How can I get better at interviewing people for stories?
January 13, 2012 8:22 AM   Subscribe

How do I not sound naive and awkward when interviewing people for freelance stories?

Hello! I am doing some freelance writing, and having to cold call people to get information -- enough to make compelling pitches. (I know this becomes much easier once you have actual assignments with a name of a publication you can cite.)

My problem is that I can feel I sound twelve years old, particularly on the phone -- gawky, awkward. I ramble. My voice gets too high and sugary sweet. I am trying to fix these things, but in the meantime, I think it's hurting my ability to get information or develop rapport. I am a big believer in "fake it till you make it", but I don't even know what kind of voice or tone to fake.

So: experienced journalists, what do you do to sound confident on the phone? How do you get people to take you seriously?
posted by caoimhe to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It happens, for one. Search and listen to the This American Life episode where Ira Glass makes a fool of himself interviewing the stars of MASH. And now look where he is.

It takes practice. Evaluate your interviews with a partner you trust each time and improve a little bit at a time.
posted by glaucon at 8:37 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is it possible to do business via email/chat/etc until you feel more comfortable?

I'm in approximately your shoes, and I just recently found out that this is totally OK to do. You don't actually HAVE TO do interviews in person or on the phone if you're not comfortable with it yet.

Definitely for pitching and querying, email is a lifesaver. I cannot imagine cold calling a publication or a potential source and asking them to publish my work/give me something for free with my voice. If you're doing this and seeing results and your brain isn't imploding yet, you're a million miles ahead of me!
posted by Sara C. at 8:38 AM on January 13, 2012

For information-gathering, I've found that, as long as you're dealing with people who don't mind talking to a reporter in the first place, it pays to just be up-front about your ignorance. Tell the source that you want to write an article about their area of expertise, whatever it is, but don't know much about the details and need someone who can explain it to you. Then sit back, let them talk and take copious notes. Not everyone will be willing to help, but if it takes a few calls before you get someone who has the time and inclination to give you a lecture, that's still time well spent.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:38 AM on January 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm a big fan of giving a heads-up via email before placing the first call. Also, have a plan for the call. Make a list of topics you want to cover and questions you plan to ask. When you start the call, you can say "Here's my plan, I'd like to ask you about this, that, and the other, and there may be some new things that come up as we talk." You don't have to give your line of questioning completely away, but it's confidence-building to have a road map.

ALso, fake it. Get into the "character" of Competent Journalist before you dial the number. Rehearse your opening lines out loud. THey don't know you from Adam and they are picturing you as Competent Journalist, so the audience is already on your side. They don't have any way to know you're nervous unless you reveal it - so do the playacting.

I am afraid of phone conversations, but I manage it for freelance writing too. I usually find that after the initial awkwardness, my interest in the topic takes over and it's much easier to go on after we've broken the ice and are both talking.
posted by Miko at 9:04 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Naive and awkward can actually do a lot of good things for you, if you roll with it. Once you let go of having to impress your subjects, you might find that asking dumb questions, like Columbo, produces some great responses.

When I wanted to sound legit calling from the newspaper where I used to work, however, I would actually just write down sound bites for myself to say over the phone so I didn't have to do too much thinking on the fly.
posted by steinsaltz at 9:15 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all great -- thanks! I like the idea that being gawky might actually help!
posted by caoimhe at 9:38 AM on January 13, 2012

Wow, your AskMe sure brings back memories of my freelance days. I was a total mess when interviewing sources!

The key for me, at least, is to do at least one or 2 hours of research about the subject of your story first. Identify key assumptions and key issues, and then ask your subject about them. Then, come to the interview prepared with plenty of open-ended questions.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:56 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you write yourself a brief sheet before you call? Something with all the core needed information on a page. It's a technique I was introduced to in science writing but it's useful for any contact.

If I was interviewing someone who does solar research I might have some facts about the sun (to help myself not sound like a moron) as well as some info about his/her recent research and bio. For someone at a corporation some info about the place and their job would be useful. It's a good tool both for what you get out of the assembly and having it for reference and to determine what you already know before you talk to them.

The other thing that's worth having is your questions written out. I'm less a fan of this since I ascribe to the theory that an interview is a conversation and you have to let it go where it goes for maximum effect. However if you are trying to end the encounter knowing X, Y and Z then you should have that written down so you don't fail to ask those questions.

There's also something to be said for having your questions done ahead of time to allow for... difficult encounters. If you want to feel better about your experiences, look at Nate Silver's transcript of an interview that was shall we say, adversarial. Possibly the ultimate proof of the 7Ps.
posted by phearlez at 10:28 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

The best advice I ever got (read) about interviewing was that it's better to look ignorant in front of your sources than to look ignorant in front of your readers.

I have totally embraced that, and I think my sources appreciate that I don't pretend that I know everything or that I understand something I don't. (I still do my own research, obviously.) Plus, it cuts down on the possibility that I'll misquote them or otherwise make them look silly.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:42 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gawky is good, to a point.

The 3 most important things to master in interviewing are: speed, inflection, and brevity. These 3 do not care what your natural voice and pitch sound like.

Slow it down, to a slightly "awkward" level, almost each-word-is-deliberate.

Pick a part of your question to stress: "And, would it be accurate to describe you as a ... Reluctant Scholar? Inflection adds weight to your presence.

And finally, keep your questions short. Ridiculously short. It will keep your tone level, and get the subject to do all the talking - which is your goal anyway.

Conclude the interview with a terse "Thank you." This will avoid having to fall back into a rambling, flaky situation.

Have fun.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:54 AM on January 13, 2012

I have the worst phone voice in the world. It's terrible. Yet I interviewed public figures and such for work all the time and if they thought I sounded bad, they never let on. Some tips:

* Ever played that game where you try to sound like, I dunno, Barry White? Don't go that far, but it does sometimes help, even if it's just psychologically, to make your voice sound deeper than usual. (This isn't the best route for all sources, mind you - with some, you'll want to make your voice sound slightly sweeter or more approachable/conversational. It's a judgment call. Most people do this instinctively after a while.)

* Know your shit BEFORE the call. It doesn't matter how awesome your voice is if your source knows you don't have a clue what he's talking about. And vice versa - even if you sound gawky, if the source can tell you've done your homework, you're already past maybe a third of the folks he's talked to.

* Write some questions beforehand. Possibly. Be prepared to go on tangents and toss them out the window and not ask some at all, but just having a basic framework can help.

* Have a few go-to "filler" comments. By this, I mean that even just saying "uh-huh" or otherwise reacting to what your source is saying can reassure her that yes, you are listening, she's not just talking into dead air. One of my editors swore by "Interesting." Another used "great" all the time. You'll probably slip into one without realizing it.
posted by dekathelon at 5:23 PM on January 13, 2012

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