Jeremy Schultz: Straddling the Firewall

Exhibit 718 to never interview by email

Posted in Work by Jeremy Schultz on March 10, 2010

We’re running a series of intranet profiles on execs who run businesses outside our bread-and-butter. We’re doing all we can to make them compelling, covering a mix of what’s happening now in their business, their management style, and how they balance their (usually enormous) workload with life beyond work.

The only way to achieve that goal–to build something that people will want to read–is to interview the person face-to-face.

No matter what kind of story I’m doing, I have to speak to a person live. Even if all I need is a short quote, I’d always rather meet up, or at least have a quick phone chat.

I have colleagues who think the exec they work for is less than eloquent, and insist upon positioning that person as a “thought leader” who is “shaping the industry.” They craft platitudes–just the kind you’ll find in your prototype press release–and have that exec sign them off.

Not me. If we need to make someone sound more eloquent, let’s send them to Toastmasters, or hire them a coach.

For the first profile I took part in, I flew up to our headquarters and had a really good conversation with this exec. He spoke with tons of energy, told me stories, and gave me exactly what I was looking for.

I edited the transcript down, got it all cleaned up, and sent it to the exec’s assistant for a final thumbs up.

To my delight, the changes made were minimal–except one new paragraph. This new paragraph replaced what had been a very simple, straightforward answer to my first question.

This new paragraph was impenetrable, and contained this gem of a sentence:

The modem and system integration requirements have raised the bar on organization capability and required a completely new lexicon to navigate internally and externally with the ecosystem and customers.

The what to the what?

Sentences like that don’t come out of anyone’s mouth. And if they do, they require at least three follow up questions, after which you’ll get an answer you can use.

So, whenever you need words that originate from a human being for a story–of any type–make sure you can talk live. Otherwise, plan to block off a lot of time editing.

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