Reporters, Know These 3 Source Types? Tips for Interviewing With Ease

Reporters, Know These 3 Source Types? Tips for Interviewing With Ease

Most writers need to know how to conduct efficient interviews.

If interviewing is a major part of your freelance writing life, you’ve probably come across sources who have trouble putting their thoughts into words.

Once you’ve found a source for an article, and they’ve agreed to be interviewed, you have to get them to talk.

There are a number of reasons it can be hard to get someone to talk even though most people enjoy telling you about themselves. Some people are naturally shy. Some are more visually inclined than verbal; they can show you something wonderful, but have trouble talking about it. And most people, unless they’ve had public relations or marketing experience, are definitely not used to talking to the press.

In my experience, I’ve come across three types of interviewees that have the most difficulty lending their expertise to my stories. In fact, many of my sources fall into these categories. And I’ve come up with some techniques that help me draw them out.

1. The “Yep-Noper”

Yes. No. Yep. Uh-huh.

None of these responses qualify as quotes. And, aside from general expertise on a topic, an interviewer is primarily looking for quotes.

My two best tools for handling monosyllabic responders are these:

Ask for advice.

Play dumb. It’s the best way to get people to tell you things. Even if you know all about the current trends in outdoor water features, pretend you don’t.

Try asking these questions:

“What are your most popular outdoor fountains?”
“What materials are they made from?”
“Are all fountains freestanding or can you hang some on walls?”
“What do they look like?”

Ask about their customers

In my work writing for regional magazines, I talk to a lot of people at local businesses who aren’t used to speaking to the press.

They seem to be trying to tell me what I want to hear instead of what they actually think. That is, when they can think of anything to say. When questions about their work are leading nowhere, trying asking about their customers. In my experience, local business owners like talking about how well they serve their customers. That’s their bread and butter and usually the part of their jobs they find most satisfying.  

Try asking these questions:                                                                  

“Which styles of dining room tables are your customers buying?”
“How do your customers go about paying off credit card debt?”
“How do you help your customers pick out houseplants?”
“Have customers been buying more of this or more of that? Why do you think that is?”

2. The “Big Talker”

This interviewee poses the opposite problem of the “yep-noper.”

Big talkers don’t have a problem talking. Instead, they get off topic easily. You can’t get them to shut up so you can ask all your questions, and you might not be able to keep them on track.

While you appreciate their passion for what they do, you have a story to write. And if your story is about how to choose a college major, you don’t want a source going on about their very specific, highly academic research.

Here’s how to handle a big talker:

Try email first.

Email is best for these subjects. You ask certain questions. They give certain answers. Include “Anything you’d like to add” at the end to throw them a bone.

Guide them back gently.

“Big talkers” are usually excited and happy to have someone to talk to about about what excites them.

Say a professor is detailing a paper on a facet of cell research that is a response to another paper on that facet of cell research they recently presented at a conference for other cell researchers. But your story is a 300-word website story on the faculty-student connection at your university. You need to guide them back to the path and sometimes you’ll have to interrupt to do it.

Politely interrupt and ask something related both to what they’ve been saying and to your original topic.

Try asking these questions:    

“That sounds like a great conference. Did any students attend with you?”
“How do you feel experiences like these prepare students for their first jobs or grad school placements?”

Again, focusing on the population your expert serves will often get them back to talking about what’s important to the both of you.

3. The “Micromanager”

I recently interviewed a very bossy breast cancer survivor. She had an important message about breast cancer screenings for younger women. And she asked for a copy of the story before it went to print.

Yeah, no. We don’t do that.

To manage a micromanager:

Present the facts.

Instead of giving my interviewee a copy of her story before printing, I sent her a list of her quotes which were to be used in the story. I included a list of facts from the story as well. She changed several items. And that was that.

Let them talk.

Another way to manage a micromanager is to give them plenty of opportunities to have their say.

