Five Interviewing Techniques for ...


I’m convinced the craft of interviewing is one of the most undervalued skills in corporate storytelling.

Consider PR’s version of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

Chicken Or Egg

Would you rather enjoy an excellent relationship with a journalist, but be stuck with lame content?

Or would you rather have man-bites-dog content, but no relationship with the journalist?

I’ll take the great content every time.

Sure, knowing the journalist means I’ll get a listen, but trying to foist a weak story undermines the relationship.

That’s why our storytelling workshops devote a chunk of time to interviewing.

By probing and cajoling company sources, you’ll generate content that stays far from the lame quadrant.

Here are five interviewing techniques that will fuel the storytelling process.

  1. Do Your Homework: This means not only understanding the topic but the person or people you’re interviewing. Before meeting an engineer slated for a sourcing session, I found out he had immigrated from Cuba. How did I learn this ditty? Just took a look at his LinkedIn profile. Great ice breaker.
  2. The Interview Starts Before the Interview: Email a few questions to the interviewee ahead of time to get the wheels turning. I always include one question that establishes I’m after drama, not a tutorial in molecular physics.
  3. The Warm-up Act: Most human beings don’t automatically open up to someone they don’t know (even though you’re part of the same team). Start with a few easy questions designed to simply get the person talking. This way, you build momentum leading into the tougher questions.
  4. Too Many Cooks Won’t Spill the Beans: Often, multiple people are involved with the topic of choice. Don’t interview them together. It’s better to talk with each in a one-on-one setting with the content taken from the initial interview building into the second chat and beyond. Such an approach takes more time, but you’ll end up with richer content. Notice the boys on CSI never interrogate multiple people together. Same concept.
  5. Improv Produces “Gold:” Listen to what’s being said. While it’s good to have questions prepared, be willing to explore unexpected areas that come out of the discussion. In talking to a client CEO, he casually mentioned he was originally hired to figure out if the technology could be salvaged. That got our attention; i.e., drama in whether the venture would live or die. What was it like asking for employees’ cooperation when their cooperation might mean the end of the line? Was there a single moment when you thought, “This has a chance?” Digging out the humanity always makes for compelling storytelling.

I welcome your additions to the list.


  • James

    Awesome tips… I always try to get them to take me back to the moment of “drama” and try to pull out some sensory details which come in handy later… For example, I once read an interview with the founder of 1800 Got Junk and he talked about how he only had 500 dollars and so he bought a rusted old truck and began a tiny junk business…. People will always paint their lives in broad strokes but if you can get some of the details of what it felt like at the dramatic moment, you got a richer story.
    Great topic…. James

  • Lou Hoffman

    Thanks for the perspective.

    Love your point about the value of “sensory details.”

    That’s what helps to make the story feel real to the audience.

    And you’re right, most people don’t naturally gravitate to this level of detail; hence, the need for the interviewer to nudge the source in this direction.

  • Yin

    Great list! I also enjoy the way you phrased the desired results: “to generate content that stays far from the lame quadrant.”

    How about “Make them feel like the expert” – I heard this advice from a good friend of mine. I find that under the right circumstances, people love being in the limelight, so having the full attention of a great listener can produce good responses. This also means that after you develop an initial relationship, step back to give the interviewee some space, some respect for their knowledge and your full attention: no interrupting, over emphasizing or “leading” their thoughts when they’re in the middle of a story.

    I find that interview tips like these are useful not just when I’m writing a story, but also for when I am trying to understand a new person I just met. Genuine friendships and relationships stem from having good listening skills.

  • Lou Hoffman

    Thanks for these additions Yin.

    All good points.

    No question, one’s undivided attention encourages a person to tell his or her story.

  • Jay Han

    Dear Mr. Hoffman.

    This is Jay Han in Korea.
    Here’s my answer of ur mention on twitter.

    I totally agree with ur post. It’s working in Korea also.
    And i got No. 6
    Don’t be a fact-checker. Just believe what he or she said. After they finish talking I can check the fact with them or their staff. I just trust them at least while they are talking. Even they said they are God.

  • Lou Hoffman

    Mr. Han,

    Thanks so much for dropping into the neighborhood.

    Interesting to hear these concepts cut across cultural boundaries.

    And agree with your No. 6, that being cynical during the interview does not cultivate a constructive discussion.

  • Davina K. Brewer

    Some good tips Lou. Per ‘digging out humanity’ and getting to the drama via improv.. I’ve done a ‘walk through the day’ type question, esp. when it’s an unusual or different job; not the calls and emails but an example of the projects to help paint a clearer picture. I’ve also tried off-topic.. anything from current events to what they’re watching on TV to hobbies and travels; more than warm-ups, sometimes it’s those questions that get them going and as you listen, you can find ways to bring it back to the interview. For what it’s worth.

  • Lou Hoffman


    Good stuff.

    I’ve started tag teaming with ex journalist Peter Lewis on one of our storytelling workshops. He specifically discusses what you just pointed out: open-ended questions can lead to unexpected drama.

    Also like your idea to tying the discussion to current events.

  • Kris

    Lou, Happened upon your blog through #journchat. This is wonderful material for my high school journalism students. I’m always on the look out for examples that make reporting “real” for the students in my tiny sheltered school. It’s hard for the students to interview the 13 seniors – they’ve been together since kindergarten – so they think they know everything about them before they even interview them. Finding something new-different-unusual is a challenge.

  • Lou Hoffman


    I think sports journalists run into the same dynamic.

    Maybe your seniors can inteview teachers and/or administators.

    Might be an interesting exercise for three or so students to interview the same person and then compare the material/story.

    Our storytelling workshops include a similar exercise which always delivers fodder for discussion.

  • Kris

    Lou, Just to clarify, we write a story on each senior in the school. We also write a story on each new teacher and administrator. (We get a new administrator about every 3 years.) We’re so small-my journalism class size has been as low as 3 students. So with limited resources – both students and money – we have a lot of ground to cover. I love your suggestion of having the students interview the same person and then compare results. I will use this idea this year. Thank you much!

  • Lou Hoffman

    Got it.

    Sounds like your students benefit from passion + care.

    Good luck.

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