So you’re the marketing guy in charge of the company blog. You understand the benefits of blogging, you’ve got a lead-generating business blogging strategy, and you even have some great blog post ideas.
But you still have to pull it all together. Even though you know your business and your brand, you may not have been there in 1953 when your company first launched, and you’re not exactly an expert in actually installing solar panels on a job site. But you’re marketing the company as a whole, and it’s your job to tell the fascinating stories that unfold every day at every level of your company. So how do you find those stories?
Go “ad fontes” for your business blog
It’s not often I break out Latin in blog posts, but when I do, I like to remember my prematurely bald high school Western Civilization teacher who had us smash watermelons one day — don’t ask me why, I don’t remember the main idea of the lecture. Good, ole Mr. Knerr used to love telling his students to go “ad fontes,” which means “to the sources” or more literally “to the fountains” in Latin. Since we’re talking about serious brand journalism here, you will need to go to and interview sources for your stories.
Talk to the right people — your co-workers. You might know people in your company who were there in 1953 or at least know the story of your company inside and out. Interview them, and you’ll dig up some company gems.
But it’s not just the executives and c-level leaders who have great stories. Your business is full of hard-hat encyclopedias brimming with information. Yes, the sales VP sitting over there behind the computer. Yes, the project manager holding the iPad, overseeing 30 workers. Yes, the guy defying gravity on the scaffolding.
Spend 30 minutes with the guys who actually pour the concrete, and listen to them. You’ll get more blog post ideas than you could imagine. As a marketer, you’re not playing around all day on Facebook and Pinterest, you’re telling the past, present and future story of your company and building a brand.
So now you’re wondering how to actually get people to give you those interesting nuggets and hidden stories that will help you brand your blog posts. Check out these proven methods.
7 interview techniques from a journalist
As someone who’s written for a number of publications, I’ve interviewed a wide variety of people. From Libyan rebel political leaders to college football and NBA athletes to musicians, CEOs, entrepreneurs and Members of European Parliament, I’ve been blessed to have some fascinating conversations with some fascinating people. After you do enough interviews, eventually you stop being star-struck by anyone, and you realize that people are people. Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be able to confidently glean information from anyone.
Prepare for the interview
Technical and business writing for a business blog requires a learning curve. You have to prepare for your interviews so you can get the most from your sources. Google is your friend. If you’re going to write a case study about how your pipe-profiling services helped a partner company build an oil refinery, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about pipe profiling before you even interview the guy who tells you the story.
Then, once you’ve done some basic research on the topic, you’ll be able to write down a list of questions to ask your interview subject. I know this sounds rudimentary, but when you’re new to interviewing, it can be a little overwhelming to do an interview off-the-cuff.
As an aside, I have uncovered some great stories with just two or three prepared questions and the rest off-the-cuff. Spontaneity produces genuine conversation and works beautifully for Stephen Colbert every weeknight, but I wouldn’t recommend it when you’re first starting out.
Start with humanizing questions and keep the interview friendly
Imagine you don’t know your coworkers (you may not actually) and you have no idea what your company does. Ask the most basic questions just to get the conversation moving, and give your interview subjects an introduction to your blog post idea and why you’re interviewing them. To get your sources comfortable, start by asking them how they came to your company, how their personal experiences have given them passion for your business and what their company role is.
You want interviews to be friendly — few interviews, even in investigative journalism, are confrontational. You wouldn’t want to talk to someone who isn’t personable and human, would you? The best journalists develop professional relationships with sources that yield a steady stream of stories. Empathize with your interviewees. It keeps your interviews friendly, comfortable and open and allows you to get in the right mindset to truly understand their experiences and tell their story.
Clarify the basics that you don’t know
Don’t be afraid to ask what might seem like stupid questions. Those are often the ones that lead to the juiciest stories, since they get people talking. While you want to thoroughly research your topic, get up to speed and answer as many of these questions as possible before your interviews, it’s important to be humble enough to ask them if you need to. When someone laments about the press being biased or not fact checking, she’s often referring to a story that misquoted or mischaracterized her. Many of these cases arise because a journalist was too busy, too unconcerned or too shy to ask a basic clarification question or two. Even professional communicators have trouble communicating sometimes.
