Storytelling and public relations go hand in hand. While PR pros spend most days pitching stories to the media on behalf of our clients, we also have to collect testimonials and quotes and write blog posts, case studies, and other materials that tell a story about an organization.
As a PR pro, I’ve had many opportunities to put on my reporter hat and interview interesting people from a variety of backgrounds. I have interviewed parents, teachers, high school grads, CEOs, economists, senior citizens, donut shop owners, farmers, and fitness coaches — all with unique and inspiring stories to share.
I remember when I scheduled my first interview for a press release. I was a little nervous because I didn’t want to miss any information. Fast-forward several years and dozens of interviews later, and I’ve gained lots of practice and found some helpful tips for conducting an interview — and have it be successful.
1. Plan your questions in advance
The best way to prepare for an interview is to draft at least three to five questions ahead of time. If possible, do a little research on the person so you’re familiar with their background. Even a quick LinkedIn or Google search can offer some background information to help shape the interview.
2. Schedule a phone interview, if possible
I find the best way to capture conversations is through phone interviews. While I have done many email interviews, and they can be useful, phone interviews help you understand the voice of the person you’re interviewing. You can also get immediate clarification or additional information that you can’t get through an email.
3. Figure out your best note-taking tool
For me, I always use my laptop to take notes during interviews. Sometimes, I’ll record an interview in case the topic is very complex or if there are many details to capture.
4. Ask the interviewee to spell their name
Names are easy to misspell, even if they are common. I always ask interviewees to spell their names at the beginning of the interview. You never know if a person spells their name “John” or “Jon” without asking.
5. It’s OK to deviate from your questions
Sometimes, the best interviews happen when you have a genuine conversation. If you happen to deviate from your questions in the natural flow of conversation, you may uncover some interesting information or connections. For instance, you may find out the person you’re interviewing for a story used to work at the same summer camp as you long ago, or maybe you both grew up in neighboring cities. Remember to let interviews flow. You never know where the conversation will go.
6. Embrace silence or awkward conversations
If interviewing doesn’t come naturally to you or is something you don’t feel comfortable doing, that’s OK. There will be awkward silences — it happens to all of us. When conducting an interview, sometimes it will feel like pulling teeth to get a response out of someone, too. However, embrace the discomfort and try your best to get some quotes you can use.
7. Ask for clarification
If there was an important detail you think you missed, it’s OK to ask for clarification. You can also read what you wrote down to have the interviewee confirm if it’s accurate.
8. End interviews with “anything else you’d like to add?”
Sometimes people will say no, but this is usually the question that can pull out gold nuggets of information. I’ve found that some people leave their most profound quote until the end when they are talking candidly.
9. Polish up the quotes
An important tip to remember when conducting an interview is people don’t talk like they write. When quoting someone for a story or press release, you’re typically not using a transcription of their quote unless it’s perfect. Usually, you need to tweak some grammar or combine two sentences into one.
When writing for PR, you can make tweaks to a quote before sending it back to the interviewee for final review. This leads me to my last tip …
10. Never publish a quote without final approval
Remember, this is writing for public relations. In journalism, reporters typically do not send you the story or quotes for final review before publishing. In fact, this almost never happens unless the reporter offers.
When writing for public relations, however, always get quote approvals before using one in your piece. Even if it’s verbatim from your interview, send it over to the person for approval. Almost 99% of the time they will approve right away and they will appreciate you reaching out.