To master the message, master the interview

To master the message, master the interview
November 16, 2014 Beth Nyland

Have you ever …

  • Summarized the work of a team, hoping your perspective matched your colleagues’ experience?
  • Written a message or presentation on behalf of an executive, praying they would approve your draft with minimal revision?
  • Grasped at straws, trying to describe a product or program even though you weren’t privy to all the planning conversations? *

If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you must be a business writer. Occasionally, you get to write your own truth in your own words. But most of the time, you’re representing someone else’s ideas on the page.

Business writers can’t be hermits.

We don’t operate in isolation. We produce messages in the midst of work.

That’s why we need to be masterful interviewers.

Picture this: You’ve been asked to write a clear, compelling message about a concept or program or vision. You’re scheduled for 30 minutes with the smart, busy executive who created that concept, kicked off that program, or conceived of that vision. How will you use the time?

1. Know what you know. Before getting face-to-face with that content expert, put into words what you already understand about the topic. Write these words down, clearly and concisely. Allow yourself two sentences at most.

“Company X is preparing to announce Gizmo 3.0. This release of the product performs five new functions that are a direct response to customer feedback.”

Guess what? You have begun your first draft.

2. Know what you don’t know. Make a list, so you can ask intelligent, evocative questions that draw out the content you need. Borrow from journalism, structuring your questions around the five Ws—who, what, when, where, why—and maybe an H for how.

“Who is the target market for this new release? What are the most-requested product improvements we’ll see in this release of Gizmo? When will we be ready share details with the media?”

3. Bring extra shoes. As you prepare for this discussion, be ready to walk through the subject matter in at least three pairs of shoes.

First, of course, you’re the writer—out to gather the information you need to write your piece. Envision the shoes that will put you on solid footing, given your organization’s culture and your relationship with the subject matter expert. Maybe you need cross trainers, or tap shoes, or hip waders!

Second, anticipate how it feels to be in your expert’s shoes. The more you appreciate his or her point of view, the better your chances of getting true, detailed, even passionate responses.

Finally, step into the reader’s shoes, so you can collect facts and ideas that will be meaningful to your audience. Senior executives or leading academics or brilliant scientists don’t necessarily share the same interests and priorities as your readers. That may not be easy for the expert to see or accept; but your job as writer is to advocate for the reader.

4. Use real words. When you meet the expert, smile (even if you’re on the phone). Acknowledge that time is short, and so are your readers’ attention spans. Cut through corporate-speak and invite your expert to have a conversation—in plain language—about great ideas.

“I’m here to learn from you, so we can write an accurate message that makes sense to our target audience. Let me start by sharing my own two-sentence summary. Then you can help me build from there.”  

 * * * * *

* Sometimes you just don’t have enough access to people who have the answers. That’s when it pays to be an intelligent, independent thinker. Draw on your own knowledge of the business situation, and summon your intuition about your organization’s culture and direction. Then invent your way through a first draft. Rest assured, as your material winds through the approval process, the content experts will correct your mistakes and fill in the blanks.


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