When Your Interview Source is a Total Blowhard: 5 Survival Tips

Blowhard interview source can't stop talkingIf you write articles and interview people, sooner or later, it’s going to happen: You’ll get an expert on the phone, and they’re a gabber.

You ask a question, and off they tear on some odd tangent that has nothing to do with your story. Or they simply can’t stop talking about their own greatness, or telling stories about the good old days of their business. Blah, blah, blah.

You feel like your brain is being sanded with heavy-grit sandpaper.

Your interview source takes up way more time than you had allotted, hurting your hourly rate. Worse, you hang up with the nagging feeling that you have reams of notes, but nothing useful for your article. You’ll have to call them back or find another source to finish your story!

To earn well as a freelance article writer, you’ve got to prevent this problem. I know, because I’ve written a ton of reported articles — over 1,000 pieces at just one of my two staff-writer jobs, and nearly all those assignments required interviews.

Just as a matter of survival, I’ve had to learn how to make blowhards get to the point, fast. Here are my five tips for staying in control of your interviews:

1. Set time limits

Blowhards are a lot like toddlers. They function better if you set expectations early.

If you forgot to say when you set the interview time, begin your chat by telling the source how much time you’ve got for them. Ordinarily, the answer should be 20 to 30 minutes.

That’s all the time you should usually need from a source who is one of several in a story. Only situation where you want to allot more time is if the person is the focus of a lengthy profile, where they are the main interview.

Remember, the longer you talk to sources, the more quotes they will expect to see by them in your article — so don’t set up false expectations.

I used this time-limit technique just this week, during an exclusive interview with the CEO of a major, newly public company that’s being sued. It quickly became clear he wanted an hour or more of my time to filibuster with his side of the story, in hopes of getting me to tilt the story in favor of the corporation’s point of view. As soon as I realized this, I broke in to tell them I’d have to go in 30 minutes.

Presto: They spit out the important info in the following five minutes, allowing me to get my story filed.

2. Ask your big question first

As soon as you peg your source as a blowhard, you need to look at your question list and prioritize ruthlessly. The moment they take a breath, leap in and ask your top question. Say:

“That’s fascinating…but first up, I have this one question I need to be sure we get to. Then we can get back to that topic you were just discussing. It’s this…”

Then ask it, real quick.

The assurance that they can return to their pet topic will usually jolly the blowhard into suffering to attend to your agenda, at least for a few minutes.

3. Guide them back on track

Some blowhards never seem to take a breath. If that’s the case, you’ve still got to break in and regain control of the interview.

Look for any opportunity to pipe up. Cough. Loudly drop the phone and then apologize for doing that, just to break their flow.

Then say:

“Yes, but if I may, I really need to bring this back around to the topic of X. I’ve got a few questions I must get answered for this story, and if it’s OK, I’d like to quickly ask them now. Then we can pick up the thread of Y.”

Even the most diehard blatherer will usually agree to that.

4. Make it in their interest

The trick to charming blowhards into focusing on the topic you want is making it seem like that’s good for them. Don’t focus on your needs. If they’re just rambling on, they may need a little training on how the interview process works best. Say:

“I’ll be able to showcase your opinions to best advantage in this story if I ask a few key questions up front, that you answer concisely. Then, if we have time, we can get into other areas of interest to you. I’d love to do that, as it gives me story ideas for future articles.”

The carrot that this chat might be leveraged for more than one article is usually an irresistible one for blowhards — after all, they’re talking to you because they’re in love with being quoted in publications.

5. Breathe and let go

Trying to interrupt the most hardcore blowhard may only make them ramble on longer. If you’ve got the time, sometimes it’s better to simply take deep breaths and let them tire themselves out.

Eventually, the blowhard will usually pipe up with, “Is that the sort of stuff you were looking for?” or words to that effect. That’s your chance to point out that you need a few other points covered and to return to your questions.

