Testimonials Matter, So Does Knowing How To Conduct An Interview
My background is not in journalism. In fact, for several years, I worked for the U.S. Air Force and my job had nothing to do with conducting interviews. However, my job had a lot to do with messaging and communicating to the public.
What I learned is that testimonials are incredibly powerful for messaging and bringing credibility to an organization. They help put a spot light on mission and purpose. Perhaps you are pushing out a product or service: having testimonials of any kind (video, audio, print) are going to help establish your credibility.
At present, I lead communications for a non-profit organization with A LOT of stakeholders. Similar to my military experience, gathering testimonials has become a critical part of my job.
In my opinion, there is no better tool for sharing our organization's mission, vision, services, and product-line than allowing others to share their experience on our behalf. That said, I spend a lot of time talking to our stakeholders to see what they are getting out of their investment in us.
If you would like to conduct interviews but do not know where to start, here are a few suggestions for you:
1. Understand your messaging goals first
When you conduct an interview, you should have some idea of what you are trying to get out of the person. I look for ways to prime the type of response I am looking for, and narrow their answer to a specific topic or theme that I am trying to pull out of them. Let's say, for example, your goal is to understand his or her experience at an event (hopefully, it is positive!). Take a look at the two examples below on how that question might be asked:
1. “How was your experience today?”
2. “Today, you experienced X event focused on helping you with X problem. What skills or knowledge did you gain that will help you move forward?”
If you ask the first question, you’re probably going to get a short answer. If she had a bad experience with ANYTHING, don’t be surprised if that’s what she talks about.
When I was first starting out, I asked a short question like this and the individual I was interviewing complained to me about the lunch she was served. But, if you ask the second question (with a position of context) you'll get a more focused answer.
2. Be prepared
I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of interviews, and there’s nothing worse than talking with someone that either doesn’t know what they are asking, or is staring at a notepad and unsure of themselves. It would behoove you to be familiar with the person you are interviewing to some extent, at least enough to understand why you choose them for an interview.
Also, if you're using A/V equipment. Make sure you know how to operate it and that it is in good, working order before you start an interview.
3. Will this interview prove or support your organizations’ mission?
I think this is worth thinking about. If your mission statement is to bring happiness to penguins, shouldn’t the interview have something to do with that? Can the person you are talking to testify you’ve brought happiness to penguins?
The substance of your meaty questions should be reflective of your organization's purpose and mission. Using the two examples provided above under #1: if my organization's mission is to equip individuals with skills and knowledge to solve some sort of problem, then the second question is entirely appropriate and reflective of the mission.
4. Be intentional with who you select for an interview
I usually conduct my interviews in two ways: through video conferencing or in-person at events. If I’m at the event, I try to be situationally aware of what the folks in the room are doing and their individual level of engagement. This doesn’t mean you have to go for the loudest person in the room, but you'll notice individuals who seem detached, and they may not be the best fit.
Usually, my video conferencing interviews are scheduled and there’s a good reason why I have requested the interview. I pay attention to what I hear on social media and what comes across my inbox.
From time-to-time, somebody will send something that really catches my attention and warrants a request for an interview. That way, I can ask them to elaborate and once again tie my line of questions back to our mission.
On the flip-side, I often interview people that I think might have something critical to say. I do this because it is in the best interest of the organization to listen to critics and naysayers in order to get to the bottom of why they feel the way they do.
In some cases where a theme arises, I’ve seen my organization change our approach. Additionally, I think critics are appreciative when I take the time to talk to them and listen to their concerns. In many instances, I’ve seen critics become advocates after sharing their frustrations.
5. Set folks at ease
At least 50% of the time people start to feel a bit anxious when I clip a microphone on their shirt and point the camera in their direction. I try to be as relaxed as possible when I talk to them, and I’ll actually start by talking with them about something completely off-topic.
The last interview I did, I took two minutes to ask her where she was from to get to know him a little bit. She looked super tense at first, but loosened up as the off-topic conversation went on.
It’s also helpful to make someone smile, and let them know that if they “mess up,” they can just take a deep breath and start over (unless it is live!). By the time I got to the actual interview questions, she was smiling and out-going, and had confidence that I wouldn’t make this a terrible experience for her.
If they do mess up, just smile and let them know it’s all good, and ask if they want to hear the question again. On that note, having post-production skills is going to be beneficial.
6. Listen and ask follow up questions
Follow up questions are not only great for clarification, but if you are intently listening – your interviewee may breeze over a topic quickly that may be valuable. You can use a follow-up question to ask him or her to elaborate:
“You just mentioned that you thought X was unique. Can you tell me more about why you think that and how that might help with X end-goal?”
7. Get a signed media release!
Usually, when I’m meeting folks in person – they’ve already signed a media release we’ve sent out ahead of time. At events, we include the media release in our registration process. But, I always carry a few extras with me just in case.
8. Follow-up once you’re ready to release the interview product.
This is a great time to thank them again for participating in the interview. Before I release an interview, I also contact the individual to let them know where they’ll be able to find it and when. Most of the time, they are excited. But most importantly, I ask if they have a communications person I can work with to help push the release. There are a lot of benefits to doing this:
1. It builds trust between people and between organizations
2. It will help maximize exposure
3. You may earn media as a result. Often times, the interviews I conduct will also end up in different forms. I’ve seen video interviews get turned into short stories placed in a newsletter, etc…
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