In my three years as a writer at Brafton, I’ve seen a heck of a lot of change on our editorial team. In the early days of content marketing, search engines used to reward writing streams of 200-word news briefs, chock full of keywords. Google has adapted and so have we – bringing quality over quantity to the forefront – and this means our writers and editors have a lot more creative freedom over the content we create for our clients.
Considering the gamut of topics our editorial team covers, this is definitely a blessing – and our abilities as journalists can truly shine. And what better way to show thought leadership than with one-of-a-kind interview pieces?
Think about it: Would you rather read short blurbs about home loan interest rates or an in-depth piece about the effect of those rates on, say, first-time buyers’ ability to enter hot markets? Instead of referencing statistics that might not truly apply to our clients’ readers, what if we actually interviewed some of those buyers and talk to them about their experiences? What sorts of challenges did they run into during the buying process, and what projects do they have planned? How do their experiences compare to the horror stories they’ve heard from friends of friends? The list of possible questions is endless.
As a research associate in our Chicago office, I conduct interviews all the time – with our clients to gain subject matter expertise, with our clients’ clients to learn more about product performance and their experience, and with outside interviewees that have insight into a particular topic or know-how. And after hours spent on the phone, talking to strangers (and one reality TV show chef, which was thrilling), I’ve learned a lot about what makes an interview succeed … and flop.
Here are five ways to make sure your next interview not only benefits your content, but teaches you a few things, too.
1. Don’t share questions with the interviewee beforehand
There are a few reasons for this. For starters, it eliminates the possibility your source will have all the questions written out ahead of time (and really, what’s stopping him or her from simply reading those answers to you?) Providing questions beforehand takes out the conversational element that makes the whole thing feel like a more authentic conversation.
Providing questions beforehand takes out the conversational element that makes the whole thing feel like a more authentic conversation.
Sending questions ahead of time makes follow-up questions harder. The interviewee will be less likely to go off on tangents. Tangents can result in a time-crunch, but they can also be really fascinating conversation segues – and without those personal touches, the whole thing will be so much more boring for all parties involved.
There are exceptions to this, namely that the interview is not approved without someone first seeing the list of questions. But in those cases, I tend to keep the questions extremely general. So instead of sending those first-time buyers a question like “Why did you decide to stop renting and buy?” you might send something like, “Question about starting the home-buying process.”
And on a similar note, stick to telephone interviews. Or, if you’re tech-savvy, Skype. Just avoid email interviews with lists of questions whenever possible. You’re less likely to get timely responses – how easy is it for an email to get lost in the shuffle? You’re also less likely to get those off-the-cuff answers that give so many stories that much-desired human quality.
2. Break up with your ordered list of questions
Listen up: Lists of questions are good, but don’t stick entirely to the script. When I conduct an interview, I have an open document on my computer with a list of questions typed out, but I also have some less-formulated questions and buzzwords typed in there, too. They help jog my memory, and then based on the flow of our conversation, I can quickly formulate questions and follow-ups that work when the source switches gears quickly or goes off on tangents.
This is also incredibly helpful when sources knock out a few of your questions with one broad answer. Don’t waste their time (and yours) asking questions they’ve already addressed. Some sources get really crabby when this happens, then act withdrawn for the rest of the interview. This will NOT make you feel good, trust me.
3. Do your homework. I repeat: DO YOUR HOMEWORK
OK, I realize this might be incredibly obvious, but it’s super important and thus worth noting. I can’t tell you enough how often I’m on an interview call with someone who misses follow-up question opportunities because they’re sticking to a script … and it’s because they haven’t done their homework.
Don’t waste their time (and yours) asking questions they’ve already addressed.
If you’re planning an interview with those first-time buyers, for instance, learn as much as you can about the market they’re entering, rental budgets, neighborhoods, local attractions and home values. Some sources are open enough to explain these things to you, but not only will this reduce your interview time, it can also turn sources off. They have much more important things to talk about.
And while we’re at it, enough of the mindless weather chatter. Not only is it a waste of time, but there are a billion other ways to initiate small talk and ease into the interview. Here’s a great article with ideas you can use as a starting point.
4. Treat it more as a conversation than a formal interview
Every single time I’m on the phone with a source, whether it’s someone who runs a multimillion-dollar company or is sharing their story of first-time home ownership, I try to keep it conversational. Some interviews are meant to be more formal, and depending on the article, client and interviewee, that might even be a requirement, but it doesn’t mean it has to be stuffy.
Ease into the conversation and try to find some way to connect with the person you’re talking about.
Start with some small talk, like I mentioned above. Ease into the conversation and try to find some way to connect with the person you’re talking about. Asking follow-up questions and speaking in relaxed, conversational tones help, and not only will it put your source at ease – he or she will be much more likely to have open conversations if they are comfortable – but you will be more at-ease, too.
5. Think outside the standard interview box
These people, all with totally different backgrounds and skills worked together to create answers that were reflective of the company. Our 90-minute conversation generated so much information, we had article ideas and solid interview content for weeks.
One of the best interviews I’ve ever conducted at Brafton was with a panel of executives to learn more about their industry and what sets their company apart from competitors. I knew it would be a time-consuming conversation – four C-suite execs on the phone was sure to generate a lot of talking – but it was helpful in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
These people, all with totally different backgrounds and skills, bounced ideas off one another, interrupted and corrected each other, and worked together to create answers that were reflective of the company. Our 90-minute conversation generated so much information, we had article ideas and solid interview content for weeks. Sure couldn’t have done that with your typical one-on-one interview!
And there you have it: Five ways to make the most out of your interview experiences. Have you had memorable interviews lately, or can you think of any to add to the list?