Ask open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions allow your interviewees to respond with stories, long answers and personal experiences. But most of us use a long list of questions that only draw out one-word answers. E.g., “How are you?” We all respond with, “Good.” I’ve provided a few examples below to help you better understand what I mean.
Avoid yes-or-no questions.
Ask: “What do you find fulfilling about installing solar panels?”
Don’t ask: “Do you enjoy installing solar panels?”
Ask top-level “questions” to understand processes.
Ask: “Describe your approach from start to finish to winning a contract.”
Don’t ask: “How do you win contract bids?”
Intelligently ask for emotive responses — no one likes talking about feelings with strangers.
Ask: “Take me through your thought process when you knew you had to kill the abc product line.”
Don’t ask: “How did it make you feel when you killed the abc product line.”
If you take my advice, you’ll avoid answers such as, “Yes,” “It’s a long process,” and, “Bad.” Instead, you’ll get real answers and real stories.
Guide the conversation, but don’t rule it
Make sure you’re guiding the conversation toward getting the answers you need, but let people talk — they’ll often tell you more than you would think. People love to talk, but we often get too busy to really listen to others. When someone really takes the time to listen, people will willingly provide answers — as long as they feel respected.
Set up an interview flow so you’re guiding the conversation and getting the answers you need. Be mindful of both your time and your sources’ time, but be willing to let them talk. It’s possible you might not get to ask a couple questions you wrote down. But you’ll often get more in-depth answers to the questions your source covers than you’ll get if you stick strictly to your pre-planned questions.
Use the age-old journalist’s trick
“Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to touch on?”
Even seasoned PR people who’ve been interviewed 1,000 times will often give you something. They’ll say they know better than to answer that question — but invariably, something will pop into their minds. Many journalists have sneakily found brilliant stories with this one, last, little question. Any journalist worth his salt ends every interview with this question. And think about it, it makes sense.
It gives the interviewee a chance to clarify something or bring up a topic you forgot or didn’t even know to cover.
Pay attention to the small surprises.
Mike Alden, the 55-year-old Director of Athletics for the University of Missouri, dropped from 28 percent to 10 percent body fat and lost more than 20 pounds in 2011. When I featured Mizzou’s world-class athletic nutrition program for a local business magazine, I used that interesting tidbit as an intro to the story. That piece of information was an off-hand, somewhat unrelated comment from the person I interviewed. Then, I followed up with a quick email to Alden and got a two-sentence quote about taking nutrition seriously as a program. He couldn’t deny it because (why would he?) I quoted the person who said it and asked for a quick comment from him. The editor loved it, and I got compliments from people who read the article later and texted me about it out of the blue. That’s the detail that made the story worth reading. So, pay attention to any interesting tidbit that sticks out and follow-up on it. It may make the difference between a dry blog post and a memorable story.
In-person conversations are the best. Ideas can jump into people’s heads, and they’re not limited by time crunch and distractions while they’re typing emails. People have less of a filter for an in-person conversation than they do when they send an email. Just don’t abuse the conversational access you have. That means when you quote people, take out those natural uhs, ums and ‘ems that people say so they don’t sound like hillbillies.
It should go without saying, but respect people’s time. They don’t have to take the time to talk with you. They’re doing you a favor and taking time out of their busy days so you can have better B2B blog posts. Put a clear time limit on the interview. At Gorilla 76, we usually keep interviews to no more than 15-20 minutes when we talk to workers at our client companies.
Turn your stories into business leads
As a B2B marketer, you’re surrounded by a wealth of industry insider information. You and your co-workers have spent careers in your industry acquiring and hoarding trade secrets each day without even knowing it. It’s time you share your library of knowledge with the world — in exchange for some loyal customers and clients.
Click below to download our business blogging guide and learn how to turn stories and readers into leads and sales.