Quietly keep half an ear attuned while you do deep breathing exercises, pop a few mini-crunches at your desk, file your nails, scan email, or engage in other sanity-saving distractions, until you sense your opportunity to pop up with your question. Then, scratch this blowhard off your source list and don’t use them again.

How do you keep control of your interviews? Leave a comment and add your tips.

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26 comments on “When Your Interview Source is a Total Blowhard: 5 Survival Tips
  1. Hi,
    I JUST had one of these interviews a few days ago and was wondering how I could have better refocused the conversation. Well, I think you’ve given me some great information.
    Thanks
    Michael

  2. Kevin Duncan says:

    Hi, Carol!

    “Ask your big question first” is good advice when dealing with gabbers in all walks of life, not just interviewing!

    I have a co-worker who will talk for 30 solid minutes about nothing if you let him. So, when I need to ask him a question, getting my 3-second answer without being dragged through the minutia of his life is usually a difficult task!

    Next time I’ll try your approach:

    “That’s fascinating…but first up, I have this one question I need to be sure we get to. Then we can get back to that topic you were just discussing…”

    But after getting my answer I’ll just pretend I hear the phone in my office ringing. Or my content lens is giving me trouble. I’ll think of some excuse to get out of there. 🙂

    First time commenting, by the way! Love your stuff.

    – Kevin
    Kevin Duncan recently posted…22 ridiculously easy blog tips you can use right nowMy Profile

  3. Karen J says:

    Often, I think sources (especially those who aren’t so experienced with journalists) simply don’t know “how to tell this story” without getting wound up in the details (or the jargon) and losing your question, or going on about “was that last Tuesday or Wednesday? No – it was Thursday. Yeah, Thursday…” when “last week” is sufficient for your purposes.
    The gentle re-direct is usually the best way out of that tangle.
    Karen J recently posted…“Make Good Art!” – Neil GaimanMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Great point, Karen — they don’t know how to filter their details, and often the problem is they know soooooo much about their topic. It’s hard to winnow it down. We have to guide them.

  4. When I was a reporter I often had interviewees that went on and on, particularly when I was doing a feature about some personal event. These tips would have been very helpful, so thanks on behalf of newbie reporters.

    One technique that I learned for cutting off an interview is to wait until your interviewee has to breathe, and then quickly interject, “Well, I think you’ve given me a ton of great information. I’ll need to go through my notes to plan my story, but I’ll be sure to call you if I have any more questions.” This usually did the trick, since it showed that I was done, but wasn’t a rude way to finish. I started adding the “I’ll be sure to call you,” after I had a source who “forgot to tell me something,” and called several times.

    Still, even with the blowhards, I loved interviewing. I learned so many fascinating things from them and a valuable skill for my freelancing career.
    Peggy Carouthers recently posted…How to Work Effectively with Your Freelance WriterMy Profile

  5. Elke Feuer says:

    Great tips! I haven’t interviewed anyone yet, but will tuck these nuggets away for when I do.
    Elke Feuer recently posted…Murder, mystery and mayhem for only 99cMy Profile

  6. Erica says:

    “Talk to me like I’m five.”

    It encourages them to get to the point in clear, concise terms and keeps their ego in tact by taking the confused road. Also handy when interviewing subject matter experts.
    Erica recently posted…Why not guarantee the results of your copywriting?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on — I like to say, “So when you’re at a party and everyone’s a little drunk and then someone asks you what your company does, what do you say?” That sometimes can snap them out of their blatherspeak and get you a straight answer.

  7. Marta says:

    It happens often, especially with blowhards fully aware that they are speaking with a journalist/blogger (defined as a “toolperson” whose only purpose is to give them free visibility) but by no means aware that the journalist/blogger is a human being with a brain and judgment.

