Interviews add value to your book, blog post, or article because the quotes taken from these interviews spark interest and add credibility. If you want to become an influencer one of the best things you can do is interview lots of other influencers in your field of interest. I interviewed 30 top CMOs for my book Chief Marketing Officers at Work from companies like GE, Target, PayPal, The Home Depot, and Spotify. In fact, my entire book is simply those interviews, without any commentary. It provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective into the careers of these top marketers.
How I Got Famous Executives to Agree to Be Interviewed
At the time I started working on my book I was already writing extensively for Forbes and had interviewed other notable business figures like Clayton Christensen, Tim Draper, and Doug Richard. I had also formed relationships with people who had connections to some of the people I wanted to interview for my CMO book. Not that I had formed these relationships on purpose, with the intent to someday interview their connections for a CMO book, because I didn’t know I was going to write a CMO book at the time these relationships were formed, but that’s part of why it’s good to develop lots of relationships–you never know where they’ll lead.
One of the first people I pitched to be in my book was Seth Farbman, CMO of Spotify and former CMO for The Gap. I pitched him through Sunita Kaur, the managing director of Spotify’s Asia operations, who I had interviewed when I was the director for Startup Grind in Hong Kong, and also featured in a Forbes article. Sunita made the introduction, and because Seth trusted her, I got the interview. However, this is not how I got most of my interviewees to agree to be in my book.
Most of the CMOs in my book came through cold pitches. When I wanted to get the CMO of the Harvard Business School (yes, HBS has a CMO!), Brian Kenny, to be in my book, I simply guessed at his email address and sent him an email. At that point I hadn’t interviewed anyone else, so he took a risk on me, which I’ll be forever grateful for. Sometimes you just get lucky that way. I was able to play up my experience writing for Forbes and other publications, and the fact I already had a publisher, but that’s all I had going for me.
Believe it or not, the best tool I had for securing interviews was LinkedIn InMails. If they ever want a testimonial, here it is–through LinkedIn InMail I was able to secure at least half of the 30 interviews I performed for my book, including some of the big names from big companies. It was amazing to me to try and email these people, call the corporate headquarters, and meet with dead ends at every turn, and then send an InMail directly to the person and get a response. I’m still shocked at how well it worked.
After I got the first few interviewees, then I was able to leverage their names in my pitch, which went exactly like this (this is copied and pasted from emails and InMails I sent):
Hi [prospective interviewee], I’m a contributor to Forbes, Mashable, TechCrunch, and other publications, and I’m working with the publisher Apress on the book Chief Marketing Officers at Work (August, 2016). I’ve already interviewed CMOs from companies like Spotify, Audible, and the Harvard Business School, with more interviews in the works, and I would love to have your input as well. Interviews are conducted over the phone and last 60 minutes. I’ll also be in the Bay Area and Los Angeles soon to conduct interviews in person if preferred.
This was the pitch I used at the beginning, when I only had three CMOs confirmed. As I got more confirmed and did more interviews, I leveraged those names and companies to get more and more.
One more trick I used to get a few key interviews was instead of reaching out directly to the interviewee or his or her employer, I reached out to the employer’s PR firm and pitched them on the fact that if they were able to get their client’s CMO to participate, this would be a big win for them. It was great to see them scramble and do the work of securing interviews for me, and then take the credit, which I was more than happy for them to get. Win-win!
Before the Interview
With regards to doing the interviews themselves, here are a few of the lessons I learned.
- Test the technology. I use Switch and UberConference for conducting interviews and recording calls. Uber automatically records all conference calls (they have a simple number to call, no code required, which makes it easy for my interviewees to dial in), and Switch also has an easy -to-use recording function I used as a backup. This way I get two recordings, just in case there’s an issue with one or the other. I hate to think of taking an hour of time from a high powered exec from a company like PayPal or Spotify and then losing the entire interview because of a tech failure. Shudder. Calls are made from my Macbook Pro, using LG HBS-750 bluetooth headphones/mic. I call several minutes ahead of the interview in order to make sure my internet connection, headphones, computer, and software are all working correctly.
- Explain the big picture. The purpose of your interview may be clear to you while remaining a complete mystery to your interviewee. You’ll get a better interview if the person being interviewed knows what you want and how the interview will be used. Don’t assume that because you sent an email explaining what you’ll be doing in your interview that the interviewee read it–most of mine didn’t. And don’t make the interviewee feel bad if they haven’t or else you’ll be off to an awkward start.
