How to conduct scintillating, illuminating interviews
Spectacular stories often lie just beneath the surface. Uncovering those gems requires a bit of prodding and strategic digging; here’s how to master this invaluable skill.
I’ve said this before and continue to believe it: Communicators under-appreciate interviewing expertise.
It starts in college. Try to find a curriculum for mass communications or PR that offers a class on interviewing. Good luck.
Every journalism program in the country tackles the art of the interview. But PR curricula ignore the topic. We scanned a cross section of PR programs at the following universities:
- University of Georgia
- University of Oregon
- San Jose State University
- University of Texas
- Boston University
None include a class on interviewing.
And once you’re in the working world, whether your role sits in-house or at a consultancy, you’ll find the same absence of how-to-interview training for PR or comms professionals. They expect you to learn on the job.
One could make an argument that the interview, more than any other factor, determines whether your pitch will resonate with journalists. The famous Chinese general Sun Tzu said, “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”
So it is with media relations. It’s all about the content that comes out of the interviewing or sourcing process–way before the pitch goes out the door.
I ran a post some time ago in which journalists shared their advice responding to the question, “What is one of your go-to techniques when it comes to interviewing?” Here are more tips and techniques for PR interviewing:
Pre-interview for sourcing storytelling content
Preparation part 1
Do your homework on both the topic and your source. Google the person’s name. Has he or she been quoted in the media before? Check out the person’s LinkedIn profile looking for that one shard of information. This was how I found out that an executive attended college in Cuba which served as the door opener for a successful pitch.
Preparation part 2
Start the wheels turning by emailing the source two or three questions before you have the interview. Less is more. Don’t overwhelm him or her. I also like to use the email to precondition the source on the type of content that makes for a good story. Sometimes, I’ll include a feature story from a publication, pointing out the content types in the story.
Preparation part 3
Develop a set of questions to guide the interview. Avoid overkill. You don’t need 50 questions to keep the dialogue flowing during an hour sourcing session.
The interview for sourcing storytelling content
Establish upfront that you’re part of the same team.
For those who aren’t experienced working with the PR function, they figure that anyone asking a lot of questions might be the second coming of Mike Wallace. Let the person know that all information coming out of the discussion — a softer word than interview — will be reviewed and approved before being packaged for the outside world. In short, you want the source to eliminate his or her mental filter — a key to digging out the good stuff.
Start the interview by lobbing a few easy questions so the source feels a comfort level in talking. This makes it easier for you to establish rapport. You want the source to feel your interest and even care about his or her story.
Ask open-ended questions.
Starting the question with words like “How?” or “Why?” prompt the source to answer with a mini narrative as opposed to the dreaded “yes” or “no.”.
Springboard off the source’s answers.
There’s a tendency to be thinking about the next question while the source is answering the current one. Rather than jump ahead, you need to actively listen to the answer. This is how you identify story strands that might lead to gold, especially if you can tap the emotive side of the source with follow-up questions along the line of “That’s really interesting, but tell me about the three months before when you didn’t know if you could pull it off.” It could be that single strand that becomes the story.
Even though you’re the one asking the questions, you can still comment on what’s being said and even relate it to your own story. This way, you shape the interview to resemble more of a conversation, again helping the source relax and open up. When talking about yourself though, keep it brief and circle back to the source.
Ask ‘open-up’ questions.
It’s human nature for people to not want to reveal themselves or their feelings. Yet, the best storytelling fodder carries an emotional dimension. Certain questions like “What are you post proud of?” or “What was were you feeling when _________?” provide safe ground for the person to open up You’re striving to find the humanity in the story.
Probe the challenges and the things that didn’t go according to plan.
When we were interviewing the Fremont city manager about the creation of the city’s new Innovation District, we learned that the key parcel of land previously belonged to Union Pacific. And that city officials flew to Omaha, Nebraska, to plead their case in front of the Union Pacific CEO. Was it nerve-racking to stand in front of a corporate behemoth with zero leverage and deliver a “do the right thing” message? Hell, yes! That narrative has served us well for many years.
Be tenacious, but with finesse.
Sometimes you’ll ask about an area or topic that seems rich with storytelling fodder and you don’t get an answer. Don’t give up. Come at the area/topic from a different direction. One of my favorite techniques is along the lines of “I want to make sure I get this right. Please walk me through how …”
Dig for colorful anecdotes.
Depending on the publication, anecdotes constitute 15 to 25% of feature stories. It stands to reason that a pitch with anecdotal content increases the probability of success with the journalist. Since sources often perceive anecdotes as fluff, you need questions that bring out this level of detail. Asking for examples is one way to go from the general to the specific. When I interviewed an R&D manager about the invention of a miniature disk drive, he emphasized his team’s intense focus which didn’t strike me as particularly unique. So I asked him how — there’s that open-ended word again — this came about. What did he do differently from the company’s standard R&D process? It turned out that he rented a motorhome so that his team could work without office distractions and cultivate a stronger camaraderie That anecdote became the lead for a BusinessWeek story.
Poynter ran a story on interviewing tips from journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, who offered this advice:
“Sometimes, you have to ask the obvious question. I think it helps to ask questions that don’t bore people. So even if you’re asking a question that other people have asked, or that is fairly predictable, can you ask it in a way that isn’t boring?”
In short, don’t do dull.
Lou Hoffman is CEO of The Hoffman Agency. Read more of his work at Ishmael’s Corner.