Public relations as an industry undervalues interviewing skills.
You can find training session after training session on how to pitch a journalist and to not follow up with a “did you get my email?”
Same goes for writing. Show, don’t tell. Stay away from chest-thumping adjectives like “revolutionary” and “breakthrough.”
Yet, most mass communications curricula at universities don’t include classes on interviewing techniques. And most PR jobs, whether consultancy or in-house, leave it up to the practitioner to figure out how to question a source through trial and error.
Our mantra “The story is always there” points to the importance of the discovery in business communications and making sure our account professionals are equipped to navigate the process.
Anyone can sit down with Amazon after they’ve gone on real estate buying spree in New York City and come away with a story that triggers clicks.
It takes much greater skill to find a story that’s not delivered on a silver platter.
Which brings us to interviewing expertise — for my money, the most important part of story discovery. Aside from journalists who have scaled the barbed wire for the communications profession, I’ll bet 90% of all communicators have never attended a training session on interviewing techniques.
My “interviewing school” comes in the form of the NPR podcast “Fresh Air,” which has the simplest of formats. Host Terry Gross sits down with an eclectic mix of guests — think UC Berkeley sleep scientist and the New York Met conductor and everything in between — and asks them questions.
Most guests come on the show with something to sell. It might be a book, a cable show or tickets to the opera. This means that getting information from the guests is easy. They want to talk. Where Gross excels is digging beyond the obvious. There are lessons to be had in this digging — like in interview with the actor Patricia Arquette last year.
Gross is talking to Arquette about a leading role she landed that required putting on extra pounds. This leads Gross to question how Arquette, a woman who has championed inclusivity in Hollywood, feels about taking a role that calls for a heavier actor when there are many women who already fit the physical requirements. Probing this area has the potential to offend or trigger a defensiveness that shuts down Arquette. Yet, listen to how Gross packages the question:
Whether you’re in-house or on the agency side, we often need to ask difficult questions of our sources. How you go about shaping the question can be the difference between compelling content and corporate drivel. Gross’s question to Arquette offers a few lessons on increasing the probability of compelling content.
First, she flags the question right away so Arquette can prepare for something out of the ordinary: “This is a strange question to ask …” This way, the question is less likely to jar Arquette.
Next, she frames the question and asks, “Did you ever feel a twinge knowing that there are …” Her word choice here is crucial. She doesn’t ask if she felt badly or had regrets, heavy words. Instead, she asks if there was an uncomfortable moment when she thought about the issue.
She finishes the question by saying, “I should preface this by saying that I love your work and am I’m so glad you got this role because you’re fabulous in it.” Gross isn’t taking an adversarial position. She’s letting Arquette know “I like you and I like your work.”
All in all, Gross’s approach to the question diffuses any hint of attack and makes it easy for Arquette to open up.
From a business communications perspective, questions like “What are the top three benefits of the device?” aren’t going to generate stories with a touch of tension. Instead, we need to do our homework and be willing to take our source to what may be an uncomfortable place.
With the right frame for the question, we can increase the probability that the source feels comfortable enough to open up.