Finding the stories: unlocking thought leadership through great interviews

Solid preparation, curiosity and asking the silly question hold the key to fruitful conversations that result in great corporate content

Business leaders make convincing thought leaders because “companies exist in the real world, not the policy world,” says Ross Tieman, a former Financial Times and Times reporter and editor who now works with European companies and campaign groups to write speeches and content. “They’re at the coal face of what’s happening in their sector and that makes their insight a valuable part of the public debate.”

But how do companies turn their expertise into engaging content that advances their argument and supports their marketing goals while also resonating with their intended audience? When FirstWord starts working with a new client, we carry out a series of short interviews, or speed dates, with senior figures and experts in the company, to build up a picture of the world the company operates in and how its leaders tackle the challenges they face. Then, throughout our working relationship, we build on this knowledge in interviews to draw out specific insights from various leaders within the company on given topics. Crucially, this includes helping them identify what is new, and will contribute a fresh or pertinent perspective to an ongoing or evolving debate.

By listening to and guiding the conversation as outsiders, our writers often hear messages and stories that people overlook when they are involved in the day-to-day operations of a business, but which have the potential to attract and engage audiences. Tieman gives the example of working with a technology client, which produced a thought leadership paper on how technology can help IT departments wanting to reverse their decades-old policies of moving jobs offshore, and bring roles closer to home. Their message was crafted over the course of several interviews, from a first call with a group of senior leaders – who held diverse views on globalisation – to the final call where the group was able to refine and agree on the single message they wanted to communicate.

So are there common elements to good interviews that unlock stories and thought leadership? The short answer is yes, and we explore the key ones below.

Proper preparation

Good interviewers research the subject and the interviewee. Looking at their profile on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram will give “a well-rounded view of their personality and what makes the person tick,” says Oliver Pickup, a London-based technology and business journalist for Raconteur and WorkLife, among other titles, and a ghostwriter for thought leaders.

As well as coming “armed with as much information as we can about the industry and the company”, the interviewer should send some exploratory questions in advance to give interviewees a chance to start thinking about the issues and their answers, says Sophy Buckley, a former Financial Times reporter and editor who today freelances.

Reading around the subject is also important – FirstWord’s stable of experienced writers – which includes Tieman, Buckley and Pickup – are former and current journalists and news obsessives, who keep up-to-date with the broader trends shaping society. In this way they are abreast of conversations around particular topics, and also alert to what might make a story stray into the unusual or be particularly compelling.

From the company’s side, the call organiser should put time into thinking about who they put forward to discuss a particular topic, and the range of subjects to be covered in the interview, says Buckley.

“People who don’t have public-facing roles often have really interesting things to say,” she adds. “But with a new client, ideally one of the first people we talk to will be the CEO or someone else at board level, who can give the broad overview.”

Creating a comfort zone

Thorough preparation is also essential because it “puts people at their ease” during the interview, she says. This is one of the most important elements of successful interviews. In an initial call, it is key to be clear about the purpose of the chat and that, for example, nothing the interviewee says will be made public without their agreement. Call organisers should also make sure the interviewee has plenty of time for the meeting and doesn’t have to rush off to another call after 15 minutes, so the interviewer has the chance to really delve into what they know, and ask follow-up questions as the conversation progresses.

With background knowledge to hand, it’s still useful to start with some very basic questions – what is the interviewee’s role and what do they do all day?

The interviewer’s job is then to listen out for “the point in the conversation when something goes off in your head and you think ‘that’s new and interesting’,” says Tieman. One example he cites was during an interview with a client about online learning, which led to a discussion and then a focus in the ensuing business profile about how remote and online teaching is democratising access to medical schools and widening the pool of students able to train to be doctors.

The detail that the interviewer’s news antenna homes in on may well be something that the people who work in that field all day may not think is unique, adds Pickup.

It is then up to the interviewer to pursue the details they need – specific examples and the specific pain points of customers, as identified by the interviewee, who is often known as the subject-matter expert. Personal anecdotes help to bring the issue to life for readers, but at the same time, companies cannot make unsubstantiated claims when addressing a business audience, says Tieman. Interviewees and marketing teams must provide evidence such as statistics and other proof to back up their points to create truly compelling and persuasive thought leadership.

The interviewer will also use their experience to judge when to let the interviewee fill in the gaps, and when they need to “ask a silly question” to get more detail, adds Pickup. “If the description gets too technical or you don’t understand a term, the chances are readers may not either.”

The best insights often come at the end of an interview, as both sides relax into the process and feel more comfortable with each other. “End on an open question – is there anything else on your mind, for example – and don’t be in a rush to step in or interrupt,” he says.

Honing ideas into content

By the end of the discussion, the interviewer should have guided the interviewee to define “what they really want to say”, says Tieman. “Ideally by then, we would be able to boil down the answer to ‘what is the piece about?’ to a single sentence.”

Good interviews then result in three types of content – interesting product or service stories, human stories or profiles and thought leadership pieces on relevant or topical issues in that industry.

“We’re not looking for key messages,” says Buckley. “They’re essential for marketing, but they’re not where stories are found. We’re looking for good news stories that show the company in a positive light.”

In addition to getting prepared in advance, a good interviewer keeps thinking after the call. “As well as writers, companies need thinkers,” says Pickup. “Having curiosity and the malleability to move as the interview moves” means the writer can go back to the company with the most interesting ideas to come out of an initial discussion, for example. Those may be different from the planned outcome.

The final results are always produced in collaboration, combining the interviewer’s news judgment with the company’s expertise and marketing goals for the content.

“The interviewee brings the cherries, then we make sure the audience knows what their cherries are,” says Buckley.