You can only go so far with online research and e-mail press release-style information. In order to invigorate stories, you have to work the phones and set up interviews with leading players in the field. Here is an overview for quick action.
1. Be Cool. Your first task is to put the wary subject at ease with the idea of an interview. A cool, confident, middle-of-the-road approach is best. In a phone call or an e-mail at least three days in advance, explain to the subject what will be covered and how much time you will need.
2. Be Early. Punctuality is a job trait that everyone admires, and no amount of explaining or working overtime will ever alleviate the poor impression you make by arriving late for an appointment.
3. Be a Navigator. Give your subject a sense of audience at the outset—“Our readers have a high school education, typically”—and then be prepared to intercept any MBA-style answers with, “How can we restate that so our readers get the point?” Use the gentle coaxing of a lamb as the directives of a lion.
4. Be Prepared. School yourself in the subject’s background so that you don’t waste precious interview time asking resume-info questions. Instead, use your research as a springboard for actual discussion of resume-like topics.
5. Be a Good Listener. Your job during an interview with a business leader is to listen for two specific things—ideas and key decisions. Everybody wants to know how Mr. or Ms. Big thinks and makes decisions. This means listening for examples of how he works with people, and urging him on in discussions of this nature. Don’t belabor tiny facts, statistics and particulars. Your goal during the interview is to find out what makes the subject tick, not to discover where he buys his ties.
6. Be Gracious. When you ask questions, make them sound as though they are the voice of your publication, not a personal curiosity or crusade. No: “The communications staff really works hard and needs weekends to recuperate. Do you see anything like a four-day work week for the future of this company?” Yes: “Some companies are taking a look at the four-day work week, Mr. Slimwhistle. Do you see anything similar in the next decade for Hagedorn Motors?”
7. Be Careful. Effective interviewing often means digging out contradictory stories from sources. This can sometimes change the slant of a story. The effective interviewer develops an opinion about the subject—but it must be conveyed through statistical and objective facts, quotes from credible experts, and unassailable logic—not through simple opinionated statements.
8. Be Vigilant. Save any topics that are even mildly negative for the latter part of your interview, and approach them with caution. By then you will have established rapport and you will get better answers. You will also have a fuller assessment of the subject’s mood, and you will know how to take advantage of an opportunity to ask a tough question. Money is always a sensitive topic, for instance. So…the phone rings and Mr. Big has to take a call. Afterward he hangs up with a sigh. “It’s that time of the year,” he says. “Budgets.” Now you can seize the opportunity to ask an “impromptu” question about the company’s fiscal health. “Speaking of budgets, Mr. Slimwhistle,” you say gently, “some people have observed that last year was a tough one for the company. Could you compare it with the current year and next year’s projections?”
9. Be Thorough. Use a tape recorder so that you can listen to the conversation again for accuracy. Always leave the door open for follow-up.
10. Be Professional. Check back with your source for an accuracy review of quotes obtained during the interview, but never give a subject final review and approval of quotes or—horrors—a total manuscript. Your job is to play fair, not to be a rewrite department in the ego division.
John Brady is visiting professional at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his workshop text Magazine Editing: The Practical Approach and his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his web site is johnbrady.info, or you may e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.