By Kevin Gault
You’re working on an important white paper project and it’s time to interview a subject-matter expert. You not only need to get a lot of information from the interview, it has to be the right stuff. What’s the best way to do an interview to get everything you need?
Top white-paper writers have strategies for conducting interviews that elicit the information they want. We asked a few of the best to give us their take on this important part of white-paper writing.
According to Gordon Graham, who figures he’s interviewed more than 2,500 people for white papers, case studies and magazine articles, the first step is to get your hands on as much background information as you can. “Ask for any written information in advance—white papers, PowerPoints, case studies, marketing plans, analyst reports, press releases or news stories. Scan all of this information before your interview to get a feel for what the company and its product are about as well as the business problems the product is designed to solve.”
Follow a Plan
Next, it’s time to plan your interview. White-paper specialist Jonathan Kantor who established his successful firm the Appum Group eight years ago, doesn’t leave this to chance—he follows a detailed structure.
“First, I send the subject-matter experts a list of generic questions designed to make them think about what I’ll be asking them so they can prepare for the call,” Kantor explains. “Then I break up my questions into four sections.”
Kantor—who strongly advises recording every phone interview—creates questions that address these areas:
* Situational understanding and needs assessment: These questions help Kantor understand the dynamics of readers. Will they respond best to a high-level approach or will a generic tone work better?
* Specific challenges: These questions seek to identify the top three or four challenges in the client’s marketplace and get a few examples of those problems.
* Understanding the Solution: “I’ll start these questions by asking the person to give me a high-level overview of their product’s differentiation versus their competitors,” Kantor says. He adds questions that tell how the solution addresses marketplace challenges.
* Conclusion/Summary: With this set of questions, Kantor asks the subject-matter expert to provide three key bottom-line business benefits that will create interest in the product.
When it comes to specific questions, copywriter and consultant for software companies Ed Gandia of Gandia Communications, Inc.uses questions that lead to long, thoughtful answers: “Almost all of my questions are open-ended. I want the client to open up and give me as much information as possible within the parameters of the piece we’re looking to craft. I always use an inverted pyramid approach in which I ask broader questions first and move on to more detailed questions as the interview progresses.”
OK, you’ve started the interview and it’s going well—until the client trails off and gabs in time-consuming detail about something that has nothing to do with your paper. “This is probably the hardest aspect of interviewing, because you never know when someone who sounds like they’re wandering off is going to reward you with a choice nugget that brings it all home,” says Graham.
“It’s usually best to ask the client, ‘Do you think we should mention that in the white paper?’ If he or she says no, then gently get back on track by saying, ‘I appreciate that, but let’s get back to the main topic of the white paper. I don’t want to take up too much of your time and we still have a lot to cover today,’” explained Graham.
Step By Step
Kantor adds that well-chosen interview questions can keep the interviewee moving in the right direction. “With my questions, I’m trying to get subject-matter experts to think logically,” he explains. “I use my questions to get them to think in a step-by-step manner. It’s like laying cobblestones on a path from point A to point B—you have to lay them out so the person can see exactly how you intend to arrive at the white paper’s destination, which is convincing the reader of the viability of the company’s solution.”
Gandia feels that the right questions help interviewees do the job on their own: “I’ve found that when you ask the right questions and keep the client focused, you can get out of the way and they’ll tell the story wonderfully well. This approach helps the client tell the story in his or her own words, and that’s half the battle. After that, your job is to arrange all those pieces into a clean story that flows well and accomplishes the stated objective.”
You can’t go wrong by taking the advice of these experts. Before the interview, review as much background information as you can. Create a detailed plan for the interview, use open-ended questions and tactfully keep the interviewee on track.
Follow these tips—as well as those contained in Chapter 4 (”Interviewing”) of Michael Stelzner’s book Writing White Papers—and you’ll conduct interviews that will bring you the information you need and bring your clients back for more.