All professional communicators have faced difficult interview subjects who can’t or won’t give you what you need.
Do you get tough with your questions like a reporter or a prosecutor?
Do you smile and nod and hope that you can somehow make sense of this later?
Do you walk away absolutely frustrated?
Consider, for example, a certain Subject Matter Expert. She’s a genius in her field and is somehow affiliated with your company. You and your team want to craft a multi-channel communications plan for her to use with audiences of, say, employees, media and investors. To do so, you need clarity and proper engagement from the expert, who doesn’t mean to be challenging, of course. She’s just not good at expressing her vision and she doesn’t understand why she frequently has to stop and explain things again.
Successful communicators are often the best listeners. They’re skilled at getting great thinkers to share those great thoughts, even those subjects who don’t want to or don’t know how to.
Click to Tweet: How to help when interview subjects have trouble communicating.
Here’s how to help. Try these easy tips I’ve gathered from doing countless interviews, first as a news reporter with VIPs of all kinds, and later as a corporate communicator with business leaders, allies and staff members of every rank. If you can master this, you’ll be able to help all kinds of people share all kinds of information. So everybody wins, including you.
1. Do your homework. Read everything you can about the person you’re interviewing. Read anything with his byline – even if he didn’t write it, he approved it. Watch all his videos. Also, talk to his associates if you can. Their insight can be invaluable.
2. Organize priorities. Get clear with the subject — and also with your boss or your team — about the priorities for the interview, how much time you’ll have, and if this is a one-off or the first of a series. That way you’ll be sure to know what everyone needs the most and get it.
3. Show respect. Let the person indicate if he wants to chat for a few minutes or get right down to business. Don’t interrupt or contradict, but also don’t kiss up or try to impress.
4. Remind him why you’re talking to him. Chances are, someone has already told him, of course. But he’s busy and might’ve forgotten or confused you with someone else. Be succinct and clear about what you need.
5. Ask for clarity. If the expert or leader seems to contradict himself or something in your notes, ask for a clarification. “I’m sorry … I thought the plan called for X, rather than Y … I must be confused. Can you help me understand?” Remember: If you don’t get it, no one will.
Click to Tweet: Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity. If you don’t understand, no one will.
6. Keep it simple by asking and maybe even re-asking the basic questions. “I want to be clear for everyone: What problem does this new product solve? I believe it’s this, based on the research I’ve done… Is that correct?”
7. Mix it up. Ask a variety of open-ended questions (“How do you feel about how things are shaping up?”) and direct questions (“Are you satisfied with these results?”)
8. Get a few soundbites. Some experts and advocates know what you need and are happy to help. For the others, though, try a suggestion like this: “So, would it be correct to say X-Y-Z…? I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but we need this to be short and clear.”
9. Wrap it up. Stick to the time allotted, unless the leader wants to extend. Thank him for his time and share your plans for review.
Now make it matter
Transcribe your notes and share with your supervisor and team. Plan a meeting to go over everything and suggest key nuggets for use – in, say, the annual report or next week’s newsletter. Fact-check anything you’re not sure about, or run it by legal before you distribute. Remember your internal approval process when crafting and executing the communications plan.
Do you need to suggest a follow-up interview? Make it a monthly thing? Should you send a videographer to the person’s next speech, to record some of his new-and-improved presentation for still more content uses?
In some cases, someone might decide to hire an outside expert to provide the person with intense media coaching. Or to assign much of the messaging to someone else.
But with the information and buy-in you’ve retrieved, the comms team will have what it needs — for clarity, relevance and accuracy.
And that’s really saying something.
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