In business journalism, you can safely bet that most—almost all, even—interview subjects have an agenda. Company executives want to project an image that will satisfy shareholders, customers, and the executive’s career ambitions, whether known by the corporation or not.
You can go in with an open-ended interview that can turn up interesting details and further topics. But there’s a basic problem: asymmetrical information. A company can hire people to create a background analysis of your prior coverage, look at how competitors fared when you wrote about them, see which topic areas you’ve been following, examine social media posts, and otherwise get a sense of how you might approach them.
But much of what a company does is, of its nature, private and not necessarily available to you. The answer is to look for the information that is available and use it as a way of pinning down some of what the company has been doing. Then each pin becomes an entry point into further questions to better understand what is happening.
For example, you can dig into the into available details and financial metrics for a public company and transform them into salient issues. A look at some common financial ratios and measurements can show how much money a company makes on its invested capital, how long creditors wait to get paid, how long it takes the company to be paid by customers, and so on.
Use these as ways to pin down general performance and then tie that to the specifics of what the company is doing. If payments coming in are slow, ask how they’re funding necessary R&D or what they’re doing in terms of writing down what may be bad debt. See if there’s an ad budget you can track over multiple years, or maybe look at a quarter-by-quarter examination of R&D expense for whether they’re expanding or contracting spending and how that might affect the business.
You can bring any of these points into an interview to throw the subject off kilter a bit and break out of a “this is our message” focus. When you drop the question, ask it in an open-ended way, as that might shine light on performance. Then don’t be shy about follow-ups. So, if a company is waxing poetic about its innovation and you’ve seen that R&D spending is stagnant or maybe below that of some competitors, ask how it could be possible that such great achievements can be done with fewer resources than others use. If they then talk about efficiency, ask if they gain it either by limiting the areas in which they compete or if they’ve counted on acquisitions to bring in new technology. (It obviously helps to have checked which companies they’ve purchased.)
What you just did was pin down a corner of the innovation story and then, when they try to turn it into a bragging point, get them to justify the answer, which will give more insight into their strategy. That sort of questioning technique is powerful and flexible.