Get Confident, Stupid!
September 20, 2010 4:28 PM   Subscribe

I have an opportunity to do what I dream of doing, writing a food column, but utterly fail at journalism. What do I do get cojones and pursue this dream to something bigger?

I love food. I read about it obsessively, I buy stacks of food magazines, cookbooks, etc. to learn more, to know what is going on, and my cooking skills are pretty awesome. I have been running a food blog of my own for nearly three years now; I toil away at it, have a few loyal readers, but have never really got the hang of internet social networking. Anyway, if it has to do with food media, I probably already know about it or am eager to know about it.

I have been given a great opportunity. Where I live (Quebec, Canada, though I am American) I have been handed the chance to write a food column, solely based on an impassioned email to the editor of the local Anglophone newspaper. It's twice a month to start, doesn't pay much, but I don't care. It's a column! In a newspaper! (The eventual goal is to build up a portfolio and start trotting it around to larger newspapers, perhaps magazines.) Only I have a problem.

I am a bit shy. And even though I am taking French classes, I am lacking the confidence to talk to predominantly French farmers/shopkeepers/artisans. Some of them are bilingual; others I drag my French-fluent husband along to help me out when things get sticky. But that's not the worst of the problem. It's just being bold enough to strike up a natural conversation with people, to talk about what they do (which obviously I am interested in hearing about), why they do what they do, etc. I took journalism in high school, but I have to tell you, 15 years later, I can't remember a damn thing about it.

So how I do not screw up this chance? How do I gain the confidence to be the kind of food reporter I am aiming to be?
posted by Kitteh to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In order to write well you have to read. Read a shipload (yes, shipload is correct. Shitload came along later, and is incorrect, so screw you) of material. If you write without reading you sound crap. Oh and learn French.
posted by Biru at 4:36 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your problem isn't journalism, it's getting up the gumption to talk to people. Honestly, this is not something I can understand, since most issues about talking to people in journalism usually revolve around not wanting to bother grieving people, or quailing from confronting the powerful. These are people who would be eager to talk to you!

Can you do a lot of your interviewing by email? How will the column be different from what you already are doing, with apparent ease?
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:39 PM on September 20, 2010

I completely understand. The trick that helps me is to look at it as I am giving people an opportunity-- to express their views, to get their name out, to show their stuff. I think once you start, you will find that people really love to be listened to. So few appreciate what they do like you will! If they are business-people who benefit from free marketing, oh so much the better.
posted by salvia at 4:46 PM on September 20, 2010

If it's a confidence thing, wear something ridiculous and take offence at anyone who even dares suggest it might be out of the ordinary. Seriously. Few are born with balls, but with training one can grow them.
posted by Biru at 4:48 PM on September 20, 2010

just dive in. you are obviously passionate about the subject. nobody is going to care if you are awkward, just that you are interested. people want to talk about themselves and what they are doing. do your research on the subject beforehand, compose a few good questions as openers, and let what they say guide the rest of your questions.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 4:49 PM on September 20, 2010

are you approaching these people cold? make an appointment to stop by. this is business. show up and say hello and start asking questions. bring your husband, or ask if someone can be there who is bilingual. take a few photos to remember the feeling of the person, the day, the area.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 4:52 PM on September 20, 2010

Just offering my 2 cent opinion as someone who is really, really shy and I've had to deal with this quite a few times; the closest example for me was talking to faculty during interviews at universities for faculty jobs, but I think the same thing applies.

First, read everything about them. Did they write a book? Are they known for a technique. Read all of that (and your shyness will probably spur you on to be really, really prepared). I also made a list of every singe question that I wanted to know, think of things that give the other person a chance to brag. I even wrote these things down.

For you to establish initial contact, you can email these people, which is always less intrusive. Introduce yourself as a writer associated with a column in paper X, and they will realize that it is an opportunity.

I was surprised to find out that conversations with experts in their particular field, especially if you were prepared, was very pleasant. Your enthusiasm will enter the conversation in subtle ways. People love to talk about themselves and their pet projects. I really believe that you will experience this the first few times and the next few will become easier.

tl;dr Use your shyness/stress/anxiety to overprepare. Your passion/ambition will make this project a success.

Also, please do let us know more about this through projects or something. I find it inspirational that you followed your passion and landed a gig/column out of this.
posted by Wolfster at 5:00 PM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Really, fake it till you make it. I can't tell you how many times I had to do this as a freelance writer and interviewer -- cold-calling talent agencies and publicists and pretending like I was the one with the upper hand somehow, or waiting for phone calls from famous people (that sometimes never came). Putting ideas out there for editors to tear to shreds.

In the end I was shocked at how often someone took me at face value, believed I could (or would) do everything I claimed. And you know what? They were usually happy with the results. At those times you feel you could work like this every single day for forty years.

Every now and then, you do get a really withering experience where someone sees right through you and just rolls their eyes, or (worse) totally ignores you, and that is certainly really traumatizing. At times like that you make a nest in your bed where you are surrounded with all your column clippings, and you clutch them to your breast and stroke them tenderly like babies and try to focus on simply being grateful that you've even had the chance to take it this far.

