Friday, October 29, 2010

Ten Interview Tips: Mechanics

Second in a series for writers and journalists.

Ten Interview Tips: Mechanics
  1. Document every call. Even 2-minute follow-ups. Log time, date, name, #, in advance.

  2. Write constantly, but paraphrase most: bullet points, key phrases, important ideas. Only get full quote when it’s quotable. (Develop get an ear for it. Notice which quotes make it into the story.) Use a clear convention to distinguish when it’s a true quote.

  3. Getting killer quotes down on paper:
    • Abbreviate. Develop your own conventions (eg, I use ~ for “about,” “vic” for “victim,” initials for name the source uses a lot.
    • It’s OK to ask them to slow down/ repeat. But is it wise? Sometimes. Great quotes come in spurts. Are they on a roll? Never stop a great roll.
    • If you’re halfway through a great quote and they start in a better one, drop the first one, and scribble the second. (Two halves are better than a whole anyway: you have the memory joggers down to go back and ask them.)

  4. Mark great quotes as you write. They will get lost. (I use big stars in left margin.)
    • Don’t count on audiotape. Get the quotes on paper. (Nightmare to find later.)

  5. Extreme care for OFF THE RECORD.
    • Choose prominent convention to indicate. It must be big and clear. (I draw big box around it.) It’s easy to miss small notations in your notes later.
    • Make sure you and they agree on what it means. There are about six different levels. Note which one it means.

  6. One goal of every interview: several more contacts to interview. Use a separate sheet for new contacts, reading sources, and follow-up tasks, so they’re all together and findable.

  7.  When to use the phone (vs in-person or email, etc.):
    • Any official (or other source) who you hope to leak. If you were logged in as a visitor to their office, or even seen with them, that could kill it.
    • Often if a source is nervous about talking to reporters. The constant reminder of you writing can scare them. Be up front on the phone that it’s on the record, but then let them relax.

  8. In person: They notice when you start/stop writing.
    • They can find it insulting when you stop. This conveys that you have no intention to use what they’re saying right now—you’re just waiting for them to shut up.
    • Starting to write after a pause can also be dangerous. If they just revealed/leaked, know when to keep a poker face. You might want to draw it all out and THEN get it down.
    • Know when to stop to show respect. If they tell you their son died, set down the pen. Deal with their pain first. Pausing the pen when they give gory details can also convey that you need to know, but don’t plan to describe the bloody body.
    • Regardless, make as much eye contact as you can.

  9. Avoid pocket reporter’s notebooks when you can. They are a nightmare to file.

  10. If they have more to tell you, develop instinct for when to end and schedule another
    • It may take 20 sessions to get to the deep stuff. But once they spill something big, you’ve got one shot. Don’t hang up until they are done telling. They are not going to tear that scab off again, and if they leaked, they will fret in bed tonight.
    • But don’t push too hard. Did they go to the deep place yet? It may sound big, but could go much deeper. If they’re testing the waters, don’t scare them off: get a nibble and come back for more later (in that interview or next time).

      Two Bonus Tips              

  11. Taking notes on flyer/brochure/etc: inconspicuous and documents key details. (eg, church bulletins tell date, venue, name of pastor, often title of sermon and scripture passage.)

  12. Getting the tough interview: interview their friends/colleagues first.
I will keep adding these to my Advice for Writers page on my main site.

Previously in this series: Ten Interview Tips: What Makes Them Tell?

Next: Roles Sources Play 


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