The Art of the Interview: How to Get the Real Story

Aug 03

I was deep in an interview with an expert in experimental and theoretic modeling. Tasked with writing a profile of the researcher for a general audience, she was speaking at the 10,000-foot level in terms only a fellow academic – or her mother – would love. This was not going to cut it.

Then it came to me: I bet she has cats! So I popped the question: do you have pets? Her attitude and tone lightened immediately.

“Yes, I have cats.”

Bingo! The academic nature of the interview went out the window as she went on to explain she had a “halfway house for cats” because her post docs keep giving their pets to her. She’s now up to three felines. Having a reached a more relaxed place in our conversation, I switched her back to our assigned topic. Like magic she was able to explain the relevance of her work to a broader audience.

One of the things I’ve learned over my three-decades-long career as a journalist, public relations professional, and freelance writer is interview skills that get to the real story. Sure, anyone can ask questions and scribble down the answers. But how do you go beyond a flat Q-and-A and really get inside the mind of the person you’re interviewing? Here are some quick tips on how to get the real story.

1) Do your homework on the person you’re interviewing. Sure, this seems obvious, but it’s often overlooked. When I was a cub reporter for the San Antonio Express News, the editor sent me out to interview two stars of a wildly popular soap opera called General Hospital. I had no idea who they were and they quickly picked up on my ignorance. The interview – and the subsequent story – stunk! Lesson learned.

LinkedIn and the Internet make it very easy to prep for interviews. As you’re scanning an individual’s web presence, look for nuggets that provide insight into who they are or what they do that may be useful to the story you’re writing or simply used as an icebreaker. Here are two examples:

I had an interview lined up with a physician at a medical school on a dry topic. His bio listed Notre Dame as an interest. With football season coming up, I used this tidbit on a diehard Fighting Irish fan to break the ice. His attitude was much friendlier after chatting about something near and dear to him before sequeing to the scheduled topic.

I was researching an individual who is nationally known for his research in the field of entrepreneurship. His bio is full of academic accolades (standard stuff), but one bio revealed his first job out of college – he was a funeral home director! While I didn’t use it in the blog, this unexpected nugget certainly got the conversation going!

2) Draft your questions in advance and share with the person you’re interviewing in advance of your conversation. Doing this prepares you and the interviewee for a better interview. You demonstrate an understanding of the subject matter, which shows respect for the person you’re interviewing. Sharing questions in advance allows your interviewee to prepare and speak more confidently. Winging an interview is definitely not the way to go as you’ll walk away with very little to write about.

3) Go off script when you need to. If you’ve followed tip two and sent questions in advance, Yay You! However, don’t be afraid to add or subtract questions. During your interview, you’ll likely learn something you didn’t anticipate that has the potential to improve your story or change the angle. I recently wrote a series of profiles on entrepreneurs who won an award that came with a $20,000 cash prize. After completing the scripted questions, I threw in a final off-the-script question:

So, what did you do with the $20,000?

The responses were fun. While some plowed the prize money back into their startup, others rewarded their employees with a party, took a family vacation or did things around the house like put in a septic system. (Really.) One winner admitted to using the prize money to pay taxes. (Bummer.) A light, unexpected question ends an interview on a high note and may give you an interesting nugget for your story. On the other side of the coin, ending with a negative “gotcha” question is not the way to go.

4) Focus, focus, focus during the interview. Give the person you’re interviewing your complete attention. Listen to every word they say. Pay attention to their attitude, energy, and interest level. Even if it’s a phone interview, you can pick up far more usable info by focusing on words, inflection and energy. Doing so fuels follow-on questions as well as your ability to write a more nuanced blog, story, report, or whatever you’re working on.

5) After the interview, if you discover holes in your story, don’t be afraid to reach out with follow-on questions. The easiest way is via email, but if your interview has time to jump on a quick call, that’s the ideal situation. Follow-on questions also give the interview the opportunity to clarify important points. I’m currently writing a profile on a startup company and after going through my notes, discovered holes in the story line. I shot off a quick email and the entrepreneur was more than happy to fill in the blanks.

6) Finally, enjoy! Recently I landed a project that involves interviewing nine Notre Dame faculty entrepreneurs and the CEOs of their startup companies. The subject matter ranges from a revolutionary ankle brace that keeps football players on the field to a SaaS offering that helps companies use customer data to achieve more strategic messaging to microelectronic computer chip packages to block chain. I have met great people who enjoy sharing their journey! As someone who is a startup/entrepreneur geek, each interview has expanded my knowledge base and appreciation for the folks who create and commercialize tech.

Content marketing, public relations, and corporate/organizational communications relies on great storytelling. If you or your team don’t have time to create engaging, SEO-optimized content, I am happy to assist. Visit Lux-Writes portfolio to see samples of my work. Then let’s connect. Telling your stories is what I do best.

Call, text, email or complete a form. Whatever you do, don’t wait. let’s get started