I’ve been talking to writers a lot lately about interviews.
Many writers are trying to move away from content mills right now, and they haven’t written reported stories before. They’re grappling with all the fine points of finding sources and getting them to not just talk, but say something fascinating.
Most good-paying assignments involve talking to experts, not just conducting a few minutes of Internet research. And the difference between getting lukewarm quotes and sparkling, wonderful quotes is often also the difference between $100 articles and $2,000 articles.
I’ve written many of the latter in the past year, and I can tell you interviewing is a skill you want to master if you need to grow your income.
I’ve shared some interview tips before, but I’ve learned there are some fine points of interviewing that new writers often don’t know. Here’s what I’ve learned doing hundreds of interviews over the course of 12 years of staff-writing jobs:
1. Emails are not interviews. To begin at the beginning, emails are emails, and interviews involve speaking to people either on the phone or in person. The idea that emails are equivalent to interviews seems to be spreading like a virus lately, as writers come into the field from routes that don’t pass through journalism school or a newspaper staff job. But you shouldn’t email sources your questions and then use their email responses as your quotes unless you absolutely must — like, because the source is in the wilds of Borneo for a month.
If you do quote from an email, you must cite it appropriately, as in: “That sucks,” said Joe Shmoe in an email response. Better-paying markets will expect real interviews and may be teed off if they discover you’ve tried to pass off email transcribing as interviewing. In any case, you want to talk to people live — you’ll have a chance to ask more followup questions and tease out the really good stuff.
2. What matters is establishing rapport. In the first weeks of my first staff-writing job, I went on a road trip with my editor to Vancouver, B.C. Our publication covered home improvement retail, and we went to visit the owner of a large lumberyard chain at his company headquarters. My New York-based editor conducted the interview, and I was astonished to find that he didn’t really ask him much! We had traveled all this way, and they basically just shot the breeze for a half-hour. Afterwards, I asked him why he hadn’t tried to learn more about the man’s business or asked him any tough questions.
“Oh, I just came here to build my relationship with him,” my editor replied. “Now, any time I need to know something what’s going on in this market, I can always call and ask him, because I took the time to come out here and meet him in person, and get to know him.”
Don’t be the sort of reporter who vacuums facts from a sources’ head and then leaves them a spent husk, and never returns again. Instead, build a relationship and cultivate sources you can use again. See if you can find a personal level on which to connect — a hobby, your kids, where you went to college. The more relationships you build with sources, the easier your work gets over time. And you never know when you’ll be writing on a similar topic again.
3. The source is as nervous as you are. Often, new writers tell me they’re petrified about picking up the phone and making that interview call. Later, they often report back that the source seemed as nervous as they were! Remember that interview subjects may be worried about how they’ll appear in print. So breathe, and relax. Your calm manner will help your source relax, too.
4. Be prepared. I used to want to crawl under my desk in shame at one staff job, when one reporter who sat right near me would loudly begin nearly every interview with, “So, tell me about your business! What do you do exactly? I haven’t had a chance to look at your website yet.” Really? There’s just no excuse for that. Learn about your source and your topic, and come prepared to ask some informed questions. That way you won’t waste sources’ time, and you might be able to work with them again. Speaking of which…
5. Be brief. The amount of time you spend with a source should be proportional to how much space they will get in your story. Unless you’re writing a 3,000-word feature profile of someone, you shouldn’t take more than a half-hour or 45 minutes, in my view. If you just need a few quick quotes from someone, take 15 minutes and be done with it. I used to know a reporter who’d do every interview in person and spend multiple hours with each subject. Many would later call the paper to complain about how he had wasted their time, after seeing that large time investment translated into one quote in the story! Be respectful of people’s time and don’t give them unrealistic expectations of how much you’ll quote them.
6. Get more story ideas. The end of an interview is a great time to learn more about your topic, and find additional ideas for future stories. End your conversation with one or two questions like these: “What else is going on in your industry right now? Who are the interesting new thought leaders? What will happen next year? What was the big topic of discussion at the last conference you attended?” Forget your question list at the end, and find out what’s on their mind. You’ll often leave with your next query letter ready to write.
7. Expect to follow up. Some writers I’ve mentored are terrified they’ll forget to ask something, and then have to endure the mortal embarrassment of calling the source back again. They worry they’ll never be able to get another response. But unless you’re interviewing a reclusive billionaire who’s giving his only interview in decades or some such, this fear is really unfounded. No source is going to yell at you for asking a followup question. In fact, callbacks are routine. Often, your editor might ask for a new fact that would require a callback, anyway.
My normal final comment to sources is, “What is the best way to reach you, for when I’m writing this up and I remember what I forgot to ask you?”