Interviewing Sources and Using Quotes

Here are some tips on getting the best out of your interviews, so you can create better articles.

Read on, and don’t miss the easy-to-use email template.

Who is Your (Imaginary) Ideal Source?

 Ask yourself: what article are you writing? How long is it? Who’s the audience? If you know all that, you can choose who the perfect sources would be before you even know their names.

Example: I’m writing an 800-word post about bicycling and its effect on health. First, I outline my piece. From that outline, I figure out specific imaginary people who would be perfect sources:

  1. an experienced cyclist who races around the state, and lost 40 pounds doing it
  2. an exercise psychologist who can tell me why it’s healthy
  3. the president of a local bicycling club who may not be as interesting as the first source, but has seen cycling’s benefits for lots of people

 I might consider using one or two more sources depending on the angle I’m taking.

  • If the issue’s contentious, I’ll add a health scientist
  • If I need more human interest, I’ll get a rookie cyclist

Now that I’ve identified my imaginary ideal sources, I go looking for real people.

Finding Sources

Finding sources is not hard and can be kind of fun. Think of the process like a treasure hunt – the perfect source with the perfect quote is waiting somewhere, you just need to Google/email/call your way to her.

Let’s go back to our example.

The bicyclist – After getting your leads from Google, call the local bike store, bike club, and the organizers of the bike race coming up next month. Identify yourself as a journalist and ask whether the person on the other end of the phone knows of someone who has lost a lot of weight.

The professor – Google her school, and look for a phone number that will ring her desk directly. Check the phone numbers published for the professor and see if any of them are actually for the department secretary.  Skip those.

Journalists and bloggers – This one’s easy: they usually post their preferred means of contact.

A few more ideas – Describe your ideal source on Facebook or Twitter – if 1% of your 500 friends or followers respond, you’re in business. Use yellowpages.com. And don’t wait days for a call back – if the professor at Northern State University is too busy to talk to you, then the professor at Northeastern State University might have all the time in the world. You can cut quotes or whole sources later. During the early stages of article writing it’s about quantity, not quality.

Watch out for “expert” services – sites like ProfNet and Experts.com can provide quotes, but many experts on these sites have an agenda to promote.

If you read or watch political news often, you’ll see information attributed to the Manhattan Institute over and over again. It’s a political think tank in New York whose scholars provide many interviews every day. Institutes and agencies like this one are in every field, but they usually approach information from an angle, not neutrally like you do.

I was once hard up for sources while writing a story on the General Motors bankruptcy in 2009. A helpful public relations agent pushed me contact information for 25 GM bondholders in the “American Seniors” organization – which had been founded weeks before by the AARP and other lobbying groups to provide sources for reporters. Such groups are not evil – but they’re not unbiased!

After a Bite, Reel in the Big Fish

Be flexible. All you need for a good interview is a phone, a notepad, maybe a recorder, and 5-30 minutes of time. Try to set a time by secretary or email that works for both of you, but be prepared to say “call me any time between 1 p.m. and 11 p.m.”

Always come prepared. If you get someone on the phone with the intent to schedule something, don’t be afraid to just knock out the interview RIGHT NOW. Three minutes with a busy but enthusiastic source could get you two good quotes, one stellar quote, and a new concept worth including in your article.

Pre-Interview

Do your homework. Know your source, his work, his website, his articles, and his previous interviews. That way you can tell if your source and the quotes he gives you are going to be helpful, long, boring, amusing, or some combination of them all.

Study up on his field. You’re doing it already since you’re writing about it.  Know what the other side is saying about the topic, so when you do the interview you can intelligently discuss the theories around the topic.

Think about it this way: your readers are hiring you to investigate the facts and delve deeper than they have the time to. So browse the sources’ websites, Twitters, and previous articles. You owe your interviewees, and your readers, a thorough familiarity with the topic.

Take a look at our email template for reeling in those really tough-to-contact sources.

The Interview Itself: the Basics

Sound friendly. Don’t ooze happiness, but let them hear your smile through the phone.

KISS. Know what you want to learn, but DON’T call with 10 questions and expect to get them all answered. Call with three, let the conversation flow, and ask follow ups.

Every expert is different. Here’s what you need to do during pre-interview research and at the beginning of each interview: (1) establish rapport and (2)gauge the source.

Is he an expert with little time for small talk? Dive in to the scientific questions and email later to clarify the details. A rich CEO with a meeting in 10 minutes? Let her do the talking and get the three quotes you need fast. A small business owner with lots of time, but who’s too humble to open up? Talk about his real passion of bird-watching for 10 minutes first.

Don’t ask long or carefully polished questions. The reader doesn’t care about how smart or prepared you are, they want to hear from the source.

