Brittany: How do thought leadership Q&As generally work?
Brittany: What’s the purpose of the interview guide? Shouldn’t it be a free-flowing conversation?
Leff interview series: What makes for a great Q&A? A Q&A with Heather Ploog
Brittany is a senior editor at Leff.
Heather is a managing director at Leff.
Interviews with interesting people are a mainstay of thought leadership. They are an efficient use of a busy executive’s time, often simply requiring the initial interview and an hour or two spent reviewing the edited Q&A. Particularly for professional services firms, a Q&A can help reinforce relationships with key
clients, build credibility on a subject by associating with a well-known expert, or simply offer a perspective on an important topic where the firm might lack deep expertise. Q&As are also fun—an opportunity to loosen up a bit, have a conversation, and learn something new in a more personal format.
The secret to a good Q&A is behind the scenes: preparing for the interview, editing the transcript, and shaping a long-form conversation into a focused, compelling story. Brittany Williams sat down with Heather Ploog to discuss how to get the most out of a thought leadership Q&A.
Heather: It should definitely be a conversation, but the interview guide is critical. As with any piece of thought leadership, a Q&A should be a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. So an editor can help make sure the guide includes questions that will not only elicit information but also tell a compelling story that offers real insight the audience will be interested in. The questions help both interviewer and subject stay on topic and draw out answers that unravel the nature of a tough business problem, why it’s really difficult to solve, and what this person did about it.
Done well, a solid Q&A can be a valuable asset for the interviewee as well as the interviewer, since they can commit a minimal amount of time and in return get a nice piece of thought leadership that they can use to promote their ideas.
Brittany: What does a successful interview look like?
Heather: It’s important that the interview gets at not just what the leader does but how the leader thinks. Their thought process is a critical component. The Q&A should feel like a real window into how this person is thinking about this problem, not just the steps that she took to solve the problem. It’s ideal when they come out and talk about intent. They might say, “My first instinct was to do this, but then I thought, you know what, these stakeholders are going to flip out; I can't do that. So I needed to take a different path.” That’s the best kind of interview answer.
To get those types of answers it’s critical to do the legwork to first figure out what the audience’s concerns are, and then construct an interview guide that leads the subject down a logical path that tells a good story.
Brittany: How much liberty do you take with editing the interviewee’s words?
Heather: We take great pains to maintain the voice of the interviewee. That’s what makes a Q&A different than any other type of material, so you want to keep as many of their actual words as possible so their voice and their character and their personality come through. But at the same time, an editor’s job here is different than, say, that of a journalist. Our job is to make this person look good and sound smart.
And we all speak differently than we write, and we all repeat ourselves when we’re talking, and sometimes there are pauses like I just did a few minutes ago when trying to gather thoughts. And sometimes you ask a question and the interviewee comes back with a great answer to a slightly different question.
In editing, sometimes you're cutting down a 7,000-word transcript into 1,200 words, so the editor clarifies, simplifies, groups ideas, rewrites questions. And it’s typically just a matter of emphasis. If we mess with the order of the ideas or, say, reformulate a question that wasn’t exactly answered, then it’s more about making sure that the structure accurately reflects what the subject thinks is most important about what they have to say. You give us the raw material and we assemble a story.
Brittany: So you're putting words in peoples’ mouths?
Heather: [Laughter] No! Any conversation—especially an hour-long recorded interview—meanders to some degree. These people are really smart and engaged and passionate about what they do, and when you talk to somebody who’s passionate about a topic, your conversation is not going to be linear. It shouldn’t be. They should be free to talk about whatever inspires them at whatever moment. And then after the fact, we bring it all together and tell the story in a coherent, logical way. The ultimate goal for us is for somebody to look at an edited Q&A and say, “Yes, that’s what I wanted to say.”
Brittany: Do you tell interviewees you’re going to edit their words?
Heather: Absolutely. If they thought their specific word choice and flow were so precious that they couldn’t fix anything after—that’s a lot of pressure. It’s really important from the outset to set expectations, so they know that they can speak freely, it’s OK if they repeat themselves, and if they’re inspired to talk about something that doesn't relate exactly to the question that we asked, we can figure it out afterward. I think it’s good for interviewees to know that they have flexibility.
Brittany: Can you do a good Q&A over email?
Heather: Well, that’s obviously not optimal because one of
the purposes of doing a Q&A is that people speak differently than they write. They tend to be much more expressive when they’re talking rather than writing. Written Q&As tend to be
more generic—and in business, often littered with dense
jargon. And it’s even harder to capture the interviewee’s
voice and experience and perspective if someone on their communications team or something is filling out the questions for them. In the worst-case scenario, it ends up being overtly promotional, which of course you want to avoid at all costs because you want readers to feel like they’re getting something valuable without anything expected in return. Thought leadership shouldn’t be a sales pitch.
Heather: It’s pretty straightforward: you learn as much as you can about the interview subject, write an interview guide, conduct
the interview, edit the transcript, and then send it to the interviewee for approval. Sometimes the editor conducts the interview, and sometimes a consultant or other subject matter expert conducts
In my experience, you get the best results when both the editor and the subject matter expert are present, and the editor is involved from the very beginning in writing the interview guide.
Brittany: One more question. What’s harder: being the interviewer or the interviewee?
Heather: The interviewee for sure. [Laughter]