The Most Undervalued Skill ...

Peter Lewis-Cup Of Joe

I met with Peter Lewis over a cup of joe yesterday morning to discuss a storytelling workshop that we’ll be tag-teaming on soon.

We went through the exercise of comparing notes on the storytelling front.

Peter, who now teaches at Stanford’s J school, offered a journalist’s perspective reflecting stints at The New York Times and Fortune. My input shaped from toiling in the comms trenches for 25+ years.

When I mentioned that we could spend the entire workshop on interviewing techniques, Peter responded that he teaches a class devoted to this single topic.

That’s when it struck me.

The most undervalued skill in corporate storytelling is the ability to conduct an interview.

It doesn’t matter whether you sit on the agency side or in-house, if your content consists of only the party line you’ve got no story (unless, of course, you’re Apple).

It’s the probing and cajoling of executives or domain experts that goes a long way toward determining whether you ultimately shape a story that will resonate with the target audience.

Yet, how many communication professionals have been trained in interviewing techniques?

Putting aside the journalists who’ve jumped to the PR side, I’ll bet 99% of all communicators have never had this type of training.

Not good.

Consider how journalists conduct an interview.

They’re striving to dig out content to tell a fresh story and one that often entertains or at least amuses the reader.

Such information isn’t going to come from the news release or the corporate website.

It requires extracting — the verb seems appropriate, since the feelings of the interviewee can be similar to those experienced in the dentist’s chair — information that’s not already in the public domain.

Here’s the crux.

Companies expect journalists to be aggressive and even Fifth-Ave.-During-Christmas pushy.

Companies don’t expect communicators to exhibit this type of behavior.

I’m looking forward to tackling this topic during the workshop.


  • Thaler Pekar

    This is so important, Lou, thank you! One of the biggest problems I see communication professionals make is having a preconceived notion of what it is they want to hear; e.g;, “I asked my nursing staff for stories of theirs that I could put in the newsletter and that would increase morale and reduce turnover – and I’m not getting any!” Well, of course not, when one asks that way. It’s unlikely that you will hear authentic and meaningful stories when you approach your subjects with such constraints. They are more likely to provide you with the data that they think you want. Instead, inquire from a place of real curiosity. And remember to elicit stories, asking about “a time when…” and “an example of when…”, and not direct answers to questions! (I write more about useful story-eliciting prompts here )

    And it’s not just because I hate the idea of dental extraction that I prefer “elicit” over “extract”. We extract commodities. When something is extracted, it is ripped and separated from where it came. The ethical use of story requires that we acknowledge that a story is a part of a person, and we must respectfully ask if and how we can share his or her story. Being a good interviewer means to stop playing dentist and to engage your interviewees in a conversation!

    I look forward to reading more of your insights as you prep and then deliver the program, Lou. Thank you for sharing!

  • Lou Hoffman


    Agree with your perspective and particularly your point to “inquire from a place of real curiosity.”

    Corporate storytellers enjoy an advantage over journalists in the sense that the interviewee knows the material will be vetted so theoretically, should be more open.

    Look forward to exploring your blog.


    P.S. Perhaps I went too far with the dental metaphor.

  • Thaler Pekar

    You must have good teeth, Lou!

  • Jen Graybea;

    Hi Lou,

    The workshop sounds great. When will it be held and how can I get details about registration?

    I would love to improve this skill.


  • Lou Hoffman


    Appreciate your interest.

    This particular workshop is being conducted for a specific company, focusing on the internal comms team (although we do workshops for execs as well).

    With that said, I got a few emails asking if we had thought about an open workshop in which individuals could sign up.

    We’re thinking about it.

    In the meantime, keep us in mind for your company.

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