Interviewing Essentials Day 2: How to make sources comfortable

It should be common sense to everyone that we talk more freely when we’re comfortable. Familiar settings or conversational set-ups make us open up easier because we feel at ease.

In this case, maybe Monty Python’s version of the Spanish Inquisition cardinals had the right idea:

Of course, poking our sources with cushions and strapping them to a puffy armchair while snarling at them “CONFESS, CONFESS” isn’t going to get you a stellar story (a restraining order, probably, but definitely not a story), but there are other ways that can coax them to talk to you that, if executed correctly, won’t result in legal action:

  • Look for “passion points” — sounds kind of kinky, I know – by giving people a reason to talk about something they’re very passionate about. This not only gets them talking but also breaks down some of the barriers between you, the journalist, and them.
  • Taking walks or tours are a great way to get the source talking. As Jacqui put it, when do you ever see two people walking side by side and not talking, unless they’ve been married for fifty years? We naturally start conversations as we do monotonous things like walking. A step up from that (bah-dum-chee!) is touring the source’s home or workplace. This gives them a reason to talk, also, and gives them something to say to you. It also helps with this next tip…
  • …Using objects and photos to get the source talking. Touring a home gives you plenty of time to ask about family portraits hanging on the walls or pieces of old furniture that look like they mean something more than your average Walter E. Smith armoire. This method works particularly well with little kids because they can explain to you why they love a certain toy or what they were doing in a picture. The more you use objective clues, the better the answers.
  • Give sources enough context in simple enough terms so that they understand fully what you want to talk to them about. Also, make sure they understand the “rules” and how the press works before talking to them, and ask if they have any questions regarding the process. This clarifies things as well as gives them a chance to think about what they want to say.
  • Most of all, remember to slow down the interview. Going fast will be uncomfortable for them, and you’ll get rushed half-answers. You’ll also miss where you should ask good questions because you’ll be so busy moving on to the next topic.

The number-one thing that stuck with me from tonight’s class was the idea that we don’t want to force our interviewees to tell us a story. Instead, we need to help them become storytellers by asking the right questions. If this means taking them to the scene of the story you want them to tell or by presenting them with a photo or possession of theirs, go to extra lengths to get the extra-special scoop.

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2 Comments

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  1. Kate, reading your blog posts is like taking the class without paying anything.

    Sincerely,
    Poor college student who wanted to take this class but couldn’t.

    • Dear Poor College Student,
      After 10 minutes of day one, I knew every student in the J-School needed to know this stuff. That’s why I’m writing it out; it’s nothing like what Jacqui B teaches, but it’s the main ideas!
      Glad I could help out,
      Kate

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