It’s a common refrain: content marketers need to be storytellers. Sometimes you can rely on memory to tell a story but in other cases, you need to go out and discover a story to tell.

Recently, I participated in a two-day design thinking workshop organized by IDEO, a “global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.”

Great Questions Draw Out Great Stories

While design thinking is often associated with product development, the workshop inspired me to apply its principles to content marketing. Specifically, one of the best vehicles for uncovering great stories is the interview.

That’s because the interview is all about story acquisition. Taking detailed notes during an interview gives the content marketer the flexibility to analyze trends and takeaways, develop a high-level story outline and then tell the story in the most appropriate final format, whether article, blog post, podcast, video, etc.

Interviews Let You Tailor Content

Interviews form the basis for many important content marketing activities such as getting a better understanding of customers through research on user personas, gathering insights to be explored through white papers and other long-form content, creating customer case studies and turning Q&As into blog posts.

Let’s take a look at the interview techniques I learned and how they can be applied to your content creation efforts.

1. Avoid asking questions that generate one-word answers

When your interview questions make it too easy for your subject to give one-word answers — especially yes and no — you fail to uncover meaningful insights. To get more meaningful answers, try prompts like, tell me about the best thing that happened during the project, or tell me about something that bothered you and how you dealt with it.

2. Steer clear of leading questions

Remove declarative statements from your questions and narrow your questions down to their simplest form. In conversation, it’s way too easy to suggest answers to questions without even realizing it.

Here’s an example of how easy it can be to cloud the conversation:

Interviewer: Tell me about your roles and responsibilities.

Interviewee: I run Public Relations, but am also responsible for the web development team.

Interviewer: I never heard of that combination. How did a PR person get assigned web development?

By inserting judgment into the phrasing of the follow-up question, the interviewer could easily cause the interviewee to become defensive. A better way to ask the follow-up question might be, “Interesting! Tell me what was happening within the organization when you were assigned this additional role.”

3. Rarely interrupt

Resist the urge to interrupt, even if you think an answer is going nowhere. By listening instead of talking, you may uncover an unexpected insight or a punch line that surprises you. Remember that the only thing worse than a one-word answer is closing off a story before it surfaces. In fact, the only time you should interrupt is to get the conversation back on track.

Here’s an example:

Interviewer: Tell me about a time when you used a similar product that gave you a positive ROI.

Interviewee: Did I mention I ran five ultramarathons? I ran one on five different continents. Boy, I can remember the pain I felt after each one.

You may be inclined to interrupt right here, but resist the urge and give it some time. The interviewee may continue for a little while on ultramarathons but the punch line might be a fabulous analogy that connects to driving ROI.

4. Phrase questions to foster deeper insights

Instead of starting questions with can you, would you, or do you see yourself, try prompts like tell me about, describe a time when, or in what scenarios would you.

5. Ask a series of why questions

Anyone who has ever conversed with a three-year-old knows that following up each question with “why” can quickly become awkward — and annoying. However, using the right phrasing to follow up an answer with a why question often uncovers some amazing insights.

We did an exercise in our IDEO workshop that revealed fascinating information: Each of us sat down with a partner and asked them to empty out the contents of their wallet or handbag. We then asked them a why question about any single item and then continued the process of asking why questions through several more cycles, each time learning something new.

6. Invoke emotions

Be sure to explicitly tap into your interviewee’s emotions and feelings by asking questions like, how did it make you feel when, describe your feelings when the new product launched, or give me five adjectives that describe your feelings about X. And don’t forget to follow up questions like these with a few whys.

7. Go for the extremes

Common scenarios are boring but boundary cases are interesting. The circumstances surrounding boring feelings are likely to be interesting either, so instead, ask your interview subjects to describe the times they felt most bored. Put yourself in the shoes of the interviewee. Isn’t the story more compelling when you ask them to describe the time they were most frustrated or most joyful?

Now that you’ve reached the bottom of this article, I’d love to ask you three questions: How did reading this article make you feel? In what scenarios would you share this with a colleague? And, of course, why?