It takes skill for any journalist to interview a source effectively enough to obtain the necessary information to tell a story. But due to the technical or industry-specific nature of many trade publications, B2B editors may face additional challenges.
Veteran trade editors agree that preparation is essential to successful interviews.
“Preparation is key to asking the most useful questions, and to ask leading questions based on the expert’s response,” said Vicki Clark, senior editor of The O&P Edge and Amplitude magazines in the United States. “Too much research, however, can lock the interview into your plan, when sometimes it can become more free-flowing, which often makes it more interesting and organic.”
Don Tepper, editor at the American Physical Therapy Association’s magazine PT in Motion, suggested doing just enough preliminary research to understand the major concepts of the topic without getting into the weeds. What’s the big picture? What are the major issues? If the technology or approach is being compared with competing or parallel technologies, what are the big-picture differences? For example, the author of an article on improvements in diesel engine technology should understand the basics of how a diesel engine works and how it differs from other technologies such as gasoline engines.
Surveying readers about what questions you ask is also helpful, as Tessa Reed, editor of Travel News Weekly in South Africa suggested.
“Because you might not even be asking the pertinent questions for a particular news story, you should always ask the people you interview what the big issues are in their minds,” she said.
When it comes to the actual interview, recording the conversation allows the writer to go back and play the conversation again to better understand the topic and ensure accuracy. It also limits notetaking and ideally allows the writer to be more engaged.
But Tepper warned that recording can encourage some writers to just ask the prepared questions to get specific answers.
“For some reason, many writers — when using a recorder — don’t seem to really listen to the answers,” he said. “Often, there are productive avenues of questions that some reporters miss because they were more intent on making sure that their questions were answered than actually paying attention to what the interview subject was saying.”
As experienced journalists know, some sources make better interviews than others. It just depends on the person. For people who are uncomfortable speaking in an interview, Clark suggested more direct, shorter questions to make them less self-conscious about speaking. For tangents or long talkers, setting specific interview lengths and asking few but pointed questions can be a good approach. It’s also usually possible to politely interrupt and redirect a talker.
However, Tepper said sometimes writers should pay attention to those tangents, as they may suggest other articles worth pursuing, or turn out to be a good answer to a question that should have been asked.
Phone interviews with sources who speak little English or have heavy accents can also be challenging. Email interviews in part or full can be beneficial in these circumstances, or having a translator assist both parties.
Whether it’s a language barrier or knowledge gap, Reed said it’s critical that you ask for repetition, elaboration or explanation for anything that is unclear.
Depending on the publication, it may be permissible to clean up an interviewee’s language a bit.
“I prefer to do only a moderate clean-up, but I’ve worked at publications where even a janitor with, at best, a high school education was expected to sound smooth and polished,” said Tepper. “My current publication — an association publication — requires that a person’s quotes be presented to him/her to make sure that what was written reflects what the person meant. There are, of course, problems with this approach, but it generally enhances the clarity and accuracy of the quote.”
A good rule of thumb for interviews is to keep the reader in mind, Tepper added. Know enough and do enough preparation to be able to answer the readers’ questions. Good questions a writer can pose to the expert is: Why is this important to the people who will be reading the article? What’s the takeaway message for our readers? Can you explain that in a way that our readers would be able to appreciate?
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