A Content Marketing Framework for Conducting Interviews
When interviewing someone for a piece of content, my goal is to unearth their earned secrets. Earned secrets are knowledge and wisdom accrued through experience that not a lot of other people know. These usually come in the form of frameworks, mental models, or counter-intuitive information.
A few good examples:
- How to Do What You Love – Paul Graham
- How to Get Rich (Without Getting Lucky) – Naval Ravikant
- How to Write Well – Julian Shapiro
Earned secrets are the currency of good content. Without the promise of novel information, why would anyone bother reading?
Getting people to share their earned secrets is easier said than done. People either:
- Don’t have any,
- Have them, but aren’t aware of it,
- Have them, but don’t know how to articulate them,
- Don’t want to share them (after all, they are secrets!),
- Don’t want YOU to share them (they’d rather do it themselves).
I’ve wasted many an interview—both as a journalist and marketer—failing to draw out my subject’s earned secrets. Through that failure, I’ve developed a framework that allows me to conduct better interviews and even get my subject to help me write the article.
Maybe my approach can work for you too. Here’s how to get people to share earned secrets that you can use to create great content.
Your research should focus on figuring out what novel information your subject may be able to share.
To find the answer, I review my subject’s Twitter, blog (if applicable), and any other content they’ve been featured in. By doing so, I learn how the subject thinks and what they’re passionate about. I also make note of any contrarian / counter-intuitive viewpoints they share, which are often the result of earned knowledge.
From this research, I’ll begin to form a list of open-ended questions:
- You recently wrote [contrarian opinion] on Twitter. Why do you think that?
- You used to do [previous experience] before doing [current thing]. How did that previous experience inform what you’re doing today?
- You say you’re good at [thing they say they’re good at]. How can other people become good at that thing?
The goal with my questions is to get my subject 1) talking and 2) thinking deeply. If I can do this, it’s likely at some point they’ll drop a nugget of earned wisdom I can pounce on.
I previously mentioned that many people who have earned secrets are either unaware, don’t know how to articulate them, or are reluctant to share them. To overcome this, I send a priming email 48-72 hours before the interview.
In the email, I tell them exactly what my goal is (uncover their earned secrets) and why it’ll be good for both of us (more people will read the content).
To explain what I mean, I’ll usually link to 1-2 other pieces of content I’ve written based on this approach.
I also offer up a few examples of what their earned secrets might look like, based on what I’ve uncovered from my research. I frame these examples as headlines to the article:
- “How X Makes $100k per Month Selling Socks Online”
- “Why Y Never Answers Emails After 5PM”
- “X’s Secret to Writing 3 Books in 2 Years”
This approach helps the subject better conceptualize what I’m talking about. It also does me the favor of testing a few different story angles. If one resonates, I now have a better direction for the interview.
Further, I’ve got my subject’s creative juices flowing, which should make it easier to unearth those chestnuts of wisdom during the actual interview.
Have a Conversation
You can sabotage an interview before it starts by failing to prime your subject or do any research. But priming and research doesn’t guarantee you’ll uncover your subject’s earned secrets. The only way to do that is by not having an interview—but rather a conversation.
What’s the difference? Interviews are formal and structured. Conversations are organic and free-flowing. When a subject feels like they’re having a conversation, they’re likely to say more interesting things than if they’re trying to provide you with a good soundbite. Here are a few best practices for turning an interview into a conversation:
- Loosen the subject up by starting the chat with a few personal questions (how’s your day going, what are you up to after this, etc.)
- Use the questions you wrote down during the research phase as a jumping-off point, not a structure. Remember, the goal is to get them talking and thinking deeply. If you’re paying attention to their response, there’ll likely be opportunities to organically follow up on something they said (“you just said X, tell me more about that”). If you get stuck at any point, you can always return to your questions.
- Don’t take notes. I used to furiously type away as my subject was talking—which isn’t a conversation. Now I record them (via my phone or Zoom). This allows me to listen more closely and ask follow-up questions. After the interview, I transcribe the audio of the conversation via Otter.ai (free to transcribe up to 600 minutes of audio per month).
I still keep a doc open with my questions as a reference, but I only write something down if it truly jumps out to me, and it doesn’t make sense to ask the follow-up right then.
One other thing: these conversations can be awkward, especially over Zoom. Embrace it. To uncover the juicy information, you sometimes need to allow for awkward silences (so the subject can think), re-ask the same question, or have the subject repeat what they just said. I usually prime my subject at the outset by saying I may re-ask a question or have them repeat themselves.
When my subject says something interesting, I first ask them to repeat what they said. Then I ask some variation of “what do you mean by that?” Then I repeat their answer back in my own words to make sure I understand them. If I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten enough, I’ll find other ways to ask about it (when did this first become apparent to you, etc.).
The more you can get them talking about the thing you find interesting, the more you’ll have to work with during the writing phase.
Create a “Fill-in the Blanks” Draft
I’m not a journalist (anymore), so I have no problem sharing my content with my subject after I’ve completed the first draft. Most of the time, it helps make the content better. If I’m trying to share their earned secrets, they’re the best collaborator I have.
Sharing the draft also allows me to dig deeper on topics I didn’t get enough context on during the chat. Often, I don’t realize until I’m writing the article that I need more info on something. Fortunately, I can still ask that question as a comment in the Google doc. When the subject reviews, they’ll often provide a great answer because 1) I leave the comment in a specific section of the article, so they have the exact context, and 2) they have to write out their answer, which forces them to think critically.
Treating my subject as my co-author and having them “fill in the blanks” gives them peace of mind and gives me more to work with. It also takes the pressure off nailing the interview because I know I’ll have another chance to get the information I need.
- Research to find hints of novel information,
- Prime the subject and suggest novel story angles,
- Treat the interview as a conversation,
- Collaborate with the subject to flesh out their earned secrets.
Feel free to try this out for yourself and see how it goes. If you have thoughts or questions, let me know in the comments.