Tutorial: how to interview like a pro business journalist, part 1

interview,business information,interviewee,howtowritebetter.net,tutorialWelcome to the first in a series of HTWB tutorials where we go into some detail about a particular business writing or writing-related activity, so after just a short time you’ll have all the skills you need to go out there and do it yourself – brilliantly.

This time we look at interviewing techniques … not for job seekers or hard-nosed door-stepping reporting, but for business interviews. Here’s Part 1, with the concluding part next week …

In modern business there are numerous reasons why we need to interview people face-to-face (whether in real life or over Skype, FaceTime, Google Plus Hangout, etc.) for information purposes, rather than in an employment interview context. The most obvious requirements are those for audio and video purposes – to get people’s opinions, testimonials, ideas, feedback from research exercises, and many more.

We also need to interview people if we want to use their views in text form for such things as websites, blogs, articles, email marketing, corporate brochures, press releases, information packs, testimonials in promotional literature, training manuals, white papers, etc.

Finally, knowing how to interview for information purposes is very useful as a research tool, even if all you need from the outcome is a few notes. The following tips will help you obtain the right sort of information, in the minimum amount of time.

Never, never make it up

The bad old days where you, as a business person and/or marketer, could mock up an interviewee’s quote are – thankfully – long since dead and buried. Testimonials, in particular, are a controversial area at the best of times.

As we’ve seen elsewhere here on HTWB, the only way you can make them credible is by using the real words that real people say. And that applies to just about any other form of real quotation that you will use for whatever business purpose.

Employment-type or hard-nosed reporters’ interview techniques don’t work

With job interviews you obviously have a very clear-cut agenda, and may justifiably seek to put the interviewee under some pressure to see how s/he performs. In information interviews, pressure is the last thing you need. The skills required by the interviewer here are entirely different.

The same applies to interviewing done by news reporters, which often seeks to put pressure on the interviewee too. In the reporter’s case it’s not to see how the interviewee performs under pressure, but to be adversarial – to try to wrong-foot them and catch them off guard. This makes for more “interesting” TV, radio, online or press content.

Forget scripts: they always make an interview seem false and insincere

Some people – particularly producers of video or audio material and their clients – think they will save time and effort by getting someone to write suggested responses for the interviewee to say. This is sheer lunacy.

In my long experience of writing and interviewing for video and audio programs I have never once known even a talented actor come over naturally when quoting pre-written “spontaneous” lines. When we get to ordinary folks reading their “spontaneous” responses, the whole thing descends into a hilarious fiasco. And that has a nasty way of translating across to text versions of “spontaneous” quotes, too.

What other issues are there to consider?

Corporate politics, for one. You may face one of the following two problems:

1.The person is a client or one of your superiors. In asking questions you may be tempted to be too formal, too hesitant, and maybe even grovel a bit – it’s hard to feel on equal terms with the person who sanctions the bank transfer for your salary or fees. Yet you must be on equal terms to get a good information interview.

2.The person is well below you in the corporate pecking order. They may well feel that you’re one of the “bosses” so the responses you get to your questions may be what they think you want to hear – rather than the naked truth. And the process of being interviewed may scare the pants off them, too. This is bad news. Very nervous interviewees talk in squeaky voices and tend to babble nonsense, which you don’t need.

Sometimes it’s worth getting an independent person to do such interviewing for you, because people usually open up more to a corporate outsider than to someone who is a fully paid-up colleague. But don’t worry, there are ways of avoiding that one. Read on!

Preparing your questions

 The questions you prepare before doing an interview should be not so much questions, as a list of fairly thorough bullet points. And especially if you’re working on video or audio, it’s preferable to put your questions in the correct order, in which you want the outcome interview to flow. (Makes editing easier.)

What you need to do is analyse the person you’re going to interview, and the contribution s/he can make, as against the information you need to see conveyed in the interview. Let’s suppose you’re making a retail staff recruitment video for a large chain of stores, and you need an interview with a typical store manager.

First of all, here’s your analysis of the person and her/his potential contribution:

Experienced store manager; knows what’s expected of store staff and the types of person who are most successful

  • Has good experience of customers and what they expect from staff
  • Has worked her/his way up through the management hierarchy, starting at the bottom as a sales assistant
  • Is a good leader and encourages staff to go on training courses and seek promotion
  • Is an ambitious person her/himself and is likely to come across in “management speak” rather than in the terms potential store staff will identify with

Now, look at what you want and need to get out of this interview:

The viewpoint of someone who is “management,” but still works at the sharp end dealing with customers

  • How it feels to have started from the bottom and worked up to store manager level
  • The opportunities for career progression within the store group
  • What qualities are needed by store staff if they are to be successful

Here are the bullet points you might develop out of all that, in a logical flow.

  • Description of how s/he started and how her/his career progressed
  • What sort of training s/he had
  • Why s/he chose to work towards being a manager
  • What is it that makes a good sales assistant
  • What the customer expects from sales assistants
  • What advice s/he would give to anyone thinking of joining the company as a sales assistant

Handling the interviewee’s hidden agenda

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Decide if your interviewee has a hidden agenda

We know that the interviewee concerned is very experienced and competent, but if left to her/his own devices is likely to aim her/his answers at the senior managers who will see, hear or read her/his responses. This is because s/he is ambitious and wants to get noticed.

So what we do here is prepare questions that will ensure the interviewee makes a contribution that is valid for potential sales assistants. Posing questions about the person’s own career progression will impress the audience/readers.

