist—interviewing a source does not come naturally to you. Plus, you have at least 30 other priorities that need your attention today. So what do you do? If you wing it, you risk wasting time talking to your source and not ending up with usable content. If you come on too strong, you’ll sound like an interrogator and cause the interviewee to clam up.

You don’t need years of journalism experience to master an interview, but you do need to use those marketing skills you’ve perfected to help you walk away from the conversation with the best quotes and insights for your content needs.

Know Your End Goal Ahead of Time

Journalists often go into an assignment or an interview looking for a story. Marketers should know the tale they want to tell before they start doing any of the work. Where a journalist may spend time asking questions to get to the heart of the story, a marketer has the opportunity to suss out exactly the details they are looking for from their client or subject matter expert. Knowing what you’re looking for allows you to ask the right questions from the very beginning, giving you the opportunity to spend more time developing the conversation around those particular questions.

Think about it. If you’re trying to spin the story of a happy, long-term customer for a testimonial, you want to ask the customer questions about what they liked about the service. You wouldn’t ask open-ended questions about how they used the product or what their pain points were before purchasing. Instead, you’d ask how the product or service changed their life.

And don’t forget to consider your content end goal. What do you need this interview for? The way you address a potential interviewee will depend on whether you’re looking for a testimonial to put on a web page, an SME who’ll guide the ideas you’re sharing in an e-book, or a source who can support your points in an article. In the example above, the testimonial can easily be gathered by emailing a list of questions to a handful of long-term clients. You’d likely end up with a couple quotes for your website or print collateral. But is that your best approach? In this example, you could benefit from taking the extra step of filming the interview, either in person or through a video conferencing app. A testimonial holds much more power when the words come directly from the referral’s mouth, and that video content will work wonders on your website and social media platforms after the interview is over. Bonus: You can still transcribe part of it and use the words to serve your original needs, too.

Is the Interviewee the Hero or Supporting Actor?

How you approach an interview should be determined by how much you need the person you’re interviewing. Ask yourself, is this person here to support the main points I’m making, or is the entire piece being held on their shoulders?

how to interview

Image attribution: Steven Libralon

If you’re just looking for an expert to support your points, take a little pressure off yourself. Even if this particular interview goes south, there are still many people out there you can interview to fill their spots. While a quotation from a real person adds much more depth to most content creation, you can still fall back on pulling stats and quotes from written sources in the worst case scenario. You can interview supporting sources in person, on a call, or even by sending a list of qualified questions to them via email. This isn’t to say that supporting sources aren’t important. They are, and should be treated as such. The better prepared you are with questions for your supporting interviewees, the more content you’ll have to work with. You may even find out that a supporting role becomes the real hero of whatever you’re working on.

A hero requires a different interview process. First, you’ll need to put your source at ease. Just because they are a client or SME doesn’t mean they’re comfortable sitting in the hot seat. This may be the very first time they’ve been interviewed, and they may be just as anxious as you are. Or the opposite could take place: You may interview a well-practiced source who attempts to lead the interview himself, rather than be coached by your questions. In either scenario, you need the hero, which means you need to work harder on pulling the information out of them or reining them in, so you leave the conversation with usable content that fits your needs.

Prepare for Your Interviews

There’s a lot of great information out there on how to interview like a journalist, but if you have little time to study up, follow these extremely important basics: Do your research, ask the right questions, repeat what your interviewee says, and record the conversation.

The best way to ace an interview and ensure you’re getting quality content at the end of it is by doing background research on the person you’re speaking with. Getting to know them helps you refrain from asking questions whose answers are easily found online. Plus, the background information you’ve gathered gives you a starting point on where to begin your line of questions. And this advice isn’t meant simply for learning about people. When you’re interviewing SMEs about their industry or expertise, don’t waste either of your time by asking 101-level questions. Knowing some basics will show your source that you’re invested in the interview and you take content creation seriously.

Before you speak, create a list of questions that you can ask throughout the call, and make it long, too. Of course you want the interview to be as conversational as possible, but we all know how derailed conversations can get. Prioritize the important information you’re seeking by placing those questions toward the top of the list, but don’t rule out any other questions that may be relevant. That doesn’t mean you have to jump in with the big questions right away—they make it to the top of the list so they can stay top of mind.

Once you’ve got a list built, sort through it and edit any yes-or-no questions, which can kill interviews. Sure, you may ask one or two during the conversation, but place too many close together and your interview will fizzle out. The best way to get usable content is to let your interviewee talk. If you’re feeling like you aren’t getting as many details as you were hoping for, try using some of these questions to reignite their thought process:

  • Can you share an example of ___?
  • What was your thinking behind that?
  • How so?
  • Can you tell me more about ___?

And finally, paraphrasing your source’s answer is a smart way to clarify your understanding of what they’re explaining. Don’t be shy with how you repeat them either. It could be as simple as, “Let me explain how I just heard what you said. Please tell me if I misunderstood anything.” This allows your source to provide additional context if necessary, and if you’re understanding them clearly, you’ll know you have content you can use when the interview is over.

If there’s anything you must learn about interviewing a source, it’s this: Record your conversations. Start the call, meeting, or video conference by asking your source if you can record the conversation, and do not forget to press that “record” button. During the call, you might not think something is relevant to the content you were looking for; however, when listening to the conversation later, something your source says may fit perfectly with what you’re working on.

Learning how to interview successfully takes practice, but knowing what you need as an end result before communicating with your source will help you walk away from any interview with content that can best serve your needs.

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Featured image attribution: Sam McGhee

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Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. After a 12+ year career in human resources – specializing in employee health and dental benefits, as well as wellness programs– she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy and content creation. Erin believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She lives in Southeastern Massachusetts, neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, one of her favorite small cities. Learn more about her at www.erinollila.com.

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