Tips on interviewing executives

So you need to interview someone important for your white paper.

They could be the founder of the company or the lead engineer on the project.

The point is, executives are busy… and you don’t want to waste their time or sound like a noob when you speak with them.

Before you panic, remember that interviewing is a learned skill, like most aspects of white paper writing.

The more you do it, the better you will get at it.

how to interview an executive for a white paper

I figure I’ve interviewed close to 3,000 people, most of them executives… and not all of those went perfectly.

To save you from making the same blunders I did, here are 9 tips on interviews, drawn from my years as a journalist and white paper writer.

Interview tip #1: Don’t ask dumb questions

Some people say there is no such thing as a “dumb” question. I disagree. Strongly.

When it comes to interviewing an executive, there are at least three types of dumb questions.

Dumb question #1: “So how does your software work?” or similar completely unfocused question. Instead, do your homework and be more specific.

Dumb question #2: “When was the company founded?” or similar banal question. Instead of wasting your source’s time, find the answer on the company website.

Dumb question #3: Not a question, but a statement intended to show off your own knowledge. Avoid that type of grandstanding. You’re there to listen, not talk.

Interview tip #2: Prepare!

The best way to avoid dumb questions is to prepare well for your interview.

Visit the company or product website. Go through all the research materials you can access. And check out what has already been published about the topic of your white paper by outside sources.

Many white paper writers rely solely on the materials their client gives them. This is a mistake: You can often come across interesting views or critiques from outside sources.

Start jotting down questions as they occur to you.

Before your interview, arrange your questions in some sort of logical sequence.

Interview tip #3: But don’t over-prepare

Some writers try to map out a complete set of questions before an interview.

Nice idea… but if this could be done, there’d be no reason to speak to anyone in person.

prepare but do not over-prepare for a white paper interview

You could simply e-mail out a set of questions, and count on your sources sending back detailed answers.

Then you could paste their replies right into your white paper, right?

Of course not! Life’s not that simple.

Live interviews give you the chance to:

  • Ask for clarification
  • Raise counter-arguments
  • Explore interesting side issues
  • Drill down for more details
  • Go back over anything you’re not sure about

An e-mail interview loses the most important benefit of a conversation: the to-and-fro that happens between people.

So the trick is to prepare well enough… but not too much. And don’t expect your interview to proceed like some sort of scripted exchange.

Interview tip #4: Set the rules of engagement

Before your call, establish the terms of reference, including:

  • Expected length of the call
  • Time and date
  • People involved
  • Scope of your questions
  • Recording the interview
  • Any next steps after your call

Always verify the time zones so there are no mixups. You can Google any area code to see what time zone it’s in. And remember that Europe and North America start and end Daylight Savings Time at different points.

Hint: If you’re an independent writer, line up a conference call service just in case. FreeConferenceCalling.com is one example. There are many others.

With all these issues clarified, a busy executive knows what to expect from your call.

Interview tip #5: Ease into the interview

Some journalists like to hit their subjects with a tough question at the start to keep them off-balance and get the upper hand.

But you’re not writing an exposé?!
ease into a white paper interviewWhen you interview an executive for a white paper, your goal is to make your subject comfortable enough to share their best thinking in a brief and relatively stress-free conversation.

The best way to do that is usually to start with some easy, fact-based questions.

Try something like, “How long have you been with the company?” and “What does your role involve?”

Once you get your subject talking, slowly lead into more substantial or open-ended queries.

Interview tip #6: Remember the five W’s

Here’s why you don’t have to write down every question: You can always generate more question with the five W’s.

These are an interviewer’s best friend: Who, What, Where, When and Why… plus another member of the pack, How.

Once you get your subject talking, you can usually direct the conversation just by interjecting the occasional W.

Look at how useful the five W’s can be:

  • Who has this problem?
  • What do you mean?
  • Where does this happen?
  • When did you first notice that?
  • Why is that?
  • How does that work?

Pepper your interviews with the 5 W’s to uncover a lot of great material.

Interview tip #7: Ask for examples

There’s a fool-proof technique you can use if an expert starts to get too abstract… or even if you get lost and can’t quite follow them.

Ask for an example.

Simply say, “Could you give me an example of that?”

This will nearly always bring the conversation back to earth. Most experts know examples of what they’re talking about. Now you’ve got something more concrete to talk about.

And if they can’t name any examples, they may just be venting. That means it’s probably time to move on to another topic.

Interview tip #8: Stay on track

Give occasional time checks as your interview progresses.

Once you get an executive talking, you may find it tough to keep them focused on your desired subject.

As the interviewer, it’s your job to stop them from veering off into the well-practised pitches they routinely make to journalists or investors.

Here are some polite ways to steer the conversation back:

  • Could we get back to…
  • There’s something else I want to ask you…
  • Does our audience need to know that?
  • Should we mention that in this white paper?
  • In the interests of time, could we move on?

Interview tip #9: Wrap up gracefully

Near the end of your time, ask a wrapup question like:

  • Is there anything we didn’t cover?
  • Anything I should have asked you about?
  • Anything else you’d like to say on this?
  • Could you sum this up in a sentence or two?

The last few minutes can be the most fruitful of all, so squeeze the full value from them.

Remember, interviewing is a learned skill. The more you do it, the better you will get at it.

For some more tips, see How to record white paper interviews.

Do you have any tips on interviewing executives? Please leave your comments below.

About Gordon Graham

Author of 275 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients everywhere from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, for everyone from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. Reviewers call it "a must-read... fantastic... outstanding... terrific... phenomenal... the best book of its kind."

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