Without compromising your integrity, you can offer your source:

  • The opportunity to send you an email with anything they might’ve forgotten to say on the phone or in person but remembered later.
  • A summary of the major points you discussed in the interview.
  • A friendly ear. Most micromanaging interviewees are not really jerks. They’re just perfectionists that are concerned with what other people might think about what they say. Hear them out even if it annoys you. You never know what gems may be uncovered if you let your source spout off a bit.

Try asking a different variety of questions in your next interview and you’ll end the conversation with some usable quotes. You’ll also have a relationship with a source who will probably be happy to be interviewed again.  

How do you handle an interview that has derailed or hasn’t even gotten off the ground?

Filed Under: Craft

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9 comments

  • Tamara says:

    Good tips! I write for a local paper (100+ articles a year, human interest, business profiles, political interviews) and send almost all my articles to the people I write about for a fact check. Every once in a while, someone decides to do a bit of a rewrite instead of a simple fact check, but that’s okay. In those rare cases, I rewrite the sections so they’re neither what the person wrote nor what I originally wrote (so it doesn’t look as if I’m just being stubborn and changing it back). When I send the articles for a fact check, I say, “Hi. Here’s the article for a fact check. Can you look it over and make sure I’ve represented things accurately? This is just a draft, so I’ll be sprucing it up before sending it to the paper.” This lets them know I’ll be making more changes. I’ve found that many people don’t trust reporters because they have a bad habit of getting facts and entire scenes wrong. We’re working on tight deadlines and it’s easy to get sloppy or just confused. I’ve avoided more than a few embarrassing mistakes by running articles by their subjects, and I’ve built good relationships with people in my community by acting as if I’m a partner in their stories rather than an expert in telling them. The only exception to this practice is on investigative stories, in which case the burden of meticulous accuracy is fully in my court.

    • Shannon says:

      Thanks, Tamara! It’s important to help sources feel like you’re working together. Makes things go so much more smoothly and definitely helps establish trust.

  • Ivy Shelden says:

    Very helpful, thank you! I have been wanting to take my blogging up a notch and start doing some interviews, and just conducted some for the first time! It was very nerve-wracking. One of them was definitely a “big talker.” She was also a survivor of an illness and talked a lot about her personal life. I didn’t want to be rude and interrupt but I kind of had to!

    • Shannon says:

      I’m glad you found this helpful, Ivy. Thanks! It seems to me that most big talkers are just so passionate about their topics and, in the case of illness, they are really intent on getting their message out to others who may be struggling. The trick is to steer the conversation as best you can!

  • Lexie says:

    Thanks for sharing these. I hope I can use this in my interview with http://essay.expert/ . Well, it’s not the perfect choice of job for a writer but still I’ll get paid and have time for my studies. Still, my mom has mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, she agrees that working while in college gives you a reality that cannot be taught – she also worked several different part-time jobs when I went to college, not just to defray the expenses of tuition but to help support her family. However, she some ways, she felt she had to work TOO much – she was in a state of perpetual exhaustion, and even though she did well in her coursework, she doesn’t feel she was able to immerse in she content area as much if she hadn’t had to work so many other hours. And she doesn’t want em to feel this way.

    On the other hand, I’ve read these articles of students over the years partying like there is no tomorrow, binge drinking, drugs, sexual assault issues on the rise, and I see it as a bizarre symptom of a society that has lost its way. It’s one thing to relax, enjoy the company of your friends and get a change of pace, but to NEED to just zone out? I guess I’d say there are very few part-time and entry-level jobs available other than at McD’s or other fast-food places. And while the experience of being humbled can be a good dose of reality, it’s also depressing to realize that it barely makes a dent in your tuition bills and that there is little else to work at.

    • Shannon says:

      Thanks, Lexie! You are not alone in your concern about paying for college. It can be tough. I can say from experience that it gets a little easier when you’re out of college and have a full-time income. Hang in there and good luck!

  • Vicky says:

    These are great tips. I especially like the part about “hear them out”, I think this is great advice not only in interviewing but in life in general. I will come back to this article! Thank you.

    • Shannon says:

      Thank you, Vicky! I’m so glad you found something helpful here. I agree, hearing people out is important and gives them space to talk about things you might not otherwise hear.

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