The answers about what makes a good sales assistant and what the customer expects are likely to elicit “management speak,” but in this case that’s OK – we want the audience/readers to know that standards here are very professional.

Finally the advice s/he could give the audience is probably going to come from the heart; people love to give advice, and in this instance statements about it being great fun but hard work are probably true (good for the audience/readers) and likely to impress senior managers favourably (good for the interviewee’s promotion prospects.)

Leave your questions loose

Don’t be too rigid in your phrasing of questions. There’s a good reason for this; sometimes in answering one question, an interviewee will move on and answer another one you haven’t even asked yet. Keep yourself flexible.

The warm-up: an essential part you must get right

You may or may not have met the person before, but whichever is the case there is one golden rule about information interviewing that you must follow no matter what. It comes in two parts, and here they are:

1.The interviewee is the most interesting and important person in your entire life.
2.If the interview is going to work, the interviewee must believe that s/he is the most interesting and important person in your life. And because people are not stupid and can smell falsehood from a mile away, you must believe this too.

I’m not joking. If you believe this, your interview will work. If you don’t, it won’t.

One of the most important parts of the warm up, especially when this is the first time you’ve ever met the interviewee, is for you and her/him to establish a good rapport. Naturally you will need to talk about the interview, so that your interviewee knows what to expect.

But once you have accomplished that I think it’s a good idea to stop talking about the interview, and use the remaining warm-up time to get to know the interviewee as a person. Ask her/him about her/his job, hobbies, children, local area, or anything that gets them talking without, obviously, intruding on their privacy.

A friendly chat like this certainly helps to break the ice and provided that you’re a good conversationalist, will make the interviewee feel that s/he knows you quite well. That helps a lot in making the final interview come across in a relaxed and natural manner.

3 further key tips on how to approach the interview

1.You may well have prepared a formal list of questions to ask your interviewee, and that’s fine. What isn’t fine is to show or email the list to her/him. You may well get pressurized to do this by your boss, her/his boss, or someone else. However in my experience to do so is a killer, because the interviewee’s responses will not be truly spontaneous. By all means outline the topics you’re going to cover – that’s perfectly OK. But how you phrase the questions must be kept under your hat, so the answers are fresh.

2.If your interview is to show the interviewee on camera, do yourself and the program editors a favour and tell your interviewee NOT to answer any of your questions with a “yes” or a “no.” (When the interview is edited later, your questions may well be cut out. If the interviewee starts a response with a “yes” or a “no,” there may not be a question preceding it – which makes it sound odd.) Obviously you will structure your questions so that a “yes/no” answer is not relevant, but some interviewees answer with a “yes” or a “no” anyway. What you need from her/him is a statement.

3.Another point only relevant to on-camera interviews … tell your interviewee to look at you, not the camera. There’s nothing that makes someone look more shifty and untrustworthy than if their eyes are flicking back and forth between you and the camera lens.

Starting the interview

The first question to ask (at least in my own experience) is a “discard” question. This is because no matter how experienced and well prepared the interviewee might be, s/he may well still be a bit nervous and unsettled at the beginning.

So, you ask a general question as a “bum settler” – the response to which you don’t really need for the final outcome. Sometimes, not very often though, the response you get to the first “discard” question is very useful. In that case, keep it for later. However don’t get your hopes up on this one.

Phrasing your questions

Although we don’t use journalistic interviewing techniques for business-related information interviews, there is one leaf we can take out of their book. And that is, the formula for asking questions that do not demand a “yes/no” answer. These questions are phrased with the following prefixes:


There’s no reason why, though, you shouldn’t start your question with a bit of a preamble to get the ball rolling. For example, the wrong way:

YOU: How will the training course benefit your staff?
TRAINING MANAGER: By showing them how to serve the customer better and more effectively. After all, that’s what we’re in business for.

…not the response you wanted from that particular question., Here’s how I would lead the training manager into the question, so s/he has no doubt as to the response I’m expecting:

YOU: Now obviously, Mr Bloggs, the main objective of the course is to help your staff give better service to the customer. But how exactly will the course benefit staff themselves?
TRAINING MANAGER: The course will help staff to do their jobs better, which means they get more satisfaction out of helping the customer. And by doing their jobs better, of course, they’ll be in a stronger position if they happen to be looking for promotion.

In Part 2 of this HTWB Tutorial we look at:

  1. Specific types of question
  2. Slippery slopes: pressing the point
  3. Return questions
  4. The unforeseen response
  5. Closing the interview
  6. Some further points
  7. Doing interviews by email (also see this article)
  8. Interviewing someone you know well

See you next time!





  1. I recall interviewing thrill-seeker Nik Halik when I was a TOTAL newb Suzan. His press team sent me a list of questions, told me I needed to stick to them, I ignored them, researched him, and voila…after doing 10 interviews that day, he said he was sick of the questions, told me to ask others, and I was prepared. My first lesson in spontaneity and interviews 😉 Awesome post!

    • Thank Heavens you had the presence of mind to come up with your own questions, Ryan. Personally I think it’s very arrogant of press teams to supply the questions; they should be willing to look at yours and say yes or no, assuming the “celeb” isn’t bright enough to deal with questions spontaneously! Glad you like this tutorial – don’t forget to come back next week for part two.


  1. […] Testimonials about you/your business come in all shapes and sizes. […]