If 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.
“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.