Interviewing for Copywriters

This is a guest post written by Tom Albrighton, a freelance copywriter and founder of ABC Copywriting. He writes regularly on copywriting issues for the ABC Copywriting blog.

Of all the ways to obtain source material for your copywriting, interviewing must be one of the easiest and most productive. A half-hour phone chat or meeting with a client can easily generate enough material to write a thousand-word brochure, or develop a really strong tagline. But you have to do it right – so here are a few tips for getting the most out of interviews.


It’s always worth writing a set of questions in advance. Even if you end up wandering way off topic, they’ll provide a useful structure to your interview and help you remember the points you want to cover.

Interviewees are reassured when you send them questions in advance, particularly if they’ve never been interviewed before. They can also spend some time thinking about their answers, or getting hold of data to back them up. (In my experience, material promised during the interview itself often fails to turn up, obliging you to chase your interviewee, which is awkward.)


Give yourself the best possible chance of hearing every nuance of your interview by investing in some decent recording kit.

For in-person interviews, I use a good-quality tape recorder. It’s not advanced but it gets the job done, and I like the reassurance of seeing the reels revolving. You might prefer to use an electronic recorder – certainly, having the interview as an MP3 is handy.

For phone interviews, I use a device called the THAT-2, which is connected between the handset and the phone (so you need a phone with a plug-in handset). You can connect it either to a tape recorder or to your computer, where you can record with an application like Audacity.

For quick and easy transcription of MP3s with iTunes on the Mac, use something like Sizzlin’ Keys, which lets you play, pause and skip backwards and forwards using keystrokes. Personally, I always use headphones, to get as close as possible to the original experience.


For copywriters, interviews are about exposition, not inquisition. You’re looking to get your interviewee to open up and give you everything they’ve got.

To achieve that, ask open questions, which typically begin with either ‘what’ or ‘how’. For example, ‘what does this product do?’ or ‘how will this service benefit customers?’


In person, it’s important to physically signal your interest by making eye contact, leaning forward attentively, nodding and so on. But that doesn’t work on the phone, so it’s worth making little affirmatory interjections like ‘mm’, ‘yeah’, ‘uh-huh’. ‘sure’, ‘right’ or whatever works for you, so the interviewee knows you’re still listening.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more information if you need it. Many interviewees feel self-conscious when talking for a long period, particularly if they are natural introverts. Reassure them that you’re still interested by saying ‘Can you tell me a little more about that?’ or something similar.

Make sure everything you say is oriented towards getting the interviewee to express themselves, rather than impressing them with your knowledge. Even the cleverest observations must be suppressed – this isn’t about you.


Sometimes, people get hung up on making a particular point that’s very important to them. Signals include rephrasing it again and again, or using more than one example to explain it. To show them you’ve understood, rephrase the point and say it back to them, starting with something like ‘So as I understand it, what you’re saying is…’

I also find this a very useful way to capture potentially useful phrases that come to me while people are speaking – for example, metaphors that might liven up the finished copy. By throwing them into the conversation, you make sure they’re in your recording.


Sometimes, interviewees ramble badly, leaving your intended topic far behind. This can be frustrating, but you just have to wait for your chance to gently guide the conversation back on course.

The classic problem for copywriters is getting the client to think about customer benefits rather than the features of the product or service they’ve created. But sometimes, people just have to get all that feature stuff out of their heads before they can translate it into benefits – so give them some room.

Only interrupt the interviewee as a last resort – if you’re running out of time, say, and don’t have what you need. If you talk over them by mistake, say ‘sorry, go on’ and let them have the floor.

Wrapping up

Always thank the interviewee for their time and, if appropriate, give them the opportunity to review and approve what you write. Some people will ask for this up front, as a condition of being interviewed. In my experience, 95% of people will rubberstamp what you write. But be prepared for the exception who takes the opportunity to rewrite the whole thing – badly.


When you transcribe, don’t be afraid to either (a) use the interviewee’s words verbatim or (b) chuck them out and use your own. People sometimes use the perfect phrase in conversation, but would never write it down – your job is to give them the authority to use it. Conversely, people’s own pet phrases might be completely inappropriate for the task at hand – but, after all, that’s your job!

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#1 Karen Stewart on 10.31.11 at 12:37 pm

Hi Tom, I agree with a lot of what you say – especially the need for interviewees to feel at ease. With that in mind I would say interview location is also an important factor to consider. Coffee shops can be great but noise is always a factor where the office can also harbour a lot of distractions. Thinking beforehand of a location that suits both your needs makes for a more productive interview experience.

#2 Shakirah Dawud on 11.02.11 at 2:20 pm

Hi, Tom–these are all good tips. Preparation is a big one for me, since I’m not very good with phone calls, and yet that’s how 99% of my interviews go. I use Google Voice, which offers recording with a click. I seldom transcribe–is it your way of making sure every nuance of the conversation gets into your head?

#3 Best of Copywriting Blogs: Week Ending 6/11/11 | Thoughts on copywriting on 11.06.11 at 2:10 pm

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