Interviews are often at the core of a journalist’s story, whether they are written, audio, or on video.
“No interview, no story,” says Wendy Salzman, 3-times-Emmy-Award-Winning investigative reporter.
But throughout the course of your career, you might encounter difficulties in making people talk, or have to face sources reluctant to be interviewed. Do not panic, there are ways to access people and have them talk to you even when they appear hostile at first.
Dean Nelson, journalist, and Vice-Chair of the Department of Literature, Journalism, Writing, & Languages of Point Loma Nazarene University shared some advice during the 2020 SPJ Conference “Talking to Strangers: How to Get the Eager, the Reluctant and Even the Haters to Give a Good Interview.”
Be nice to gatekeepers
When trying to reach officials or important people, you might have to deal with their assistant, secretary or intern first. These people can either facilitate your access to your interviewee or on the contrary break the access.
“I had one guy, when I was trying to track him down, he just kept refusing to talk to me. He was the president of a major utility and I was working on a story for the New York Times, and his assistant finally took pity on me — I was calling pretty much every other day and he just wouldn’t return my calls — and I finally just said to her ‘What do I need to do?’ and she said ‘I’m just going to give you his cell phone number, and tomorrow at three o’clock he is going to be on the New Jersey turnpike and he is going to be stuck in traffic, so call him then.’ So I did!” recalls Nelson.
His subject was a little reluctant when answering the phone, but Nelson managed to get his interview. He then sent flowers to the assistant as a thank you.
Try these helpful sentences
There are some things you can say to have people talking to you when they do not want to. First, you can appeal to people’s egos with phrases like “This story needs your unique perspective” or “No one else has your expertise on this. Listeners/readers/viewers will be better informed if they hear your take.” This also shows them that their contribution is necessary is really adds value to your piece. You do not want to interview them because you need to fill a blank or need a source, but because their own perspective brings something new to the story.
Other times, people will not be willing to talk to you because they previously had a bad experience with another reporter or representative of the media. In that case, use a phrase like “You’ve never talked to me, so can you trust me just this once?” insisting on the fact that you never misquoted them nor misspelled their name, thus other journalists’ mistakes should not fall on the whole profession.
Appeal to people’s emotions and memories
One of the best ways to ask for an interview is actually to ask someone for their help. Nelson mentions using a sentence like “I need your help on something” actually works very well, people respond to that.
On that same idea, if you are a college student or a recent graduate, do not hesitate to use that card: people will be willing to help you because they remember their start, they remember what it was like being a college student and starting a new career.
“I think the best way to get people to talk to you is to be authentically you,” says Nelson.
According to him, one of the biggest myths about being a good interviewer is that you have to be an extrovert, you have to get right into somebody’s face. It has not been his experience nor observation. He believes the best interviewers are the people who are being most authentically themselves. Not people who are role-playing, not people who are trying to look smart.
“That’s your brand. Your brand is your authentic self,” adds Nelson.
“Unless it’s a for a breaking news story, you should know most of the answers to your questions already,” says Nelson. “You’re not looking for information as much as you’re looking for a perspective, an insight, that unique human voice, that point of view, the anecdote.”
He pursues in saying that preparation puts your source at ease, they give them the confidence that they are in good hands. It also minimizes lying and spinning to other topics. Does that mean you have to plan all of your questions? That is up to you. Some reporters write down every question they have, others write down topics they want to discuss, and some even only prepare their first question and trust their instinct for the follow-up.
Organize your interview wisely
Start with the easy questions, but do not waste too much time on trivial things. If you have a difficult question to ask, wait until about two-thirds of the way into the interview to ask it. You do not want to start on the wrong foot, nor cut the interview short. You want to gather material before just in case your thorny question upsets your interviewee to the point of stopping the discussion.
Ask an easy question or two at the end. Be ready to improvise, which means actively listening and following up.
Ask the tough question
This is not about putting somebody on the spot, but sometimes you do have to ask the tough question.
“This isn’t about embarrassing somebody. This isn’t about humiliating somebody. This is about accountability,” argues Nelson.
Both your audience and your source will expect you to ask it. But instead of making it an interrogation, make it a conversation. Keep in mind that you are trying to get a perspective, not win an argument.
Choose carefully where you do the interview
“Choosing where the interview happens is going to be very very important […]. Even in a person’s home, where in the home matters. I’ll tell you the place that just kills conversation in a person’s home, and that is if they have a living-room and they go into the living room where there are comfortable chairs and they sit there and say ‘Okay we’ll do the interview here.’ That’s a terrible place to do an interview, nothing happens in a person’s living room. You know where it all happens? The kitchen table,” says Nelson.
He believes that is the place where the best conversations happen. He remarks that a lot of people choose to meet in places like coffee-shops, where the risk is ending up sitting next to the espresso machine or milk steamer — which is all you will be able to hear on your recording.
Control the interview
In every interview, there is always someone controlling it, and here is the thing: it has to be you.
“Somebody who has been interviewed a lot, they’re just going to try to take control of it. They’re going to run out the clock or they’re going to obfuscate or they’ll twist it in a way that they want to address it. But you’re the one who has to — gently, not rudely, politely — interrupt,” explains Nelson.
End your interview with these questions
- “Would you spell your name for me?”
- “Is there anything I should have asked, but didn’t?”
- “Who else should I talk to about this?”
- “Can I contact you if I have more questions?”
These questions can turn out to be very helpful to (1) get correct name spelling, (2) potentially get more material you would not have thought about, (3) more contacts, maybe even less obvious contacts, and (4) make sure your source will stay available to you.
Make sure you and your source agree on what material can be used
Nelson mentions 3 principle terms that you should be familiar with and that you have to agree on with your interviewee in order to be able to use or not use some material.
- “Background” = education and context that you get from somebody, without quoting that person: they’re just helping you out understanding the situation.
- “Not for attribution” = you can use what your source told you, you just cannot mention where/who you got it from.
- “Off the record” = this is material you just cannot use
“Steal” great methods
Ira Glass, Terry Gross, Mark Maron, and Krista Tippett were amazing interviewers. Learn from them, copy their method and make it your own.