The Small-Business Interview: Revisited

In the last post, I speculated on some interview basics for interviewing a small business client in the trades, then I went out and did a few interviews using my own advice. I also got some tips from a 2008 TED talk by museum director Marc Pachter called The Art of the Interview. In it, Pachter illustrates the lessons he learned from a series of interviews that he conducted for the National Portrait Gallery. He refers to the project as his “living self-portrait series.”

Here’s what I’ve learned from my interviews, recent past and long past alike:

Always share something about yourself up front.
Don’t be obnoxious about it. Just a little anecdote will do. As the interview goes on, share a little more, wherever it fits in, like in a regular conversation. Fruitful interviewing requires gaining the subject’s trust. It sounds ridiculous that a writer for hire should have to do this with a client, but people don’t like to talk to strangers, whether they’re paying them to or not.
Work from the specific and easy-to-answer
(how long have you been in this business?), to the general (what type of work comprises most of your business now?), to the open-ended (what’s been your most ambitious/enjoyable/interesting project to date), and back to the specific (can you clarify that point?)
End with the most open-ended question of all:
What would you like to say to your customers? This question is so stupid, yet so fantastically productive. It will often provide the thrust of your entire piece. And this is what is so awesome about interviewing the subject: You can get them to write the first sentence for you.
When the client tells you about some interesting project they’ve done,
or some interesting aspect of their job, hammer away at it with follow-up questions. One client told me that they’ve done work for indoor grow operations. Not only is this a great and growing (ha!) niche, it provided an amazing window into many of the technical aspects of the job. Hell of a lot easier than researching that stuff on the internet.
The open-ended questions often require prompts,
and these can be gathered from the previous replies. For example: I first asked, “Who do you consider your closest competitor—the company most equal to you in terms of price, capability, area served, etc….” I later followed up by asking: what do you offer that “x” cannot?
Don’t be afraid to move on if the question doesn’t work.
Some questions just fail, so just drop it. If you’ve been really obtuse about it, try reframing it. But if you were clear enough the first time, reframing generally isn’t going to prove any more fruitful.
Everyone want to see the questions after the interview.
So send the list after the interview. I’m not sure that this will yield anything. Only time will tell.

Here’s what I learned from the Marc Pachter interview, and how it relates to the type of interview I’m talking about here:

There are journalist interviews (the interrogation),
celebrity interviews (more important whose asking than who answers), and interviews in which you are the agent of the subject’s self-revelation. Pachter refers to this as the Empathic Interview. He says that his interviews were so successful because he was able  “to feel what they wanted to say.” Clearly, we’re in empathic territory here. The big difference is that we need to feel what our subject (our clients) want to do with their business.
However, we don’t need try to presage the client’s answer.
That’s a mistake that I made in one of my interviews. I asked the question: “What type of business would you like to generate more of?,” assuming that they would prefer to generate more remodels and big jobs. In fact, they wanted to generate more service calls (repairs). I had plenty of follow-up questions about large jobs, not so much about the small jobs and repair end of it. I recovered enough to harvest some good input about service jobs, but I could have gathered still more. The consequence of that misstep is that I had to send follow-up questions out in email, that I’m still waiting for a response to.
Pachter strategically chose to interview old people since,
as he put it, “they already know how the story turned out.” Now that’s poetically powerful stuff, but that’s not a luxury that we as copywriters have. Our subjects do not know how the story will turn out, and perhaps they don’t even know how they want it turn out. The best we can hope for is to help them to announce how they would like their story to turn out.
The worst interview is with people who are modest.
And tradespeople tend to be a modest bunch. That’s where the self-sharing becomes so important. It’s all about building a rapport so that the process feels less stuffy and formal, and more like the subject is simply confiding in you, someone who cares what they do.
Pachter cited an interview with the conservative playwright and American Ambassador Clair Boothe Luce.
The interview wasn’t going well because she was being combative, afraid that he was stealing the spotlight. What did he do? He placed himself in a deferential position with two simple words: “I’m learning.” After that, she opened up and the interview sailed. Always let your interviewee win. Find a way to make them the winner.
Brutal honesty in questioning.
If you can see their vulnerability, their “pain point,” as they call them in the jargon, bring that up! As Pachter so beautifully put it: “Everybody in their lives is really waiting for people to ask them questions so that they can be truthful about who they are, and how they became what they are.”

In our case, we still have time to help them be who they want to be.

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