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9.1.19

The four essential interview questions for brilliant case studies (and the secret to writing them up)

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This is the fourth in a series called How to Brainstorm a Year’s Worth of Blog Topics in Four Hours. You can read the first, second and third in the series by clicking on this link.

Case studies are a wonderful way to build up content for your blog and your book and build your authority and connections. It’s also a great way to build relationships with people you admire and want to connect with. 

An interview – at least one, and ideally more – is the foundation of almost every interesting blog or article, and is essential to writing a case study. If you are not familiar with the process, interviewing can be intimidating. But it is also exciting and fun. I have spoken to hundreds of fascinating people (and a few crooks) in the process of researching the stories I’ve written in the past 25 years. The experience is exhilarating and often inspiring.

Interviewing takes a little practice, but it won’t be long before you are an old hand, and know how to get the juiciest content from your subjects and write it up so your readers cannot stop reading.

Over the decades, I discovered that interview questions can be boiled down to four essentials, and that they must be asked in a certain order to get the best material for your story. So here are the four questions, the order in which to ask them, and the reason for asking them in that order.

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Download the Ultimate Cheatsheet to Get Your Book Started.

Question one must put your subject at ease, and so it must impossible for them to get wrong. I start with questions like what is your preferred title, or can I check the spelling of your name? The point is this – your subject is more nervous than you are (usually) and it is your job to put them at ease with this first question.

Question two is designed to keep your subject in their comfort zone. It is: ‘What do you do?’ This is the question that your subject is most prepared for, so they will have a lot to say on the topic. I have learned over the years that your subject will relax more when they feel they know more than you (which is often the case), so I take care not to waste any time demonstrating my own knowledge on the topic.

The questions you ask to deepen their answer can be quite simple, such as, ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ or ‘Can you elaborate?’ It’s wise to prompt for timeline questions, such as ‘When did you start?’ or ‘When did that [particular event or story] happen?’ as it will make your story easier to write.

Question three is a little more confronting and probing, which is why we don’t ask it right at the start. It is ‘Why do you do what you do?’ Really, this question is ‘What makes you different from everyone else?’ This is a personal question – it’s much more intrusive, and so we ask it after we have gained our subject’s trust. You might ask it directly if you feel that your subject hasn’t addressed that in their answer. The best answer will be a story, such as, ‘I started my gym after recovering from chronic fatigue’. Try to probe past more abstract answers – I’ve always wanted to be a gym owner – to find the exact moment their motivation went from desire to action.

Question four is this: What lessons have you learned? Now we are really being demanding. We are asking our subject to reveal their mistakes (in a nice way) by telling us what went wrong, and how they learned from it. Here is the value that you deliver your readers. This is the whole point of a case study – the opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes.

Ask these four questions and you will have all the information you need to write a great case study. You might need to rephrase your questions in a couple of different ways to get the answers. Probe your subject to find out more about their answers, especially to get them to be more precise, to tell you stories, or to provide examples.

How to write your case study so everyone will read it

Now you are ready to write. Here is the single most powerful secret to make your story irresistible: Start with the answers to question three or four – the why or the lessons – and then introduce the more factual details – the who and the what. Unless your subject is a massive celebrity, we are more interested in people’s motivations and their mistakes than their names, titles, and daily activities. So start at the most interesting, most dramatic part of the story you can find. If they nearly died, start there. If they loved their job but got the sack, start there. If they had a dark night of the soul and wished they had never started doing what they do, start there. That way, your case studies will attract and hold your readers’ attention.

Add at least some case studies to your blog schedule for the next year. It will build your authority faster than anything else I know.

Want to get started on your book today?
Download the Ultimate Cheatsheet to Get Your Book Started.

Note: This is an updated version of a blog first published in 2013.

Blog Series: How to brainstorm a year’s worth of blog topics in four hours

This series of seven blogs solves the single biggest problem facing bloggers. That problem is not, as you might expect, getting started. It’s keeping going.

Most of us can pump out a blog or two. Sadly, that is not going to serve you. In fact, it will do you more harm than good. People will look at your website, see you haven’t blogged for three months (or years), and wonder if you are still in the game!

Bloggers stop writing because they run out of ideas. If you plan your blogs ahead, you will never run out of ideas. It will only take you 30 to 60 minutes to write your blog.

This blog series will show you how you can brainstorm an entire year’s worth of blogs in four hours!  You will never run out of ideas and will write your blog quickly and efficiently every time.

 

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