Four women grouped together for a photo

The Art of (Any) Interview: Lessons from Ana Marie Cox

As pub­lic rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als, it’s no secret how much our indus­try has changed over the years, but one thing has always stayed the same: We help tell our clients’ stories.

Some mem­bers of the Bell­mont Part­ners team had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend time with polit­i­cal colum­nist and cul­ture crit­ic Ana Marie Cox as part of the Loft Lit­er­ary Cen­ter’s Sat­ur­day work­shops. Cox has a pod­cast called “With Friends Like These,” where she con­ducts inter­views with peo­ple from a vari­ety of polit­i­cal, racial and reli­gious back­grounds and she spent more than two years as the New York Times Magazine’s Talk colum­nist. In the work­shop, she shared many of the learn­ings she’s accu­mu­lat­ed through­out her career about how to be a great inter­view­er, but there was one that res­onat­ed most strong­ly with us: Be curious.

As a team of 14 nat­u­ral­ly curi­ous indi­vid­u­als – sev­er­al of whom are for­mer jour­nal­ists – we real­ized much of what Cox shared is some­thing we apply to our work already, but her expe­ri­ences real­ly inspired us to stoke the flames of curios­i­ty when it comes to inter­view­ing and ask­ing ques­tions of our clients, their cus­tomers and oth­er audi­ences, no mat­ter if we’re writ­ing an arti­cle, blog post, newslet­ter or white paper.

Below are a few tips Ana Marie shared to struc­ture our inter­views in a way that allows us to be curi­ous and sets us up for suc­cess in the inter­views we conduct.

Break the ice by reveal­ing “the secret.” At the begin­ning of an inter­view, let your inter­view sub­ject in on “the secret,” or your focus for the sto­ry, so you can estab­lish trust with the inter­vie­wee. Share your over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion and what you (and your read­ers) are curi­ous about.

By iden­ti­fy­ing the interview’s inten­tion upfront with the inter­view sub­ject, you can stream­line the ques­tions to focus on the subject’s lived expe­ri­ences and build trust. We fre­quent­ly inter­view clients to iden­ti­fy key back­ground infor­ma­tion to high­light while devel­op­ing award nom­i­na­tions. Often­times, award nom­i­na­tions can be very in-depth, and we need to learn quite a bit about how an executive’s career was shaped, what fac­tors con­tributed to their growth, how they give back to their com­mu­ni­ty and more. Our client PeopleNet’s EVP & CTO Mark Bot­ti­cel­li was just named a final­ist for the Min­neapo­lis Orbie Awards, one exam­ple of our inter­view and sto­ry­telling work in an award nom­i­na­tion. As soon as we began the inter­view, we walked Bot­ti­cel­li through the award cri­te­ria, and our ques­tions were designed to gath­er exact­ly the right information.

Devel­op and pri­or­i­tize ques­tions ahead of time. Gen­er­al­ly, prepar­ing 20 ques­tions will give you about an hour of inter­view con­ver­sa­tion. By pri­or­i­tiz­ing, you can make sure to get to the ques­tions that will help you answer your big ques­tion with­in the allot­ted time. Often­times, the answers can lead to a new line of dis­cus­sion and add essen­tial infor­ma­tion to the sto­ry that wasn’t orig­i­nal­ly planned.

The interview’s qual­i­ty of ques­tions helps shape where the piece will go, and it’s impor­tant to cap­ture the inter­view subject’s pas­sion behind the top­ic by ask­ing the right ques­tions. By lay­ing the ground­work and prepar­ing good ques­tions that are specif­i­cal­ly craft­ed to help dri­ve the con­ver­sa­tion in pos­i­tive ways, we can be very effi­cient with our inter­view subject’s time. We often inter­view an expert source for just 15 or 20 min­utes and take the essence of the con­ver­sa­tion to cap­ture their per­spec­tive, tone and point of view on a top­ic before devel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive, ful­ly real­ized piece of con­tent. We recent­ly put this approach to work by col­lab­o­rat­ing with our client Mod­ern Pro­mos on an arti­cle that ran on last month. By ask­ing the right ques­tions, togeth­er we were able to craft an arti­cle that includ­ed vibrant, applic­a­ble infor­ma­tion from the ini­tial interview.

Prac­tice makes per­fect! It sounds like a no-brain­er, but when it comes to inter­view­ing, the more you prac­tice, the eas­i­er it’ll become. No two inter­views will be the same and each one will bring up new chal­lenges to nav­i­gate and inter­est­ing tid­bits to ful­fill your curiosity.

We’re look­ing for­ward to putting these tips and many more into prac­tice as we con­tin­ue to exer­cise our innate sense of curios­i­ty and have great con­ver­sa­tions with our clients, their cus­tomers and oth­er valu­able indus­try experts and pro­duce con­tent that informs, per­suades and sparks action.

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