I was once assigned a last minute story due in 5 hours, about a play I’d never seen in a genre I didn’t know. I showed up at the interview ignorant but curious and enthusiastic, and just let the actress talk. An hour later I knew the play, its history, and her part as if I wrote it. If you ask informed, but brief or unfinished questions, the source – the expert who is flattered to be getting attention from you – will be forced to clarify or expand on your thoughts … and bam, there’s your quote.

Do ask simple questions that are difficult to dodge. Readers want facts and figures. Don’t ask “how long did it take?” instead, ask “how many man-hours did it take to finish the project?”

Do be prepared to thwart resistance. Your source may not respond well to a direct question like “How much money did you make last year?” but you can get the same info by asking “how much could someone using your approach make next year if he started today?”

Always give your source the last word. If she’d rather not or if you still need more information, try to lead her into expounding on it: “Could you explain the design process more?” “I understand how it works, but WHY do you do it this way?” “What led you to make the decision to switch health care providers?” “Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think I should know before I start writing?”

The Interview: Becoming an Source-Whisperer

You might run into a source who talks too much or tries to take over the conversation. Establishing rapport at the beginning will let you make polite interruptions later. Doing your homework helps too; if you interrupt with an intelligent question, it demonstrates you already know the topic, so the source will answer your question as he starts rambling again.

It’s similar with a source who gets off topic – learn how to politely interrupt. “Yes – yes – I got that down, but could you explain why we need this health plan?” Not often will someone get truly angry, getting the interview back on topic is a better use of both of your time, and if the source can’t handle it you have other people you can call.

For sources who agreed to be interviewed but aren’t happy or helpful, there are a couple ways to get them to work with you.

First, get your source to understand that you’re just the messenger, and telling the story can only help his cause. For instance, a farmer angry at Congress for reducing subsidies may act angry at you – you need him to understand that he’s just being angry at Congress while you write down what he says.

Second, some sources have been burned by journalists in the past and don’t want to open up to you. Be sympathetic, and direct them to articles you’ve written that show you’re fair to all sides of a story. This is an instance when you might need to chat for 15 minutes before making gentle approaches at the news you want.

If a source is just angry at the world – including you – take the abuse, let her do all the talking she wants, and do your best to understand where the antagonism is coming from. As long as the source agreed before or during the interview that all or a distinct part of it was “on the record,” you’re free to write and print. Publishing something that’s “off the record,” unless it’s related to government security or contractually suppressed business issues, will rarely get you in legal trouble but it will scuttle your writing career and professional reputation so fast, it’s never worth it. Ensure you have permission to publish the information or quotes you’ve recorded, even if it makes for an awkward “was that on the record?” conversation at the end of the interview.

Finally, ask your source if she has any other sources you should talk to. Remember these sources, since they’re associates, might give you the “side” of topic you’ve already heard. But they’re probably going to be more valuable than the people you’re cold calling off of Google. Try asking: “Do you have any friends with the same interests?” “You mentioned that influential professor after my first question – could I call him?” “Is there any one I should email, whose work you respect?”

Post-Interview: Start Digesting ASAP

The moment you hang up, you need to organize your notes. You can wait days or weeks to write the article, but only if you pick out the important quotes and information now.

What I do, whether digitally or on paper, is clarify any good quotes the source gave me (get it right now so you don’t muddle the meaning later), then outline any arguments or concepts the source introduced, and then make notes on any follow-ups you’ve identified. Organizing your notes now will make writing the article faster.

Thank your source: It’s always a good idea to send your source some kind of thank you after the interview. You should do this after any follow-up emails you send. It’s a proven way to establish a relationship with someone you may need to interview again in the future. It also reminds the source that the article is being published – that lets him share the article on his website or with his friends, which might get you some more free advertisement for your writing. Always include a link to the article.

Think of unique ways to thank your source. An email is easy, instant, and good enough. A handwritten thank you note is surprising and could mark you in the recipient’s mind for months if not years.  A tweet referencing the source’s work and helpfulness is a simple way to pay him back. If you find or interview someone connected with your source’s field, connect them and grow both of your networks.

Into the Weeds

Phone vs. Email: Phone is better. It lets you gauge the mood of your source, and makes follow-up questions much easier. An email correspondence could be best for a technical interview with lots of details and numbers – just know you’re going to get highly polished answers, not lively, straight-from-the-gut ones. Pick the method that works best for the type of article you’re writing.

Recorders: I have never used one, and I have never had anyone complain about the accuracy of a quotation. However, I know they can be useful for a long interview or a fast-talking source. Get a digital one so you can move files to your computer. And remember to always ask your source for permission before turning it on, as a courtesy, and in many states, because it’s the law. Besides a small digital recorder ($20-80), ipadio lets you conduct your interview on a simultaneously recorded conference call. Speechpad will rapidly transcribe a digital or video file for $1.00 a minute.

Done reading? Have you seen our email template for reeling in tough sources? Or head back to the Contribute page.