Five tips for getting more out of your sources during an interview
Have you ever left an interview feeling like nothing was really learned or accomplished? Sometimes sources spend too much time trying to fit in all of their buzzwords that almost nothing is quotable. The result is journalists leave feeling like they wasted their time.
We’ve all heard the trite but true solutions to this problem. Come prepared to an interview, be there on time, do lots of research. But, sometimes there are some sources that are tough to crack.
But, fear not. There is a cure. By trying a few new techniques and pushing a few social boundaries, you can tease out that much needed information from your source.
Below are some ways to pull something a little extra out of your source to change your story from good to great:
1. Don’t say anything. This is a trick that Gene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, used to teach his students at the University of Maryland, College Park. When it seems like your source is finished what he or she is saying and it’s your turn to speak, just don’t. Think about it: How awkward is it if someone you are talking to just looks at you expecting more? You feel nervous like you need to fill the quiet void in the room. Sometimes sources will repeat what they said in different words, but other times you never know what will come out of their mouths. Also, some sources just need a moment to think and formulate their words; rushing them will only lead to confusing answers.
2. Ask the same question again. Asking the same question, but slightly reworded a few minutes after you asked the original question can clarify a complicated issue or get your source talking more on an issue of importance. The trick is to reword the question in a way your source won’t realize you are repeating yourself. This can open a whole new schema of thought on the subject and lead to better information.
3. Take a walk. Sources, especially those unaccustomed to being interviewed, have a lot of pent-up anxiety. Put yourself in their shoes. There is someone writing down every word you say, which could be printed for thousands of people to read and if you make a mistake, it’s available to the public for the rest of eternity. Taking a walk in the beginning of an interview can help relieve stress and reduce anxiety. Walking with your sources while they talk may loosen them up a bit, but it’s also hard to take notes, which is why eventually finding a place to sit is encouraged.
4. Get off the phone. Everyone knows this tip, but journalists sometimes don’t heed the warning. When a source is on the phone you are just a far away voice. It’s easy to hang up, put on hold or “have a bad connection” when talking on the phone. When meeting in person, sources get an idea of what you are really about. It’s much harder to kick someone out of your office than it is to hang up the phone. Additionally, meeting someone in person is an interviewing goldmine. Not only can you see their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, but also, if you meet them in their office or house you can see old pictures, how often they clean their house and what their dog looks like.
5. It’s not over until you’re out the door. Some of the best content in interviews comes when the interview is “over.” Sometimes while chatting with a source after the traditional interview is over the best information comes out. Legend has it that is how the famous Jimmy Carter, I’ve “committed lust in my heart” quote came to be. Robert Sheer supposedly pointed to the tape recorder when Carter said it to remind him it was still recording. Of course, it is always a good idea to ask the source if you can still use the content. Regardless, it makes sense for a source to blab after everything is done. Once the interview is over, he can finally let loose and relax, but that is when a good journalist is listening.
Do you have other tips getting more out of your sources in an interview? Share in the comments below!
Scott Maucione is a journalist for FedScoop in Washington, D.C. He has been published twice in The Washington Post. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in journalism and political science and received his Master’s in applied politics. Follow him on Twitter at @scottmaucione.
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