Scrap the script — and 4 more interview tips from a former journalist
Oct 21, 2015
I have a confession to make.
In 10 years of sports journalism, I rarely prepared a lengthy list of questions prior to an interview for a print story, radio segment or video piece. Maybe one or two questions, but that was usually it.
Now, that isn’t to suggest I was unprepared. I always did my homework, and made notes of points I wanted to cover. But, with few exceptions (e.g., deadline-driven work), my goal was to have a conversation rather than conduct an interview.
I still apply this approach several years into a marketing career that comes with a fraction of the free food sportswriters take for granted. (Thank goodness for “Pizza Fridays” at Centerline.) I wish more marketers would do the same, at least when certain storytelling opportunities arise. Scrapping the script has served me well, regardless of the medium.
In marketing, customer testimonials quickly come to mind. These have the potential to be such powerful endorsements for a company, product or service. Yet too often, their effect is best summarized by repeating a single keystroke:
You know the tired formula testimonials often follow, right?
- Start with company details (size, industry, location, years in operation)
- Explain the service offering
- Identify the issue
- Close with how the customer’s problem was solved
Maybe there’s a forgettable quote buried somewhere in there, too.
Too harsh? It’s only because these stories can be so much more. It’s all a function of the approach – which all of us as content creators have the power to change.
“Interview” — the word makes me flinch. Ever, well, interview for a job? It can feel like you’re standing in front of a firing squad. For interviewees, there’s a notion that you have to say the right thing, at the right moment. It leads to very guarded, manufactured responses.
But here’s the bigger crime, personally speaking: Early on as an interviewer, reading from a list of questions prevented me from actually listening to responses — and asking thoughtful follow-up questions based on those answers. I was too focused on asking the next question on my list.
The experience, for all involved, was uncomfortable.
Conversations are more casual. They’re back and forth. They’re real.
That’s when the best answers bubble to the surface.
Who knows? You just might hear a few fantastic replies over the course of your next inter-, err, “convo.”
Here are four other interview tips that served me well during — and since — my days as a sportswriter:
Put the phone down. It isn’t always possible. But when it is, request to speak in-person.
While phone calls may be more convenient, there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversation. It demonstrates your commitment to hearing someone else’s story. Eye contact and facial expressions can also invite interviewees to expand on their answers — because they can see your reaction, your level of interest.
Embrace brevity. Keep your questions short and direct. It’s a natural inclination to stuff all your thoughts into rambling, no-end-in-sight sentences. I’ve been guilty of asking the occasional long-winded question, too.
I found myself confused when coming up for air. How do you think the person on the receiving end felt?
Fight the urge to fill silence. After asking your question, keep quiet — even if you don’t get a rapid response. Silence can feel awkward for everyone. Again, the natural next step is to fill it.
Let your question sit. Give the individual time to think about what you asked. You may find the person apologizes for not having an immediate answer. Be reassuring. There’s no rush.
Provide a calming cue. People understandably want to put their best, most intelligent-sounding selves forward in interviews. Talk about pressure, especially if interviewing doesn’t come naturally.
That’s when everything from big words to buzzwords can sabotage the discussion.
Set the tone from the start with: “In your own words…”
You may find it sets the individual at ease, invites him or her to speak naturally. And the answers you hear will be better because of it.
A decade in sportswriting certainly helped me hone my interview style.
The many demanding editors who first read my work wouldn’t settle for stories filled with clichés, canned responses and exaggerations. So, I had to find ways of extracting more compelling answers from others.
While my career has changed, that challenge remains the same.
As bestselling author Seth Godin wrote in All Marketers Are Liars, “Either you’re going to tell stories that spread, or you will become irrelevant.”
That’s all the motivation I need. How about you?
Marc Thaler is a former journalist and broadcaster-turned-associate creative director. For 10+ years, he covered sports around New England—everything from Little League to the big leagues. Several years back, he joined a software company specializing in cloud-based IT security and management solutions, spent a few years creating content in its marketing department, and then made the switch to Centerline. Over the years, his writing has appeared on a range of recognizable dot-coms, including ESPN, SC Magazine and Marketing Profs.