Bland, impersonal, and lacking authority. Much of the content writers and marketers produce today fits that description. This is largely a result of people regurgitating existing content. Too few content creators go the extra mile to infuse humanity into their content by either:
- Sharing personal experiences
- Incorporating the experiences and expertise of others
But the ones who do end up with more engaging, trustworthy content. As a result, that content has increased potential to generate a return on investment (ROI) and drive business growth.
So, let’s talk about how you can create more unique, authoritative, and high-converting content. Specifically, we’ll focus on how to interview someone for an article and how to use the insights they share.
How to prepare to interview someone for an article
As with many things, there’s some preparation in order before you get to the actual task of interviewing. Here’s what this stage involves.
1. Determine who you’ll be interviewing
Whether you’re creating owned content or writing for another publication, there are few options for who to interview.
- Internal subject matter experts (SMEs): These are professionals from within the company or organization you’re writing for. Perhaps you work alongside these individuals or maybe—as in the case of many freelance writers—they’re recommended to you. Internal SMEs are especially valuable for thought leadership and company-specific content, as well as complex topics.
- External subject matter experts (SMEs): These are professionals not associated with the company or organization you’re writing for. You may have some of these individuals already within your network or you may need to find and contact them. In any case, they’re helpful for more general content. This includes articles on complex topics for which you have no internal experts to lend a hand.
- Customers or members of the target market: These are people represented by your buyer personas. They’re part of your target audience and potentially even customers of the company you’re writing for. Insights from these folks are invaluable for making sure that your content is aligned with the real circumstances, biggest challenges, and goals of your target audience. And their comments are also great in instances where you need support for your arguments or social proof that builds trust in whatever you’re promoting.
There’s a common thread across all three of these groups. It’s that the people you interview must have experiences and/or knowledge that qualifies them to contribute to your article. Therefore, when deciding who to contact for an interview, you may want to consider things like current or past job titles and educational background.
Plus, if you use websites like Qwoted or Help a B2B Writer, it’s wise to ask people who respond to provide some background on their relevant experience. That way, you can be sure the people you choose to interview will provide accurate, high-value information.
2. Research your topic thoroughly
If you’re not an expert, it’s also important to get a grip on the subject you’ll be writing about. This involves doing research so you can:
- Find and fill gaps in your own understanding
- Understand how the person you plan to interview may think of your topic
- Spot patterns such as truisms that a subject matter expert may want to address
- Identify potential angles that haven’t been explored yet or that haven’t been covered in an authoritative way
All of the above will enable you to ask thoughtful interview questions. And thoughtful interview questions beget thoughtful answers.
3. Make a list of questions for your interview subject
How do you write an interview question for an article? Keep these characteristics in mind. Good questions are:
- Clear. They use simple sentences and language appropriate for the person you’ll be interviewing. They’re based on an accurate or, at least, well-researched understanding of the topic. And they reveal the intention behind the ask. (To be clear, by “intention” I don’t mean that your questions should lead the interviewee to the answer you want. But they should make clear what aspect or nuance of a topic you want an opinion on and why.)
- Intentional. Their goal is to suss out strong opinions, credible firsthand experiences, and personal observations that allow you to benefit from the credibility of the individuals you interview. You’re not just looking for quotes providing basic, common-knowledge information that would’ve been included in your article anyway if you hadn’t conducted an interview.
- Relevant. They focus on key subtopics or the core questions your article will answer. Sure, there are always a dozen other questions you could ask. However, you have to balance being respectful of your interview subjects’ time with extracting the comments that will take the quality of your article to a higher level. That requires laser focus on the arguments on which your whole article hinges. Discuss those first and, if time permits, cover side points.
- Require explanation: Yes or no questions don’t offer any useful insights with which to enhance your article. Ask interview questions in a way that requires interviewees to expand on why they do or don’t believe or do something.
- Open-ended. As I said, your job is not to lead interviewees to give predetermined answers you have in mind. It’s to get their unfiltered thoughts. Ask open-ended questions that give them the freedom to respond openly and honestly. Not only will your content be more credible, but you may end up with some unexpected hot takes that will better your article.
That said, the way you frame your interview questions affects the quality and usability of the responses you’ll get in return. For example, I’ve noticed that, especially with written interviews, people tend to mimic the phrasing of my questions in their responses. If my questions aren’t written in a way that mirrors how I’ll introduce related quotes in my article, it increases the chances I’ll need edits.
Similarly, the phrasing I use often dictates how unique and interesting an interviewee’s responses will be. For example, an interviewee will likely give me a spicier take if I ask for “the most underrated tip for doing [X]” rather than just “a tip.” So, while you don’t want to put words in a SMEs mouth, you do need to make clear the general kind of information you’re interested in.
Want to see some examples of questions that do the above?
Questions for understanding an interviewee’s general opinions
- What’s the single most important step for/component of success with [X]?
- What’s the biggest mistake people make with [X], what are the consequences, and what’s your best tip for avoiding that pitfall?
- What’s the worst-case scenario if [X]?
- What would be your advice for [X kind of person] in [Y] situation?
- What features/capabilities must [X tool] have to [achieve Y outcome]?
Questions for uncovering unpopular opinions
- Are there any accepted “truths” about [X] that you disagree with? If so, what’s your viewpoint, and what evidence or experience supports it?
- What’s the most overrated [best practice/concept/narrative] related to [your topic]? Please explain.
- Do you think it’s possible to do [X hard/uncommon thing] and, if so, how?
- What are some surprising ways in which [X] and [Y] can influence one another (for good or for bad)?
