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Published on

May 30, 2018


“You’re teaching people how to have conversations? You? I can’t think of anything you’re worse at!”

Fair comment. I’m not the best conversationalist – but I make an effort when speaking with clients.

Getting a good briefing from a client is a much-overlooked art; in fact, I don’t think many people consider it a discrete skill at all.

Here’s the problem: when your typical PR prepares for a client briefing – say, to get information for a new product press release, or an issues-based byline – they will draft a list of questions and then proceed to ask them, one after the other, on the briefing call.

That’s not how conversations work. Ask the best interviewers, and they’ll tell you that you can only prepare so much, and that the best responses come from engaging with the interviewee rather than working through a list of bulleted questions.

That’s why I thought we should do a training session on how to get the best out of client interviews. My colleague Cat and I put together a presentation on how re-think our approach to these calls, using them as an opportunity to draw out information, fill in the gaps in our own knowledge, and to challenge them on their beliefs.

This is incredibly important for any number of reasons. First of all, if you accept everything your client tells you as gospel, you’ll likely end up parroting their marketing messages back to the media. That’s not what PR is about; we’re here to unpick marketing-speak and interpret it for a wider audience of sceptical journalists and readers. We need to ask the tough questions before we start drafting because if we don’t, the media will.

Another reason is that taking an inquisitive, engaged approach to these conversations will often lead the client into giving you a gem of a quotation, or an unusual piece of insight around which you can base the entire article. What’s more, if you’re unafraid of admitting your ignorance about the topic of conversation, you will strengthen your own client and industry knowledge.

Cat and I decided to demonstrate interview technique with a role play where I asked a series of closed questions focusing on her most recent birthday. I quizzed her about her rather unusual celebration (which involved a water-based obstacle course) and elicited a paltry amount of information; we then opened it up to the rest of the class.

Having been briefed on best practice for interviews, they posed a range of insightful questions that elicited, inter alia, that the best thing about her birthday was the new bond it forged with her sister-in-law. Such an important human detail would never have emerged had we stuck to a bland list of who, what, where, when and why.

The key lesson of the session was that it’s fine to prepare a list of questions before a client interview, but we should never ask a list of questions. I hope that it gave the grads the confidence to grill their clients, politely yet thoroughly, and so find that elusive angle or edge that distinguishes great content from the mass of identikit PR waffle.

As someone once said, the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. If a tongue-tied autist like me can do it (the wife’s words), then anyone (with practice) can.

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