- Give a simple overview of process. Your interviewee wants to know what the plan is. He or she needs to know how long the interview will be, what sections it may be divided into, whether it’s formal or casual, if it will be edited so that they can be a bit more free with their answers or whether it will be presented verbatim. I already showed you above, in my pitch email, how I introduced the interview process while pitching prospective interviewees for my book.
Then, when I get on the phone with the interviewee, I go over the process again, like this:
Hi [interviewee], thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me for this book.
Although 60 minutes seems like a long time to talk, to make sure we don’t get caught short at the end I’d like to dive in as quickly as possible, is that ok? [I say this to respect their time and give them an easy way to get out of feeling like they need to engage in chit chat to be polite]
Now, having said that, I don’t want you to feel rushed in your answers. Take as much time to answer as you feel you need. If you say something and want to clarify it later, please feel free to do so. While we want this to be published as an authentic view into the role of the CMO, we can edit this as need be. And since you’ll have a chance to review the transcript prior to final editing and publishing, I hope you’ll be able to feel relaxed as you give your answers.
Do you have any questions before we begin?
Great. First, I’m going to ask questions that focus specifically on you and [respective company]. Then I have a second set of questions that are more generally related to the CMO role.
And while I’m familiar with [respective company], and I have done some research on you, just assume I know nothing since that’s where at least some readers will be coming from.
- Provide questions ahead of time. Everyone I’ve interviewed wants to know what they’ll be asked before they’re asked. I put the questions on my book webpage so I can just send that page to prospective interviewees and answer their questions in one place.
During the Interview
- Listen. This is a hard one for me. I’m riddled with ADD and as soon as someone starts talking, especially about something interesting, my mind starts shooting off in a million directions, all connected to what is being said, but each one taking away my full concentration from the task at hand. In other words, the more interesting the conversation, the harder it is for me to pay attention. It takes considerable effort on my part to really listen to the interviewee and be there in the moment without getting distracted. I don’t know of a good trick for staying focused other than exercising sheer willpower, but it’s oh-so-important, because if you’re not listening then you don’t ask the right follow up questions and your interview can end up disjointed. You might think you can easily edit it later, but turns out to be tricky since answers in interviews often work only in the order they were given.
- Be prepared, yet flexible. As I work through my list of questions (I created a separate Google doc for each interview, copied and pasted from past interviews, then customized from that “template” based on my research on the current interviewee), I bold those questions I’ve already asked or which the interviewee has already covered, and I select the text of the next question I want to ask. This way when the interviewee finishes answering I already know exactly what I’m going to ask next. However, if something the interviewee says at the last moment changes what I want to ask, I am prepared to be flexible so I can create an interview that flows naturally.
After the Interview
- Process, again. When wrapping up, remind the interviewee of the process. For me it’s “I’ll now send this off to be transcribed, then edited, then to the publisher for more editing, then we’ll let you read it over to make sure it’s ok for you as well. Then the book will be published in August.”
- Gratitude. Immediately after the interview I send an email thanking the interviewee, even though I thanked him or her on the phone. I thank them on Twitter as well, because I want to give them all the publicity I can and add value to the overall experience. They’re doing me a favor, so I’m looking for any little thing I can do to give them value as well.
- Make any notes immediately. If there is something from the interview you need to remember, such as a specific part you want to use in a certain article, make that note immediately. You think you’ll remember later, but you won’t.
- Take care of other post-interview action items immediately. After the interview I immediately send the audio file to the transcriber–I don’t want to forget and then realize a week later that it was never done.
I couldn’t track the status of each of 30 interviews without a system for organizing it all. That system is a simple spreadsheet. In it I have status markers for each to-do item, so at a glance I can see whether the interview has been scheduled yet and if so, when, if it’s in the hands of the transcriber, if it’s being edited, if I’ve received the publicity release form from the interviewee, etc.
As the interviewer it’s your job to make sure the interview is a good one. The person being interviewed is doing you a favor. They’re giving you their time and valuable content. If you end up with a bad interview it’s your fault because you largely control the circumstances. I use a system of organization and preparation that makes it easy for the interviewee to perform well with minimum effort.
This is what I’ve learned from performing the interviews for this book. Do you have any lessons to share based on your experience conducting interviews? Any follow up questions?Liked it? Share it!