PR pros read plenty of advice on being interviewed by the media but little on how to interview others. Interviewing others for PR articles is an often neglected, underdeveloped skill in PR. Few if any PR schools include interviewing in their curriculum, and instruction on the topic remains rare in the working world, points out Lou Hoffman, CEO of the Hoffman Agency, in the Ishmael’s Corner blog. That’s unfortunate because conducting interviews well is an extraordinarily valuable skill.
The quality and success of media pitches, blog posts, white papers and other PR-generated content depends largely on how well a PR agency or staff person interviews executives, company subject matter experts, fellow employees and others. PR can learn much from journalists who are expert at uncovering information, opinions, controversies and news through interviewing.
Hoffman and others offer these tips for better interviews.
Research. Research both the topic and your interview subject before the interview. View the subject’s LinkedIn profile and media articles. Search the topic in Google or Google Scholar and look beyond the top results. Delve several pages deep into search results to find illuminating details and resources.
Prepare a list of questions. But avoid overkill. “You don’t need 50 questions to keep the dialogue flowing during an hour sourcing session,” Hoffman says.
Send them questions – or not. Some interviewers tell the interview subject what kind of information they seek and forward a few questions. Others avoid sending questions in advance. “Answers feel too scripted and they eliminate the potential for powerful follow-up questions” explains technology writer Shel Israelin Forbes.
Prepare for remote interviews. Interviews are now often conducted remotely via virtual conference apps. In those cases, be sure lighting and audio is adequate and your background isn’t overly crowded. Raise the camera so it’s level with your face, and make sure the room is quiet and the interview won’t be interrupted by unexpected noises.
Make them comfortable. Establish upfront that you’re part of the same team. Tell them everything will be reviewed and approved before release. Build rapport first with small talk and easy questions. Start with a question on the person and not the topic, such as: “Where did you grow up,” Israel suggests.
Ask follow-up questions. Most interviewers tend to think about what to ask next. Instead, focus on the interviewee’s answer. Listen closely and coax them to elaborate on interesting points. Follow-up questions often lead to the most valuable answers. Probing issues that did not go well can reveal an organization’s or a person’s humanity. It’s perfectly acceptable to deviate from the planned questions. Free-flowing conversations sometimes reveal the most interesting information.
Ask tough questions. Asking difficult questions digs out storytelling gold, Hoffman says. However, it’s essential to gently coax, rather than interrogate, to avoid, offending the interviewee. Follow the style of NPR’s Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, who shows empathy and establishes rapport to elicit honest and revealing answers. First, flag the question to warn the interviewee of coming uncomfortable question, with something like “This is a strange question …”
Parrot them. The parroting technique can elicit elaboration, says Nicholas Tart in IncomeDiary. Pick one or two words from something they said and repeat the words as a question. For instance, if they say, “I attribute all of my success to optimizing our sales funnel.” You repeat: “Sales funnel?”
Ask open-ended questions. Certain questions like “What are you most proud of?” or “What was were you feeling when …?” provide safe ground for the person to open up,” Hoffman says.
Control the discussion. A company representative may sometimes fall into corporate speak. At those times, you may need to tactfully interrupt them and re-align the discussion. “I usually stop writing, fold my arms and look out the window. They often trail off,” Israel says.
Seek anecdotes. Anecdotes transform ordinary articles into spellbinding accounts. They form the basis of storytelling. To seek anecdotes, ask for examples and details. Specifically ask for a story to illustrate a point the interviewee has made.
The wrap-up. At the end of the interview, ask “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” “This gives them an open door to talk about anything that they believe is important,” Tart says. That simple question sometimes prompts the most important information of the discussion. Other ways to ask the final question: What would you like me to know that you haven’t said? If you had to tell this story, what are the key points you would make? Is there anything else interesting about this topic that you think we should cover?
I asked that last question when I was interviewing a scientist at Bell Laboratories some years ago for an educational film on technology innovations. He got up from his desk chair, went over to a file cabinet and picked up a small computer chip: “Yes, he said, you might like to talk about this: the very first charged couple device, invented at Bell Labs.” The CCD is the heart of a digital camera. No one else had mentioned the CCD. It became a centerpiece of the film.
Polish quotes. People rarely speak how they write. They almost always commit minor grammatical errors or utter occasional “ums” when speaking. PR writers must usually correct some grammar or even combine two sentences into one, advises Olivia Adams, a writer and PR pro. After polishing quotes, send them to the interviewee for approval before publication.
“Almost 99% of the time they will approve right away and they will appreciate you reaching out,” Adams writes.
Bottom Line: Conducting interviews is a valuable but under-appreciated skill for PR and other communication professionals. With these tips from experts, you can complete interviews that elicit fascinating answers and lead to exceptional content.
This article was first published on Nov. 7, 2016, and updated on Sept. 21, 2020.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.