5 Tips for Conducting Good Interviews

June 2017


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Some people believe great content marketing originates in literary or artistic talent, but it’s actually based on good interviews. The quality of those information-gathering conversations is what eventually elevates custom content from amusing to amazing.

So, what constitutes a “good interview”? It depends. What they all have in common though is a lot of positive energy that lasts well beyond the call or in-person talk. I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews as a journalist, corporate communications writer and editorial director. Here are a few tips I use to engage subject matter experts or customers while creating a case study, success story, white paper or article.

Do your homework.

It’s amazing what a 20-minute Google search can unearth to help shape questions. Make sure you look not only at web sites but also any news articles on the subject, organization or person you’re interviewing. A great primer on how to cram can be found here.

In addition to a basic understanding of the topic, you need to know who you’re talking to (beyond title and company). This not only helps develop intelligent, targeted questions sure to elicit good responses, but it will get the conversation off to a good start.

For instance, I once was warned I’d be speaking to someone on the surly side, so I looked him up on LinkedIn and discovered we both once worked in the same Virginia town. After introductions, I mentioned the connection and a unique park I used to visit. Turns out the cybersecurity expert knew the park well—his grandparents once owned the land! Not once did I detect any irritation as we moved through my questions.

Ask interesting, on-point questions.

This one’s a no-brainer, and yet I’ve been on the receiving end of questions that showed the other person had no clue what she was asking. Custom content producers go into projects knowing what they need to get out of research and subject-matter experts. They blend broader questions (why) with more specific ones (who, what, when, where, how). These carefully crafted questions are designed to produce strong, thorough responses. Don’t forget to include clarifying questions too.

Go with the flow.

Inexperienced interviewers give themselves away by their pace, or lack of, during the Q&A. They’ll ask a question, leave time for an answer and move on to the next prescribed question without a segue or further comment. That happens even when someone says something rather outrageous or answered a similar question earlier, demonstrating that the interviewer is more absorbed in his role rather than the conversation.

Listen carefully to what is being said, rather than anticipating the next question in your head before the current one is fully answered. Keep it conversational and the exchange will feel more even and lively.

Respect other peoples’ time.

Another rookie mistake is to go over the allotted time because the interviewer isn’t well organized or doesn’t control the pace with a loquacious expert or customer. If a busy executive only has 30 minutes, make sure you ask only 30 minutes’ worth of questions. If a customer is late to the call, ask upfront if you still have the next hour or if the Q&A needs to be shortened now. Another time saver: send questions in advance so the subject matter experts are more prepared with answers, with the caveat there may be others to follow.

Follow up.

If you record a call or talk, make sure the person is aware of it. In many states, it’s the law. When typing or writing in real time, our notes can quickly become “cold” or unintelligible a few days after a talk. Make sure you follow up on any murky points so everyone is clear on what was—and wasn’t—said or intended. This is more than a courtesy; it’s a safeguard against inaccuracies that can undermine perceptions once drafts circulate in the approval chain.