And then the next day, you pick up the phone again, or sit down at the computer, and you just keep going. It does get easier.
posted by hermitosis at 5:03 PM on September 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

One thing that helped me: start dialing the phone before you've even had a chance to plan what you'll say. Keep dialing and dare yourself to let it ring. Once it starts ringing, you're already on the phone, so it's pretty easy to stay there.
posted by hermitosis at 5:05 PM on September 20, 2010

Plan to endure about ten or twelve horribly awkward interviews; come up with good questions in advance to help you through. Look forward to the twentieth interview, which may or may not be awkward, but at least will be conducted by the experienced version of you.

In short, don't try to eliminate the awkwardness or your shyness (which might be comforting to the farmers and other people you interview, most of whom will also be a little shy). Embrace it, plan for it, go through it.
posted by amtho at 5:32 PM on September 20, 2010

Two things:

1/ Practice on the people around you. Interview your drycleaner, your friends, everyone.
2/ Know that people LOVE to talk about themselves. It's a wonderful tribute to be interviewed and business owners and craftspeople are genuinely really keen to talk about and promote their work.*

I lied:

3/ Get a dictaphone. It makes all the difference between having a conversation and taking shorthand.

*In other words, this is not an imposition. I swear that after you do two or three you'll be 200% more confident because you'll realise that when you offer to interview people for the paper they will bite your hand off with enthusiasm.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:02 PM on September 20, 2010

Take good notes and pretend. I was working on a project in a related field and had to do some research and in the course of five minutes talking to people I had no godly right to be talking to because I had told their secretary my job title, which as an intern then, was sort of make believe. In one sense, journalism isn't like baking: you sort of have an idea in your head what a baker should look like, but journalists come in all kinds of costumes and wacked out behavior, and people let it go because what do they know about it? In another sense, journalism is like baking, because people know it exists, they sort of can imagine the behavior, if odd, and if you play the part, they'll play along. Just take good notes and go for it. I'd record everything if you can, but not depend on the equipment (using it as a prop can be as good as using it to record) and go read the new new journalism which is a great book of interviews about a certain form of long journalism, but helps you get a sense on how every works (or doesn't work the same) and ideas that may help you. Bon Appetit.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:19 PM on September 20, 2010

The editor wouldn't have hired you if you didn't deserve it. Do you have a subject you can write about for a couple of weeks until your name is associated with the paper and you have clips (like a few round-ups of the best or your fav _____ in town? or shopping or techniques). That way you can have a bit of weight to your name when you contact people.

It will take a bit for you to get comfortable and experienced, but it will happen and in the meantime you were hired on the strength of you blog, your editor believes in you, keep doing what you're doing and good luck.

There is also nothing wrong with contacting other reviewers or interviewers and saying you're new to the field, do they have any ideas that may help you.
posted by cestmoi15 at 7:06 PM on September 20, 2010

One thing that helped me: start dialing the phone before you've even had a chance to plan what you'll say.

I actually have found the opposite to be true at first for me, so your mileage my vary—and I have the same problem as the asker here. (Nowadays I do randomly call people without planning and it all works out.) I'm largely horrified by barging up to people or by calling them for interviews. (The horror fades—over time, with practice, but it still comes back.) So my technique is often to write down everything in advance, up to and including the greeting. "Hi, my name is x, I'm a writer from publication y. I would like to talk to you about z." This sort of up-front, totally rote, matter-of-fact opening is very helpful in-person or on the phone. (Of course my first question is then always like "how are you today?" and then that's disruptive but I can't help myself.)

You must, you MUST, you must break through this. You owe it to yourself. You MUST do this.

I do take consolation from the famous Joan Didion line about how she sat in hotel rooms with the phone book open for hours working up the nerve to call some "assistant district attorney" or whatever. You're not the only one.

It's an acquirable skill. This will change! Since you're curious and interested: listen, drill down, and ask questions until you're exhausted. "Where is the sheep's milk from? Why that purveyor? Did you try others? What happened with the other milk that made you change? Was it flavor? Was it cost? What was the worst thing that happened? What was the most surprising thing?" And so on and so on.

Think of yourself as an eternally curious robot if that helps.

Also you will develop a small stash of ALWAYS-winning questions. I did a famous-actor Q&A column for years (which was nerve-wracking at times for me!) and the winning question was always "What was it like for you turning 40?" Questions like that always turned out to be a way in to talking about family and parenting and mortality and ambition. So over time you will find your small group of winning questions and stick to them.

YOU'LL BE FINE. Fear is the mind-killer, etc. :)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 4:04 AM on September 21, 2010

I was terribly shy as a beginning reporter. I could write, but hated hated hated talking to strangers. Like, so nervous I'd get pukey before interviews.

Then my editor told that if I didn't get better at interviewing, I would lose my job.

That worked. A few months of faking confidence and it got easier.

This may help: Keep in mind that you are there to do these people a huge favor. You will tell the world the wonderful things they have, and do. That's publicity - column inches in the paper - they may never be able to afford otherwise. Then people will likely buy things from them, strengthening their business, at least in the short term.

So your interviewees want so badly to be interviewed. You just have to help them explain their tastes, sensibilities and labor to the world. They are probably even more nervous than you are, unless they've been in the paper a lot.

Write down the questions you need answered. Visit whenever possible - telephone interviews with craftspeople rob you of the richest details. Use a recorder, because the extra time it costs you in transcription is worth getting every word right, plus the details and color (sounds, muttered asides) you can use in your story later.
posted by Andrew Galarneau at 8:01 AM on September 21, 2010

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