Content writing 101: Interview tips from an accomplished inquisitor

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 A good content marketing interview piece balances the art of an authentic, well-rounded interview with storytelling for intended audiences.

Having spent the past few years traveling the world and asking people questions, there is one thing I know for sure – you can’t be a good reporter without being a good interviewer. Whether you’re writing a piece for a content marketing campaign or a mainstream publication, bringing in professional insight can help you achieve your goals.

Interviews with industry names and other relevant authorities might not be one of the top content types brands are using to build their credibility or market products … yet … but marketers should break into them. By adding this level of depth to your articles, you can create a timely human interest piece to drive site traffic, confirm a company’s core philosophy and, ultimately, reveal an article that shines beyond your own level of expertise. To fulfill these objectives, a content writer‘s art of speaking with sources and digging up compelling quotes is key.

For those of you hoping to take your stories to the next level, here are my top interviewing tips:

Pre-interview prep

Do your homework

Before you get your source on the phone or sit down to speak with her, you should know a lot about what she does. This means reading interviews she did with other news outlets, scouring her personal website and even doing a bit of Facebook and LinkedIn research. Ultimately, the goal is to determine how your source’s personal history, experiences and knowledge will create a compelling read for your audience. Use what you know about your source to see how she can help you create a telling on-brand story.

The goal is to determine how an interview subject’s personal history, experiences and knowledge will create a compelling read for your audience.

Beyond getting the best story, if you don’t know your facts during an interview, you are going to look foolish. There is nothing worse than losing the interviewee’s respect by not knowing what you’re talking about.

Expect the unexpected

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is going into an interview assuming you already know what the source will say. While you might need a really great quote about how colleges must do their part to lower tuition rates or how Burma is the latest travel destination, that doesn’t mean your sources will agree with you or tell you what you want to hear.

Remember, you selected your sources because they are experts in their fields, so let them express their own opinions. If you are just waiting for them to say what you want to hear, you will miss their real points and the chance to write an honest, well-rounded story.

Of course, this can sometimes get a bit tricky when you’re tasked with writing a piece for a distinct news outlet or content marketing campaign. For example, I once had an assignment about luxury shopping in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. After touring the city and interviewing several locals on the subject, I quickly realized San Juan is not exactly a hot shopping destination, unless you’re looking for souvenirs, cigars or jewelry (which the publisher’s audience wasn’t).

When there’s a challenge in fulfilling an assignment to a T, be honest and creative. There’s always an opportunity to take a new, innovative approach to using your source – is there another relevant topic your interviewee is just as knowledgeable about that would make an interesting article? Depending on the publishing brand, an interview can also serve as a counterargument to your original point, creating a well-rounded story. Either way, recognizing an interviewee won’t support the “expected” assignment is always better than trying to somehow make quotes fit a publisher’s agenda. Oh, and that article about shopping in San Juan? It became a fantastic story about eating in San Juan.

Moment of truth: Taking on the expert source

Ask the right questions

As an interviewer, it is crucial to master the art of asking the right questions. In general, open-ended questions will get a full, insightful response from the source. For example, you could ask, “How do you feel about the rising tuition rates at colleges?” or “What are your thoughts on Burma as a travel destination?” Both of these questions encourage the interviewee to give you a long, perceptive answer, and allow her to respond in a variety of ways. This will ensure you are getting your source’s true opinions and not leading her to say what you want her to say.

While open-ended questions might seem a bit vague, it’s still very important to be specific and direct with your questions. Additionally, don’t forget to ask clarifying questions. In almost every interview, I guarantee a source will say something that either doesn’t make sense to you or that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. In these situations, don’t be afraid to ask your source what she meant. Take a few seconds to clarify your points – you don’t want to publish something incorrect.

Know when to stop talking

This one might seem obvious, but it is an interview mistake I see people make time and time again. The interview should not revolve around you, so avoid saying too much about your opinions, background knowledge or ideas. Most interviewees have limited time to speak with you, and it would be a shame to miss potentially useful responses by saying too much about yourself or the publishing brand.

Along the same lines, don’t interrupt your source. Even if she pauses for a moment, give her time to think about what she wants to say, no matter how awkward the few seconds of silence feels. I have found that I get my best quotes when I avoid interrupting and just let my interviewees speak.

Crafting the content: Writing and following up 

Decide who can say it better

When you actually sit down to write the story based on your interview, one of your biggest tasks will be selecting which quotes to include. This might seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. My rule of thumb is that you should only use quotes when your source can explain something better than you can. Any good content writer will have a knack for telling stories and getting across basic information, so when it comes to relaying general information (like dates, times, statistics, etc.), write this without the help of your source. Remember, quotes should be used to borrow the credibility of your source. Using her words for readily available information can take away from the story.

Highlight intriguing quotes

Where your source probably has the leg-up is with events she witnessed personally, topics she feels passionate about and her subjects of expertise. Your sources can describe these things better than you can, so let her do so by using her own words in a quote. Above all, make sure you are picking quotes that jump out at you and express your interviewee’s emotions or unique insight – those are the lines that will resonate with readers.

Remember what your mother taught you

As a writer, never underestimate the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with your sources. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to portray them in a positive light or write what they want you to write, but it does mean you need to use the manners your mother taught you. In other words, always be on time for interviews, speak to your sources with respect and thank them for their time.

At the end of the day, you want your sources to want to talk to you again. As experts, they can probably help you out with other stories down the road, and if they can’t, you better believe they have friends who can. A content writer is who her sources are, and if you have loyal sources who are always willing to give you the inside scoop, your stories will reflect that.

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Catherine GrouxCatherine Groux is a Boston-based writer and SEO expert with degrees in both journalism and Spanish. From the beaches of Hawaii to the jungles of Costa Rica, she has traveled across continents to meet new people, explore exotic cultures and study foreign languages.
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  • Sean Vandenberg

    Catherine, you did an excellent job writing this piece: clear, concise, plenty of headings. I also like your writing style— casual, but professional. …Your journalistic background clearly shows!

    • Catherine Groux

      Thank you very much, Sean! I’m glad you enjoyed the article – it’s always nice to pass on some journalistic wisdom!

  • http://www.buraq-technologies.com/ ambreen11

    Highly descriptive article, I enjoyed that bit. Always use your own words do not just copy and paste if you are writing
    after inspiring to someone else writing then first read the complete
    article and then try to find out some more facts and figures regarding
    that article and after completing your homework describe in your own
    words. This is what actually Search Engines and most important our
    readers want to read.

    • Catherine Groux

      Good advice, ambreen11! Thanks for sharing!