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conducting interview tips for PR & business communications

Image source: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via Flickr

PR pros read plenty of advice on being interviewed by the media but little on how to interview others. Interviewing others 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 Israel in Forbes.

• 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.

• 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?”

• Coax, don’t interrogate. A soft style that shows empathy and establishes rapport will more likely elicit honest and revealing answers. Consider the style of NPR’s Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air.

• Ask open-ended questions. Certain questions like “What are you post 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 degenerate 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 questions about details.

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.

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 outstanding content.

Do you have other interviewing tips? Please comment below.