Teachers and writers told me for years that you should only ‘write what you know.’ Yet every day, agency and freelance writers wake up and write about clients in industries they’d need a doctorate to be a part of.
‘Write what you know’ is reserved for fiction. If you want to become a professional writer, you must become a professional interrogator.
Interviewing is much more difficult than you might imagine. I started my career with zero professional writing experience at a chop-shop of a public relations firm. They threw me right into the thick of it. Imagine you’re pretty fresh out of college and you’re hemming and hawing at three CEOs daily, desperately trying to get all of the information in one call so you won’t have to bother them again or turn over a half-assed press release. This was my daily battle. Like many writers under duress, I drank a lot.
I’m sure some of you out there share that battle. Some high-pressure, sink-or-swim situations would help with your interviewing skills (but not your blood pressure). If you don’t have that luxury (used loosely here), check out a few ideas to start refining your interview process.
- Be aggressive: Listen, writing is an enviable skill set, but it’s no match for experience. Perhaps you’re chatting with a serial entrepreneur or a busy exec who is trying to shoe you off the phone. Show them the respect you’d show any client (e.g. rip a loud fart into the phone and hang up). But show a little backbone, too. After all, he or she is paying you to do a job; if they want it done right, they’ll have to deal with an extra 15 minutes of answering questions.
- Focus on benefits and differentiators: This will be a running theme through most of my posts. Any marketing or PR copy you write should lead with the benefits of your product/service to the buyer and the differentiators that make that product/service unique to your industry. Unless you’re writing for a highly technical audience, you should focus on the high-level view.
- Set expectations up front: Before you start interviewing, be honest with your interviewee. If you don’t know much about the industry, explain that you need the basics first. Tell them that you may ask the same questions in different ways until you get the answers you’re looking for. The final product depends on it, and even if you annoy the client during the interview process, they’ll be happy when you deliver a strong piece of content. (Clarification: ‘annoy’ does not mean ‘antagonize.’)