Personal-Touch Research

6 minutes, 2 links

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Updated September 14, 2022
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Beyond the research that I do to find content for the interview, I also like to do a bit of homework to improve my relationship with the guest.

Attention to detail comes in handy in situations like the pre-interview I did with Gregory Galant, founder of the Shorty Awards (a coveted award for social media stars) and Muck Rack (a tool for helping companies in media.)

The pre-interview with Greg was productive, but he kept leaning back from his webcam for much of it, as if he was trying to protect himself from me. I get it. Doing a good interview is challenging, but being interviewed also comes with landmines. Some guests worry they might reveal too much about their companies. Or maybe they’ll take credit for something that others did, and their team will think they’re self-aggrandizing. Or maybe they think the interviewer has some hidden agenda to bring them down. Whatever their worry, guests can be a bit cagey.

Through my research, I saw that Greg posted about his bike on his personal blog. When I talked to him about it in the pre-interview, he smiled. He went on to tell me about the multi-day bike rides he did. He shared that he carried camping gear on his bike and slept outdoors between strenuous cycling days. And he told me that one of his few splurges after growing his company was buying an expensive bike. He had a big smile on his face as he told me all this. And so did I.

People ease up around non-work and non-family conversations because they are low-consequence topics. If a founder undersells or oversells their startup on my show, it could hurt their business, but if something like bike riding underwhelms or is downright embarrassing, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a hobby.

Some of the personal-touch research makes it into my interviews, but its primary purpose is to build a better relationship with my guests. A little personal connection leaves a big impression.

You can see an example of the lasting power of that personal connection in a story I heard about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When she got a letter from five-year-old Naomi Shavin, Ginsburg wrote back and even invited the girl and her family to meet in DC. The offer was very kind, but what struck me about that letter was how Ginsburg noticed the girl was from Georgia and made sure to share that a fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, elevated her to the federal bench. She knew Naomi was Jewish and told her that her grandkids called her “Bubby,” the Yiddish word for grandmother.

Two decades after that first letter, Naomi still remembered those moments of connection and talked about them in an interview I heard on the Axios podcast shortly after Ginsburg died. That’s the power of researching the personal side of people you meet.

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Today it’s easy to find the personal topics that light people up. Before meeting someone, I often scroll through their Instagram, Twitter, and other social media feeds. I look at the non-work section of their LinkedIn profiles to see if there’s something unique about the schools they attended. I Google them and flip past the first two pages to see what stands out. I look for non-work elements of their lives that might be worth talking about.

A great example is when I interviewed Steven Clausnitzer, founder of Forever Labs, the stem cell company. He posted several photos on Instagram of himself and his kids skateboarding. When I brought it up before our interview, his face lit up. It was one of his favorite non-work activities. I told Steven how worried I was when my wife introduced skateboarding to our kids. His response was so insightful that I included it in the interview:

“Skateboarding is the perfect thing for kids to get into if you want them to have resilience and just be goal-oriented. In order to ollie on a skateboard, you’ve got to try hundreds of times and fall. It’s going to hurt. You’re going to have to get up if you really want it. You’ll keep going, though. And eventually, you’re going to ollie, right? It’s a perfect metaphor for life in general. If you’re going to be successful in life, you’re going to fall a bunch of times.”

In a science-heavy interview, talking about kids and skateboarding was refreshingly relatable. And it showed Steven that I cared about him as a person, not just his business. All I had to do was scroll through his Instagram feed.

Take the time to do personal research. It’s worth it.

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Put Your Needs Upfront

Many people sit behind a mic and think they’ve suddenly turned into the reporters they see on the evening news. They think the professional thing to do is get the facts for some imagined audience that expects formality.

That’s the old way. It doesn’t work online, where you don’t have a general audience. Your audience is made of enthusiasts who want to learn about their passion from someone who is just as passionate as they are. They want to know about you as much as they want to get to know the person you’re interviewing.

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