Over the course of a few hundred interviews, we’ve learned a few things. For one, interviewing doesn’t always come naturally. It can be intimidating, time-consuming and awkward.
But learn to embrace the interview and wonderful things happen. Writing becomes faster and easier. Your content gains the competitive edge—expertise and authority—required to rank and stand out. You begin to build a network of experts from around the world, people happy to improve and advocate for your work.
To help you become a better interviewer, I chatted with Whitney Rhodes, a former journalist and Animalz's resident interviewing expert. She shared four simple strategies—covering research, interviewing, writing and publication—to help you interview someone for your next article.
1. Shelve the Ego and Ask the Questions Your Reader Would Ask
As an interviewer, your job is not to become a subject matter expert. Instead, you are a conduit for your readers’ questions.
This is different from how many writers prepare for an interview. The natural tendency is to research the topic as much as possible to avoid asking “dumb” questions and approach the interview as something like a peer. Instead of wasting precious interview time on questions that a quick Google search can address, many writers would rather use their newfound knowledge to steer the conversation in interesting directions.
But there are flaws in this thinking:
“Dumb” questions aren’t dumb. Basic questions are useful if they reflect what your reader needs to know. If your target reader is an aspiring entry-level sales rep, waxing lyrical on the nuances of qualification frameworks is less helpful than a clear, concise definition—and vice versa.
Interviewing is not an intellectual tête-à-tête. Unless you’re hosting an episode of Hot Ones, your job is to answer your readers’ questions, not entertain an audience or impress your interviewee. That means asking questions even if you know the answer. It takes a true subject matter expert to explain complex topics in simple language, and your answer will almost always be different than theirs.
Challenging assumptions unlocks new insight. If every interviewer skips over basic questions, they’re each building their writing on the same foundation—but what if that foundation is wrong? Asking “dumb” questions allows you to challenge basic assumptions and, often, unlocks new insights and ideas in the process—ideas other interviewers won’t have discovered.
When conducting research or preparing interview questions, use the reader as your guide. Don’t rely on your intuition to brainstorm good questions—ask, “Is this something my reader would care about? Does it make sense, given their level of experience?”
2. Hold a Conversation, Not a Q&A
Your research will yield a list of questions, but those questions shouldn’t be used as fodder for a rapid-fire Q&A session.
Good interviews function more like casual conversations—you’re guided by questions but able to change course when new ideas and opportunities present themselves to you. That means:
Use prepared questions as prompts, not as an agenda. Interview questions are like guide rails on a mountain path. They exist to stop you plummeting over the edge of the path, but they levy a cost—they stop you from wandering off the beaten track, just a little, to take in more interesting scenery. Return to your questions whenever the interview is at risk of meandering away from the core topic, but allow yourself the freedom to ask new questions whenever they make sense.
Let your subject matter expert (SME) guide you to better insights. Sticking doggedly to simple interview questions will generate simple, actionable content but make it harder to discover interesting angles, anecdotes and broader context. Your SME has years of experience, so let them be a guide to this uncharted terrain, pointing out the hidden valleys and scenic overlooks—contrarian opinions, powerful stories and useful frameworks that you wouldn’t otherwise discover.
Leave an open line of communication for future interviews. Q&A-style interviewing feels transactional—you’re using your SME for a single purpose, and once you have your information, you part ways. But conversational interviewing with open-ended questions allows you to build meaningful rapport with your SME, to learn more about their interests and ideas. This is great fodder for your writing, but it also begins to build a relationship—one that allows you to reconnect with your SME for future interviews.
Holding a conversation requires more focus than simply peppering your SME with black-and-white questions, and that’s where recording and transcription become essential. By using a recording device—a microphone for face-to-face interviews or software like Zoom for video calls—and recording your conversation, you can free up the “note-taking” part of your brain to focus on the conversation: responding to ideas, asking follow-up questions, and building rapport.
3. Sculpt a Persuasive Argument from Your Raw Material
The interviewee’s strength lies in their knowledge and experience, not in their ability to present a well-ordered argument. That’s your area of expertise.
Many interviewers write articles that mirror the flow of their interviews, but it’s a mistake to assume that your interview reflects the best way to structure your article. Your SME is likely not an expert in persuasive writing. Your task, as the writer, is to pick and choose from the interview’s raw material to create the most compelling, logical and MECE argument possible.
After the interview, follow this process:
Identify the core themes from your interview. Group related quotes together into a handful of big ideas that can serve as the basic structure of your article—the core steps in a process, the pros and cons of a particular tactic, or simply the most interesting stories raised in the interview.
Cut any ideas that don’t reinforce the main narrative. Most interviews will have a few asides or anecdotes that—though interesting—don’t strengthen your article’s primary argument. Cut them to prevent bloat and from muddying the waters of your article (but save them in your Idea Farm for later and possible inclusion in future articles).
Call out specific language to use as pull quotes. Some parts of your interview will be useful for structuring the general narrative—you’ll paraphrase them and work their contents into your writing indirectly. Others are useful to use as direct quotes, using the SME’s exact language as a catchy quote or illustrative example.
At the end of this structuring process, there’s a chance you’ll still have some information “gaps”—parts of your argument that need more information or social proof. This is a normal part of a successful interview, and the solution is straightforward: send follow-up questions to plug small gaps, or for bigger structural omissions, schedule a follow-up interview.
4. Make the Interviewee Sound Smart(er)
Once written, you’ll need sign-off from your interviewee (especially if you’re writing bylined content). Thankfully, you have a trick up your sleeve—you can use your writing to make your SME sound really smart.
As we explored above, your job is not to dump your SME’s quotes verbatim on a page—you need to structure them into something logical and compelling. That process can introduce friction: with every interview, there’s always a risk that the SME won’t recognize their ideas in the finished article. You can mitigate this risk by:
Using your SME’s idiosyncrasies within the article. The sparing use of your interviewee’s unique quirks—like their favorite idioms or their penchant for exclamation points—can make a bylined article feel more familiar and convey their personality in the finished piece.
Restate their own argument back to them in clearer terms. Like most humans, your interview subject will find the thrust of their argument gradually, often using your call to think out loud. Your writing should skip this exploratory process and present their finished argument in clear, organized language—making the SME sound even smarter in the process.
Recap the thesis of your article to get buy-in on the call. As you synthesize your interviewee’s comments and begin to construct the narrative of your article, try sharing it directly with your interviewee, live on the call. Explain the direction you intend to take their quotes, and give them the chance to explicitly buy-in—avoiding any potential surprises when they see the draft for the first time.
If you’re worried about getting buy-in for your finished article, remember that as a writer, you are offering your interviewee a hugely valuable service: you are giving shape to their ideas and articulating them in the clearest, most articulate way. Make your SME sound even smarter, and you’ll have an easier time getting your finished article published.
Interviewing Is Your Competitive Edge
Many companies view interview-driven content as a nice-to-have. But today, more than ever, interviewing is a necessity. The search results are getting more crowded by the day, stuffed with copycat content written by authors with no real experience in the topic. Firsthand experience is the most powerful differentiator at your disposal. In an ocean of theoretical arguments and armchair commentators, readers want to listen to the experts.
Embrace that mentality—and the better interview strategies covered here—and interviewing is no longer a checklist item or another hurdle on the path to your finished article. Instead, it’s your competitive edge, something that harnesses the power of true expertise to create better content.