The reason PR fails at storytelling often has nothing to do with understanding the makings of a good story or writing expertise.
Instead, the root cause can lie in the interviewing process for sourcing the content. If you don’t get this upfront step right — pull out the type of content that the outside world will care about — you’re forced to make cabbagade out of cabbage. Even if you pull it off, it’s still not very good.
I think it’s fair to say that interviewing tends to be an undervalued expertise in the communications industry. I say “undervalued” because PR trainings abound on topics like pitching journalists or how to use social media for brand storytelling. Good luck finding a webinar for PR that addresses the art of the interview.
As a starting point to learn more about interviewing, I reached out to a cross section of journalists who were gracious enough to share their wisdom on the topic. Each responded to the question “What is one of your go-to techniques when it comes to interviewing?
Mark LaPedus (executive editor at Semiconductor Engineering)
I’ll answer the question with the caveat that I’m always learning, but here are a few thoughts. The interview starts before the interview itself. I try and prepare before the interview. I do enough research to make sure I know the subject and/or person. This way, I can keep the interview alive and flowing. The person that I interview knows I’m interested. Does that always work? No. But it works more often than not.
I make a list of questions beforehand. The list is very, very, very long. Then, I ask myself: “What do readers want to know or care about?” That narrows the list down.
To be honest, there are no hard or fast rules during the interview itself. It depends on the person, title, subject, etc. But you want to get a conversation going early and ask an opened-ended question first: What are the major challenges in your industry? How do you see things going in the industry? What’s your outlook, and so on. After you get a conversation going, you can move to the tougher questions later.
From there, I have questions in mind. But things never go as planned. One has to be nimble. One has to LISTEN. LISTENING IS THE KEY. That dictates the direction of the process.
Craig Matsumoto (Managing Editor at SDxCentral)
The trick that’s served me best is the ability to ask “What the heck does that mean?” in smart ways that get sympathetic responses. Sometimes you *can* just outright ask “What is that?” (about an acronym, a previous acquisition, an old technology), but they don’t always know how to answer. So you have to coach them: “I know about A, B and C, and this feels like it ought to be D, but I get the feeling that’s not quite it …” The same thing was true in college, actually — I learned (too late) that the only good questions were the ones where I explained where my thinking was getting stuck.
Bien Perez (Senior Reporter at South China Morning Post)
Research is key when it comes to interviewing a source. Reading through old news reports, interviews and feature articles, as well as watching relevant videos about the subject, his company or industry usually unearths a tidbit or two, or more, which could be used to start the conversation or move forward a discussion. This nugget doesn’t have to be a controversial one to get the interviewee to talk more. But in my experience, controversy helps.
Pete Lewis (previously wrote for Fortune and The New York Times; now a novelist and freelance writer)
The key to a good interview, and, I’ve found, to most things in general, is to listen.
There are a couple of points to make here.
One, it’s hard to focus on what someone is saying — not just the words, but the meaning too — when one is trying to scribble notes and simultaneously trying to think of the next clever question. All too often a reporter/interviewer is distracted by the mechanicals of the interview, or by the mental gymnastics of jumping back to what has already been said, or forward to the next question. The trick is to stay in the present, paying fierce attention to what the source is saying. To that end I prefer to record interviews, assuming the source agrees. Transcribing the recordings afterward is a bit more work, but yields more accurate notes. I use a notebook and pen, if at all, merely to jot simple reminders or snippets of quotes that might be useful in a story.
Two, often the biggest mistake an interviewer makes is trying to fill awkward silences by asking another question. Let the interviewee break the silence. Those awkward pauses often yield the most valuable interview insights; the subject might try to relieve the awkwardness by expanding on an answer that previously stopped short of full honesty. After all, the point of the interview is to capture the subject’s meaningful thoughts, if any. Sometimes it’s necessary to interrupt if it’s clear the subject is just cycling through prepared talking points, but in general the interviewer should interrupt as little as possible. Use your ears and eyes, not your mouth. Make eye contact. Look for physical clues — twitches, scowls, nervous habits like lip-biting or hair chewing — that might indicate tender areas of inquiry worthy of further probing.
Oh, and another thing: Be prepared. Do your homework before the interview. Know what you want to ask, but always be ready to let the subject take the conversation into unexpected interesting directions.
Junko Yoshida (chief international correspondent for UBM Electronics)
I do a lot of homework in advance. Without that hard work (when I am not well-prepared), I know my interview will be mediocre. But once in a blue moon, your source could be extremely informed and he could really surprise you. I love it when that happens!
There is really no silver bullet. But ideally you “connect” with the person early on during the interview so he or she is more inclined to tell you more.
Sam Whitmore (journalist in a variety roles in the Ziff Davis empire before launching SWMS)
I always get mileage out of deliberately building silence between questions — anywhere between three and five seconds. Interview subjects often can’t resist the urge to fill the void by saying more than they intended to, and I have gotten many an insight this way. The flip side of this is, when being interviewed, I often wait three to five seconds to answer. I want to be sure I understand the question exactly as it was asked, not as I may have perceived it … and I also want to formulate my thoughts as best I can before I answer. I learned that one from a famous software executive.
Doing your homework and having the ability to listen come across as common themes.
Obviously, the dynamic in an interview conducted by PR is going to be different than a journalist’s interview. Whether you’re talking with the CEO, a product manager or a scientist from R&D, you essentially share the same agenda as the source.
This can work to your advantage. Probing — borrowing Pete’s verb — and cajoling the interviewee to open up is easier when the person knows there’s a safety net.
With that said, there are times when you’ve got to push the individual.
Just not off a cliff.
Really great post! I’ve been interviewing for 20 years but you provided some good reminders of what’s most important. I do the prep and listen, but can always do better. The silence bit is something I need to work on.
Thanks Casey. I’m thankful to the journalists willing to share their wisdom. As discussed in our Twitter exchange, I would welcome a post from you that looks at how to interview customers in a way that produces storytelling fodder. I’m sure you’ve honed your techniques over the years to a science.
This is a well written and on target column from my perspective as a 40+ year corporate, agency, and now freelance practitioner. Listening is the critical skill that informs what follows; those who enter an interview with a plan to ask a series of predefined questions often never ask the ones that make a great interview and a great work product.
The only other asset you didn’t mention: The advantage held by an honestly curious interviewer who wants to understand the “whys.”
I’m bookmarking this blog. Much continued success.
That’s a good point. While preparation is obviously a good thing, it’s easy to follow into the trap of thinking ahead to the next question instead of actively listening and probing an area that hadn’t been considered (during the preparation).
And you’re right about curiosity. It’s hard to quantify, but the interviewee can sense when the interviewer is truly interested (curious) which in turn can cause the person to open up.
Of course broadcast and print are two different animals – but homework is the common thread. As a TV Reporter, I always believed in having a conversation. Keep your subject as relaxed as possible and find the story you might have otherwise missed. It’s about moments, gestures and coming full circle with the writing. Study the NPPA quarterly clip winners to see how TV Videographers work with Reporters to ‘capture the moment’ – case in point -http://bit.ly/1HMQwQC B2B storytelling can tap into rich moments, nat sound, timing and a surprise element. It’s a pattern all of these winners follow.