An essential component behind good writing is the ability to elicit informative answers from people you talk to. In corporate writing, as in journalism, good interviewing skills are critical because they help determine the quality of your content.

We are not talking about a 60 Minutes-style grilling; this is simply about how to get the most out of a conversation, whether you are writing an email message, a proposal, a news release, or a story. As the great Don Murray often said, we don’t write with words; we write with information. And the quality of that information depends in part of how effective you are at interviewing. There are three important components: doing the advance work so you are prepared, asking good questions, and taking accurate notes so that you end the interview with clear and correct information.

  • Prepare – If you sputter your questions or if you begin by asking questions that could have been answered with a little research,  the interviewee will notice you are unprepared. She is immediately thinking you are wasting her time, and you look sloppy. Learn as much as you can about the topic at hand before picking up the phone or talking to someone in person, and your most important questions you should know in your head.
  • Ask why or how questions. Not all questions will begin that way, but those tend to draw out the more authentic, unusual, interesting answers.
  • Never be afraid to ask a reasonable question. When people have incomplete information in their notes, they often say they didn’t ask a particular question because “I didn’t want to ask a stupid question.” But as writers, we are the messengers delivering the the news. It’s our job to translate, and if we don’t understand the topic thoroughly, we cannot explain it clearly and accurately for the reader. And contrary to what many people think, the interviewee usually won’t consider it an elementary question. Most people enjoy being in the role of the expert, so they will gladly explain it, and they also will respect you for trying to understand the topic and to be accurate.
  • Be clear about what is in your notes. While you are taking notes, put a large “Q beside a sentence that you are unclear about. Once you have finished the interview, but before leaving, make a point of asking your subject to clarify the points. Don’t leave assuming you will be able to figure it out.