Tom Albrighton

PRO

14 September 2015

Interviewing skills for copywriters

Interviewing, whether by phone or in person, is one of the easiest and quickest ways to generate source material for your copywriting.

A half-hour phone chat or meeting with a client is ideal for getting up to speed with their business from a standing start, and can easily generate enough material to write a thousand-word brochure, or develop a really strong tagline. It’s also a great way to draw information out of them if they are more at ease with talking than with writing.

Preparing for the interview

Taking notes in a meetingAn off-the-cuff interview can still be valuable, but if you can, it’s always worth writing a set of questions in advance.

Even if you end up wandering way off topic, they’ll provide a useful structure to your interview and help you remember the points you want to cover. So spend some time thinking about the information you need from the interview, and craft some questions around those themes.

Interviewees are reassured when you send them questions in advance, particularly if they’ve never been interviewed before. They can also spend some time thinking about their answers, or getting hold of data to back them up.

Asking the right interview questions

For copywriters, interviews are about exposition, not inquisition. You’re looking to get your interviewee to open up and give you everything they’ve got. To achieve that, ask open questions, which typically begin with either ‘what’ or ‘how’.

Don’t be afraid of really basic questions, such as ‘what does this product do?’ or ‘how will it help people?’ You might be worried about seeming unsophisticated, but that’s much better than coming away from the interview without key information.

In my experience, these fundamental enquiries will often prompt a reply like ‘That’s a really good question!’, followed by a halting, tentative response. That’s ideal, because it indicates the interviewee is really thinking about the value proposition, or how to communicate it, possibly for the first time. Listen very carefully to what they say, because it will probably speak to the key benefits your copy will need to express.

Beginning the interview

Always begin a phone interview by asking if it’s a good time to talk, even if the appointment has been in the diary for weeks. This gives people an ‘out’ if they’re actually too busy – which is good for you, because an impatient, absent-minded interviewee won’t give you the detail you need. Conversely, a positive response reaffirms their commitment to the interview, focusing their attention on it.

As in any business call or meeting, some pleasantries are in order, but only in the right measure. A polite ‘how are you?’ is appropriate, and ‘how’s business?’ may be appreciated too. If you can find common ground – someone you both know, a firm you’ve both worked with, somewhere you’ve both visited – trust and rapport will instantly increase. But, whatever you do, don’t start rabbiting on about yourself (as those who work alone are wont to do).

If you’re recording the call, you need to get the interviewee’s consent (see ‘Recording the interview’ below).

If the interviewee is on a mobile, or in a noisy environment, it’s probably worth requesting a change right away, rather than waiting until halfway through the call.

Listening

Phone and laptop on deskIt sounds obvious, but listening is a key skill for the interviewer – and it doesn’t always come as easily as you might think. When you’re talking with people in normal life, you jump in with your own reactions or observations, and if that takes the conversation in a new direction, fine. But during an interview, the last thing you want to do is derail the interviewee’s train of thought. So if you’re naturally chatty, you may need to make a conscious effort to stay quiet.

Your overriding aim is to get the other person to say as much as possible. Everything you say and do should be oriented towards getting them to express themselves, rather than impressing them with your knowledge or insight into what they’re saying.

In person, it’s important to physically signal your interest by making and holding eye contact, leaning forward attentively, nodding and so on. But that doesn’t work on the phone, so it’s worth making little affirmatory interjections like ‘mm’, ‘yeah’, ‘uh-huh’. ‘sure’, ‘right’ or whatever works for you, so the interviewee knows you’re still listening.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more information if you need it. Many interviewees feel self-conscious when talking for a long period, particularly if they are natural introverts, and it’s even worse on the phone. Reassure them that you’re still interested by saying ‘Can you tell me a little more about that?’ or something similar. You’ll often elicit ‘next-level’ information or benefits that will bring crucial depth to your copy.

Reflecting

Sometimes, people get hung up on making a particular point that’s very important to them. Signals include rephrasing it over and over again, or using more than one example to illustrate it. To show them you’re getting it, rephrase the point back to them, starting with something like ‘So as I understand it, what you’re saying is…’ Non-native speakers particularly appreciate this if they’re reaching for the right phrasing but can’t quite grasp it.

