Reporter Tips For Interviewing a CEO

by June 22, 2016

Business reporters often interview chief executives — but how to ask questions that don’t seem to waste their time? This blog offers five easy guidelines to coming up with questions that interest your subjects and push your story forward.

Avoid repetition

The PR team of any multinational Fortune 500 organization will likely have a robust news section on the company website quoting the CEO saying this and that. Reporters should read up on other media coverage on the individual as well as reviewing recent press releases and material from the corporate website. With any interview you establish with your CEO, ensure you’re not retracing the same ground. Feel free to mention things they may have said elsewhere, but in order to offer depth to your readers and gain the trust of your CEO, ask them to elaborate on or follow up on their points.

Ask about their childhood

Often what’s lacking in business reporting is color and depth on the person behind the brand and the title. If you’re writing a business profile on an executive, or if any additional room exists within your word count, ask them what was swirling around them as they grew up? Have them describe, for instance:

  • any early struggles
  • their physical environment — in what kind of family and neighborhood did they grow up?
  • the core business news stories they remember
  • how did these experiences mold and shape them into the leader they are today
  • their early mentors
  • whether childhood friends and siblings feel surprised to see them in the role they enjoy today and if so, why?

Answers to these questions offer your reader more context, a more rounded insight into the individual and hopefully provide a more enjoyable interview for your source as well.

Take pleasure in the details

Equally, you can provide color and depth in your reporting by asking for a few details of a personal nature. Spend time reading top-tier business publications and emulate their treatment of expert interviews. I’m a personal fan of the Financial Times’ 10 question series. The following questions could potentially provide you with that essential depth:

  • What books exist on your nightstand?
  • What’s the most memorable speech you ever heard and why?
  • Describe your a-ha moment at which point you knew your venture might actually become a success.
  • At what point might you feel you’ve met true success?
  • What was the best advice anyone ever gave you, and did you follow it?

And of course, you can add your own.

Establish your CEO as the expert

Any reporting must also include insight into the CEO’s thoughts and vision on industry-related topics. If you’re interviewing the CEO of Bayer Crop Science for instance, spend some time familiarizing yourself with agribusiness trends and struggles and ask the executive to comment on where they think that issue/trend is headed. Ask them to direct you toward any upcoming research from the group. For the Washington Post Brand Studio this month, I interviewed Redg Snodgrass, the CEO of Wearable IoT World, the nation’s largest incubator of wearable tech and Internet of Things companies. Because I was writing on the digitalization of manufacturing and other sectors, I asked the CEO for his insight into:

  • what sectors are digitizing the fastest
  • success stories from his own incubator
  • what excites him
  • what worries him about what’s ahead

These questions garnered insightful, in-depth responses. He pointed me also to some additional core stories around my subject including an MIT startup launching a fleet of driverless taxis in Singapore to help ease CO2 emissions and overly crowded transits.

Remember the CEO is human

While it’s tempting to feel intimidated–this chief executive officer after all is at the height of their career and at the helm of their firm–remember they are just an individual. Relax. Be yourself and try connecting with them too. Always thank the person and their assistant for their time in establishing the interview.

Debbi G McCullough writes and edits for several organizations including Guardian News and Media’s Guardian Sustainable Business, Guardian Labs and Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio. She also teaches business communication part-time at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is a United Nations Foundation press fellow 2016.