Friday, January 21, 2011

Three Ways to Wreck a Marketing Interview

Tips for Fixing Common Mistakes in Marketing Interviews

As a business writer and marketing consultant, I conduct a lot of interviews, many of them by telephone. I interview my clients’ customers, partners, external consultants and internal experts to obtain information, insights and “color commentary.” I have conducted more than a thousand interviews over the course of my career.

Sometimes I am asked to participate in interviews conducted by other people. From these interviews, I have observed common interviewer behaviors that undermine the interview process.

Here are the three most common mistakes, with tips for preventing them. (For purposes of this article, I refer to the interviewee as “the speaker.”)

Deviating from the Questions: Experienced interviewers almost always send a list of questions to the speaker in advance. If the speaker has the questions in advance, he can prepare better. (Even experienced speakers appreciate this opportunity.) At a minimum, the speaker knows the goal of the interview, what to expect and roughly how long the interview will last.

If you send the questions, stick to them – particularly at the beginning of the interview. If you begin with a different question than the speaker expects, you will likely rattle him and get the interview off to a rocky start (from which it may not recover). An experienced speaker – one who participates in many interviews – may be able to roll with the punches; however, other speakers may become distracted or even terrified by a starter question from left field.

Tip: Follow the questions provided in advance. To ask questions not on the list, look for natural opportunities to work them in – later in the interview. Interviewers call this technique “branching.” It works.

Interrupting the Speaker: In the interest of moving the interview along, inexperienced interviewers may interrupt the speaker – usually cutting in at the end of the sentence. Resist this! It’s the number-one interview killer. When you interrupt the speaker, you interrupt his train of thought, which slows down the interview and hurts content quality. Worse, speakers often deliver the best content at the end of sentences – which you will “clip off” if you interrupt. Poof – gone forever.

Tips: Train yourself not to interrupt. (It took me years to train myself.) Practice on your colleagues and friends. Also, record your practice interviews so that you are aware of your interruption habits (and other not-so-good habits.)

Try this instead of interrupting: When a speaker arrives at the end of a sentence, silently count to three before asking your next question. In fact, before moving to the next question, I often will ask: “Anything else about [insert topic of the question here]?” Often, the speaker will have an additional thought that (a) succinctly sums up his answer (sound bite!) or (b) gives you the headline for your marketing document.

Special Bonus Tip: The habit of interrupting usually develops because inexperienced interviewers pack too many questions into the allotted time for the interview. I typically allow one question for every four to five minutes. If you finish your questions early, you will get points from the speaker – or you can ask another wrap-up question. (Wrap-up questions often yield the best content of all, because at this point your speaker is completely warmed up and relaxed.)

Meandering: In the courtroom, lawyers never ask a question to which they don’t know the answer. In a marketing interview, experienced interviewers never ask a question that doesn’t contribute to the purpose of the interview. Experienced interviewers go into interviews with an end-result in mind. For example: you want the speaker to validate (or invalidate) an idea, or to provide three ways that your product helped his business.

Don’t attempt to turn an interview (a structured Q&A) into a free-form brainstorming session crammed with many different topics. It never works. You will confuse and usually irritate your speaker, and you will generally not get useful content. If you want to conduct a brainstorming session, define it that way and state your purpose in advance.

Tip: Clearly understand and state the purpose of the interview in advance; include details on how you plan to use the information, the content approval process, and the timeline for your project. An interview is a process – not a transaction – and providing context will help the speaker through the process. If you insist on asking a “while-I-have-you-here” question during the interview, allow time for it at the end.

A great interview is like a river. It gently flows, providing new insights and delights as it turns around the bends. Occasionally, it reveals rapids or a rock. However, if you picture the interview as a river, you will keep the canoe upright and navigate around obstructions – or turn them into productive, instead of destructive, moments.

For more tips on conducting successful interviews, see “The Customer Interview and How to Ace It" and "The Customer Interview and How to Ace It - Part II."

Happy interviewing.


  1. Huh what? This probably works for interviewing people who don't have an agenda (like customers), but I've found that interviewees in the marketing department will go on and on and on and on, speaking nothing but platitudes if you don't interrupt them and get them focused on a topic that has value.

    They don't seem to understand that most journalists are not going to quote their blather, and that they're more likely to get quoted if they say something substantial.

  2. Howard, great points, and thanks for commenting. For the work that I do, I generally find that sending good, non-open-ended questions in advance, restating the ground rules for the interview at the beginning, and using branching questions are all helpful in eliciting good material for use in white papers and other marketing materials - without having to interrupt. I agree that interviewing most marketing executives in-depth is generally not useful, but will often do this to help shape the questions for an interview with a subject matter expert. And, by the way, having sat in on interviews with you, you were always a great journalistic interviewer - managing to be both persistent and polite. You got my clients to open up and feel good about doing it.