Stories are an essential part of how we communicate. Before babies even understand words, parents tell stories to soothe, entertain and teach them.
As PR professionals, we must know how to translate the expertise of our company or clients into stories that capture attention. But doing so is more difficult when we rely on others for the elements we need to develop a story.
It can be challenging, for example, to draw a story out of a designated subject matter expert who defaults to staying “on message.”
To go beyond dry facts and data and find the heart of the story, ask executives and other sources questions that get them talking and allow you to probe deeper. I use a five-step process to gather information that lets me craft stories that stand out in internal communications and media pitches.
1. Be curious
I was a curious kid who loved writing things down. As an adult, I’ve come to understand that curiosity can be your greatest strength. When you’re excited to learn something new and approach your research with a sense of adventure, even subjects that don’t seem riveting can lead to good stories.
2. Look for clues
Before interviewing an executive or other subject matter expert, look for clues that will help you formulate your questions. Read the person’s LinkedIn profile. How do they talk about themselves? What aspects of their careers do they highlight?
Notice what they’re reading and sharing. If the person is active on social media, review their posts. Read their past interviews or presentations to understand the topics and themes that come up frequently to give you insight into their areas of passion.
3. Prepare an interview agenda
Once your notebook is full of clues, write an agenda for your interview. A tight agenda for a 30-minute call can be effective and less taxing for the person you interview. Prepare six or seven guiding questions. For example, you might ask how the source got started in the industry or what led them to found their company. Ask about challenges they face and their opinions on industry issues. Tailor the questions to your purpose while also tapping broader themes.
Try to uncover the source’s personal passions. What caught their interest this year? What do they find exciting? Your earlier sleuthing will help you tailor thoughtful questions that yield more than just stock answers.
Send your agenda and questions in advance, so the person you will interview has time to think about their answers. Sometimes I ask executives to write their answers in advance, so we can use the interview call itself to dig deeper. If you can’t conduct the interview in person, I recommend video calls.
4. Conduct the interview
To make the source comfortable and build rapport, start the interview with soft questions. When speaking to someone for the first time, I might ask how they got their start in the industry, for example.
Even when working with an organized agenda, it helps to stay flexible during the interview. It’s OK if you don’t get to ask every question on your list. Look for the executive’s point of view and any interesting tidbits that will grab the audience of your story.
To be fully present in the conversation, I use otter.ai, an app that records and transcribes the call. Doing so frees me to listen more closely and to ask follow-up questions.
Sometimes you strike gold with a nugget the source reveals in the conversation. These offhand comments and details can bring your story to life. They also provide great material for the media.
5. Write your story
After the interview, jot down a few notes. What information stuck with you? What was your overall impression? At this point, you may even want to write an initial media pitch. Capturing the information while it’s fresh will help you write a compelling story.
Next, review the interview audio and transcript. Highlight key points or topics the person was excited to discuss. Open your story with an interesting and illustrative anecdote the source shared.
This 5-step process has allowed me to go beyond facts and tell engaging stories. It will help you uncover the humanity beneath the experts you interview, so you can create stories for internal publications that audiences want to read and opportunities for guest columns and other coverage in the media.
A version of this post appeared on PRSA Strategies & Tactics. It has been republished with permission.