I also find this a very useful way to capture potentially useful phrases that come to me while people are speaking – for example, similes, metaphors or idioms that might add colour to the finished copy. By throwing them into the conversation, you also make sure they’re captured in your recording (see below). It’s also a great way to ‘clear’ the idea with the client on the fly, and give them a chance to suggest a better one.

Guiding the interview

While some interviewees are hesitant, others have the opposite problem: rambling all over the place and leaving your intended topic far behind. It can be frustrating, but you just have to wait for your chance to gently guide the conversation back on course.

The classic problem for copywriters is getting the client to think about customer benefits rather than the features of the product or service they’ve created. But sometimes, people just have to get all that feature stuff out of their heads before they can translate it into benefits – so give them some room.

If need be, you can intervene to close the interviewee’s response by saying ‘OK’ or ‘Thanks, that’s very helpful,’ and moving on to the next question. If they’ve got stuck on a particular hobby-horse, ask a question about something completely different.

Only interrupt the interviewee as a last resort – if you’re running out of time, say, and still don’t have what you need. If you talk over them by mistake, say ‘sorry, go on’ and let them have the floor. If burning questions occur to you (which they probably will), just jot them down and ask them when it’s your turn to speak.

Wrapping up the interview

At the end of the interivew, thank the interviewee for their time, and affirm the value of the conversation. I always say something like, ‘You’ve given me some really useful information.’ This is particularly important for people who’ve never been interviewed before, who will have no sense of whether they’ve ‘done well’ or not. Obviously, this was a collaborative interview, not an adversarial one – but it can still be disconcerting to be interrogated by a stranger.

If it’s appropriate, offer them the chance to review and approve what you write. Some people will ask for this up front, as a condition of being interviewed. They’re naturally concerned about being misquoted, so you don’t really have any option but to agree. I’ve found people generally approve things they’ve said themselves, and will sometimes take the opportunity to add valuable details and clarifications too – so go with the flow.

Recording the interview

Laptop, mobile phone and notepadIf you can do everything I’ve described so far and take detailed notes at the same time, congratulations. For the rest of us, the best chance of capturing everything is investing in some decent recording kit.

For in-person interviews, I use a good-quality tape recorder. It’s not advanced, but it gets the job done, and I like the reassurance of seeing the reels revolving. You might prefer to use an electronic recorder, a smartphone or your laptop – certainly, having the interview as an MP3 is handy.

For recording phone interviews, I use a device called the THAT-2 (‘Telephone Handset Audio Tap’), which is connected between the handset and the phone (so you need a phone with a plug-in handset). It’s not cheap, but it’s far superior to any of the more affordable solutions out there, and is used by professionals such as radio interviewers.

You can connect the THAT-2’s output to either a tape recorder or to your computer, where you can record with an application such as Audacity. Audacity lets you edit the resulting audio too – for example, using compression to make it sound stronger – and export as an MP3.

If you record phone interviews, remember that it’s illegal to record a phone call without consent in the UK. My approach is to begin recording, then immediately pop the question, so the audio itself includes a record of their consent. (Otherwise, you’d really need it in writing, because if the worst came to the absolute worst, it would be your word against theirs whether they’d consented or not.)

Transcribing the interview

For quick and easy transcription from iTunes on the Mac, use something like Sizzlin’ Keys, which lets you play, pause and skip backwards and forwards using keystrokes.

When you transcribe, don’t be afraid to either (a) use the interviewee’s words verbatim or (b) chuck them out and use your own. People sometimes use the perfect phrase in conversation, but would never write it down – your job is to give them the authority to use it. Conversely, people’s own pet phrases might be completely inappropriate for the task at hand – but, after all, that’s your job!


A shorter version of this post was first published at Sally Ormond’s Freelance Copywriter’s Blog.


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Joanna Tidball

September 14, 2015 at 7:09am

Thanks for these tips, Tom – I’ve done hundreds of phone interviews over the years and still found this a very helpful read. Manic note-scribbling has always done me ok on my phone interviews (although I have to write up my notes very quickly, otherwise my brain can refuse to decipher the scribbles!) I have always wanted to find some technology that I can rely on to record phone interviews, so it’s good to know your recommendation.