Questions related to an interviewee’s personal experiences
- How do you do or accomplish [X] without [encountering Y challenge] or despite [having Z limitation]?
- What has been your biggest win/loss from [X], and what did it teach you?
- What surprising results have you gotten from [X], and what do you think contributed to them?
Of course, there are many more questions you could ask. But these will give you a good start, so feel free to adapt them as necessary.
Conducting the interview: 5 steps for success
At this stage, it’s showtime. Here are some tips on how to run a good interview, whether it’s your first time or your 500th.
1. Record the conversation
For live conversations, don’t rely on your memory. For one thing, it can fail you. For another, you’re going to want direct quotes. So, you’ll need to be able to transcribe the discussion manually afterward or use a tool like Otter to do it for you.
For virtual interviews, platforms like Zoom and Google Meet have a recording option (sometimes with the option to record all conversations automatically). But, for face-to-face interviews and phone interviews, always have a recording device on you. And, if necessary, set a reminder for yourself, so you don’t forget to turn it on. In any case, always record.
2. Establish a rapport with the interviewee
During live convos—especially if you don’t have a prior relationship—it’s important to put interviewees at ease. Try starting with friendly conversation and introductions to calm any nerves they (or you) might have.
3. Share background information on your article
Before you jump right into the questions you’ve prepared, give the interviewee some basic information on:
- Who your target audience is
- The goal of the article
- The angle you plan to take or want their input on
The first two will help them provide more relevant, helpful responses to your questions. This means more useable information for you and less finagling to get quotes to fit seamlessly into your article. The third—sharing how you plan to approach the topic—serves the same purpose. But it’ll also give your interviewee an early opportunity to correct your understanding if they disagree. This will allow you time to rework your questions and redirect the conversation to determine a better angle.
4. Steer the interview (but not too much)
Once your interviewee understands what you need from them and you’re both on the same page, you can get to the good part. The questions you prepared should be your guide, making sure you cover all relevant aspects of the topic within the allotted time. But they shouldn’t necessarily be the only questions you ask.
Don’t be afraid to let the conversation progress organically or to ask follow-up questions if you need more information or clarification.
5. Confirm your understanding by restating SME responses
As an interviewer, you have a responsibility to accurately represent the viewpoints and experiences of the people you interview. Therefore, you need to coax out the clearest explanations possible, both for your own understanding and your audience’s.
Restating what your interviewees say can be helpful. You’ll get either confirmation or correction of your understanding. Plus, you may get additional information or a more refined quote.
After the interview: What happens next?
Post-interview, you’ll need to work out the best way to use the information you gathered. You can do that in two steps.
1. Map out your narrative
Ideally, you shouldn’t be trying to stick interview subjects’ comments wherever they’ll fit in a near-finished article draft. For the most cohesive, logical flow, it’s best to collect those quotes during the outlining stage. This is a more efficient way to work as well. After all, if necessary, it’s an awful lot easier to tweak an outline than to have to rewrite entire sections.
That said, paste your interviewee’s comments into your outline where they fit best. Nothing else is required at this stage. Just plug them in where they make the most sense. Once you do, you’ll have a high-level overview of the flow of your article, which will help you stay on track as you tackle the writing.
2. Determine what comments to use and how
Next, decide which insights from your interview will make it into the final article and how they’ll be used. You can generally categorize comments into three buckets. Some will be:
- Context for you—the writer—to shape your understanding of a topic. You can trim these from your draft or pop them into another document if you need to reference them again. In any case, get them out of your way so they don’t clutter the doc you’re working in.
- Explanations and information you can share indirectly. Unless you’re sharing a transcript of your interview, you don’t want an article drowning in quotes. That can make the flow of your article harder to follow. Especially if quotes come from multiple interviewees and readers need to keep up with who said what. So, use comments indirectly when possible. You can most easily do this with quotes that share common knowledge or background information.
Take, for example, the quote “When I was working at [X company], I had [Y experience] and I realized [realization].” This could become, “While working at X company, Jane Doe experienced Y. This is what she had to about [Z aspect of the experience]: ‘I realized [realization].'”
As long as you’re not misrepresenting your interviewee’s unique ideas or experiences as your own, this type of indirect usage and paraphrasing makes for a smoother read. It provides natural transitions and context instead of giving readers the feeling that they’re being talked at endlessly.
- Best used as direct quotes. These are typically the most personal, unique, or hard-hitting insights, experiences, and opinions of your interview subjects. They’re the strongest, clearest evidence that a person is qualified to speak on your topic—whether they’re an SME or have relevant experiences as a member of your target market or customer base.
Once you know how you’ll use the information you gathered during your interview, start drafting the rest of your article.
Level up your articles by incorporating insights from interviews
Interviewing subject matter experts or members of your target audience for articles can have many positive effects. One, it sets your content apart from the cookie-cutter stuff already available on your topic. Two, it can strengthen the arguments you make in your content, helping you earn the trust of readers. That trust can boost engagement with your content, allow you time to establish relationships and nurture leads, help drive revenue from your blog, etcetera.
But for the interviews you conduct to be fruitful, you need to:
- Prepare well beforehand, being intentional about the questions you ask and how you frame them
- Create a comfortable environment for interviewees
- Ensure that you and your interviewee are on the same page throughout the conversation
- Be thoughtful about where and how to use interviewee comments
If you do all the above, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of improved content quality. But what if you find that interviewing isn’t up your alley or you don’t have the time to see the process through? It may be time to partner with an agency like ours (with writers who run successful interviews pretty much weekly). To see if that may be the right move for you, check out our services and approach, and book a free strategy call with us.