    It especially bothers me – but here it is also often “we journalists” fault, that we are imposed to write in a hurry articles on subjects we know nothing about – when the blowhards speak to us perfectly convinced that we have no idea about the topic of conversation and should explain everything as to a kindergarten child…. only to be surprised (and not a little!) when they realize that we have a minimum read up about it…

    What a hard life! 🙂

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t have the same reaction to blowhards, Marta. I think most area aware I’m a person, and if I know their topic, I’m sure to make them aware upfront — it they’re taking you through the basics and you don’t need them, that’s your error in not setting up the interview so they knew who they’d be talking to.

      I think working in the mines is a hard life, or in a mill, and that being a journalist is the greatest life. If you don’t, you might want to consider another line of work! After over 20 years, I still enjoy the dynamic of interviews, and the chance to meet and learn from interesting new people.

  8. Cinthia says:

    People who talk too much–oh dear! I think some of it is from nervousness and also some from relief because think of it: How many people get to talk, practically uninterrupted, about themselves or their jobs or their projects? When I have time, I allow people to go off. While they do, I rearrange my notes, I begin writing my article, I try and find an opening sentence, I surf my contact lists for my next interview source for my next story. Sometimes I think that, even though we’re pressed for time and it’s annoying as hell, allowing someone to talk is a type of gift.
    Other times, though, if someone is clearly trying to sway the interview or the story, I interrupt. I do this politely yet frequently and believe me, they usually shape up pretty darned fast. People who monopolize conversations hate to be interrupted, hee, hee.
    Cinthia recently posted…Throwback Thursday (Or how my Richard Leakey crush led me to writing)My Profile

  9. rabbine says:

    Where do you find your sources for interviews? I believe you or Linda mentioned a site where there is a list of reliable sources.

    • Carol Tice says:

      That really depends on what type of source you need, Rabbine. There is no ‘site with a list of reliable sources’ that I know…there are a few sites that are good for various things. You may be thinking of HARO, Help a Reporter Out, or ProfNet, which is good for academics and a few other types. But HARO doesn’t list sources — you post your need and sources respond.

      I’m glad you bring this up, though, because I had that exact thought – that we have a handout on how to get editors’ emails, and that the next handout to add to 4 Week Journalism School should be how to find sources! So we’re going to be creating that in this J-School session.

  10. It’s like you read my mind- I JUST had one of these interviews a few days ago and was wondering how I could have better refocused the conversation. Luckily my source was super nice & helpful- just chatty, not necessarily with an agenda. I did get what I needed, but it probably took twice as long as it needed to! Next time I’ll give some of your survival tips a try.
    KeriLynn Engel recently posted…6 Essential Plugins For Every WordPress SiteMy Profile

  11. I started interrupting the neverending stories with “Awesome! Now can I quickly ask you about X?”

    That worked pretty well, but when I watched my own interviews again on video I realised I’d developed a habit of saying “Awesome!” before almost *every* question, even when the source had already stopped talking and was waiting for me to respond. I said it so many times in 20 minutes, I sounded like an idiot. :-/ Now it takes a conscious effort to avoid saying it too often.

    I guess the lesson there is to beware of bad habits — they’re a lot easier to pick up than to put down!

    P.S. Your math-based anti-spam thingy almost stumped me today. 8 x eight = 64! In school, I had to memorise that one as “the answer to the one I can’t remember in the multiplication table for 8 is 64”.
    Sophie Lizard recently posted…Blogger of Interest: Francesca Nicasio of Be a Freelance WriterMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Sorry about the math captcha…we had to put it in, too many spammers.

      We’ve all got those audio tics…as someone who presents live every week, I can tell you I want to shoot myself when I look at the transcripts. I’d like an operation to get rid of my Valley-speak: “So then he went, “Hey,”… and then I go, like, “

  12. Alice says:

    These are some great tips. I always find it difficult to interrupt people on the phone and most of the times I feel bad about it. If I can’t find a method to stop the rambling, I tend to do stuff that doesn’t require too much of my attention, such as back linking or something of the sort.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Same here — I find if you can do some small activity that takes your mind off how this person is going ON and on, saying things that aren’t helpful to your story, it relieves the stress and helps you wait it out.