The art of the interview: How to have better interviews and ask better questions

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We talk so much about creating content that it can be easy to forget about that we have to get the stories from somebody before we can ever create them. That’s where the interviews come in. As discussed in my post on creating better brand stories, that often means interviewing:

  • the founders
  • the internal experts
  • the product managers
  • customers

After two decades in the field, here is my guide on holding better interviews by marketers.

Don’t overcomplicate the start

One of the easiest ways to start any interview is to simply ask:

Tell me about <topic>?

or

What’s new about <topic>

or

What do people need to know?

or

What are people currently asking?

I’ve done interview interviews with just asking “tell me about this.” Then they talk, I listen and ask follow-up questions. There’s been times even where the entire story was covered just by asking that question.

Listen

One of the best content gathering/interviewing/brand journalism techniques might be to simply listen to people. But listening is hard, right? It’s our turn to ask a question or to share a tidbit. Why should we give up our turn? Because we love stories! Other people’s stories especially. And the only way to get to hear other people’s stories is to give them time to share and then listen to them!

Listening to others involves the following to make the process easier:

Be approachable. I’ve had people come up to me and just start sharing. “You won’t believe what just happened …” Don’t interrupt and start guessing what may have just happened. Just let them tell the story. They will stop when it’s done. Usually, stories shared are stories that make us feel happy or stories that make us mad. Stories that evoke emotion are also shared.

Shhhh. Don’t take your turn to talk. You know what I mean, right? This is that quiet moment during a conversation. It might feel like it should be your turn to talk. And it might be, but just let the silence go on for a bit. It might seem strange that there is silence. Give the other person time to breathe and they are most likely to also want to stop the silence. That will lead to them wanting to continue to share their stories.

One question at a time

I see way too many interviewers out there who make statements – sometimes to show off what they know. Then they ask a question. Just asking the question in the first place usually does the trick. Sometimes making statements as a playback mechanism can be helpful to check understanding.

”Here’s what I heard … is that correct?”

“Here’s what people are saying…. your thoughts?”

Then the expert can correct, elaborate or acknowledge accuracy.

Another problem with asking more than one questions at once: Which question should the person being interviewed answer? All of them? They may not even remember them all.

They are more likely to just pick one and then forget or disregard the others. Ask one question at a time, make a list of what else you want to ask and ask that next. Unless a follow-up question makes more sense next. You can always circle back one question at a time. And not every question is as important as other questions.

Tips for better interviews

Ask for definitions

Adding definitions into your articles can help with SEO. That’s why you see articles with a paragraph like this up high:

The definition of good storytelling is….

They are trying to rank for “what’s the definition of good storytelling” – as an example here.

Sometimes asking for definitions might seem like the interviewer doesn’t know the area, and some will interpret it like that. When that happens explain the thinking:

I would like to see what your definition is so we can use that in the article. I don’t just want to Google for the definition and use somebody else’s. If there are any good anecdotes that work here we can use them, too.

Follow-up questions

Ask good follow-up questions. Don’t just go into interview mode and ask the questions on your list. Ask questions that you’d ask if this was a conversation – which good interviews are. When somebody says – for example – that they traveled to 23 countries before age 15, ask how that happened and what the countries were. “Tell me more” is also a good follow-up statement that elicits more information.

Ask: “Anything else?”

Some of my best content has come from that wide-open question at the end. At times, you could even ask “tell me about this” at the beginning and “anything else” at the end and that just got you the whole story.

It doesn’t feel sophisticated  for sure, but remember that the goal is to get the best story out of the interview. If those two questions do the trick, great. If more questions are needed, ask them!

More tips for the interviewer

Of course, there are ways to make this process more comfortable for the person being interviewed and the subject of a publicized story:

  • Listen closely
  • Open body language. Show that you care and are interested in the story
  • Show genuine interest

Show the expert a draft of the story before it’s published. This was a big no-no when I worked as a journalist in the early 2000s, but I used this technique in the days of Eastern Iowa News, a local community news startup I founded in 2009. At Eastern Iowa News, it helped with accuracy and sometimes caused people to think about another fact that was worth adding. In the case of Eastern Iowa News, I would often just sent them a link to the just published version as showing sources a story pre-publication was a no-no. In corporate storytelling this is a pretty much a given that the source will read your story before it’s published. Make sure you collaborate with them so it doesn’t get unnecessarily edited or watered down.

Watch the (subtle) body language. Body language can easily be misinterpreted. So, be careful here. You don’t want to over-analyze it, but it’s good to keep an eye out for clues to what a person is thinking or perhaps not telling us. Bottom line: Don’t guess what a particular body movement means and share it in a write-up of a story, but the observation certainly can be used in your own mind to think about what else to ask next during the interview.

For a couple of decades in the field, I’ve seen it to be fairly common that people want to share their stories. People talk to talk, connect and share experiences. It’s what we do.

But it can feel different when the person sharing the story knows that the other person will publicize the story. Why? There are several reasons:

  • People want to look good.
  • People want to sound smart.
  • People want the story to be accurate, but accuracy can be in the beholder’s eye. The interviewer’s impression of a story – especially when witnessed first hand – might be different from what the person who is the subject of the story would say happened.

Listening closely and building a meaningful connection with the subject of a story can help us build stronger and more authentic connections and in turn help us share better, more accurate and meaningful stories.

Interviewing and corporate storytelling is certainly a skill. One that is more and more important as companies are trying to find ways to differentiate in verticals that are increasingly crowded.


Parts of this article were published in 2014, updated and additional content was added in 2020 to make the content more thorough.



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