Six Ways To Salvage a Bad Interview
You’ve got that sinking feeling – you’re interviewing a source, but it’s not going well. You need the source’s perspective for your story and have got to try to pull a rabbit of your hat before it’s too late.
All too frequently, sources ramble off-topic, repeatedly don’t answer your questions, won’t let you get a word in edgewise or force you to pull information out of them one word at a time. Whether you’re an editor, on staff or a freelancer, it happens to all of us. But with time – and budgets – tight, there’s less room in the schedule to find another source or try to work around an interview that’s a dead loss.
While it’s not always possible to salvage every interview – a few here and there are likely to be a waste of time – there are some ways to get around even the most recalcitrant source and seemingly hopeless interviews. Here are some tips:
1. Set the Stage. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it – failed to prepare for an interview or scrambled around two minutes beforehand, trying to think of a few pertinent questions. But like any other endeavor, you get out of an interview what you put into it. Before the interview, think about what information you need from the source and the best way to get it.
If you absolutely haven’t had time to prepare or your questions are falling like a lead balloon, think on your feet and try to regroup, advises Holly Ocasio Rizzo, a freelance writer. “Quick-check that your questions are worded to elicit thoughtful, lively answers instead of PR lines, statistics and such,” she says. “Think about what you fundamentally want to bring the reader from it, and take the interview there.”
2. Go Big Picture. Your source may be so caught up in the little details of what you’re looking for that he or she doesn’t know what to say. Try to back up and give him or her a sense of the overall story and where you’re going, says freelance writer Judy Schwartz.
“If an interview isn’t going well, I assume it’s my fault and that I haven’t properly conveyed exactly what I’m looking for,” she says. “I shift gears and go ‘meta,’ explaining to the source what I’ve envisioned for the final piece and inviting him/her into the process of getting there. Once I do that, the source often gets it and gives me just what I need.”
3. Get Specific. If I had to pick the one thing that is bound to drive me mad in the course of an interview, it’s the source whose input is so generalized that it’s absolutely useless. Or maybe it’s the source who tiptoes around a subject, refusing to confirm or deny that the sky is blue. It’s a toss-up.
Try to drill down by asking for specific examples of what he or she has done in a given situation may work. Asking for advice as to what other business owners/executives have done is a neat trick too – few sources can resist offering advice.
4. Get Down to Brass Tacks. Sometimes, being a nice guy or gal doesn’t cut it. To shake up the conversation and get it moving in a different direction, “ask a contentious, difficult question and hold their feet to the fire,” says Erik Sherman, a freelance writer, artist and photographer.
5. Cite a common problem. Sometimes referring to a common issue, or problem, in an industry can loosen tongues, notes freelance writer Cathleen McCarthy. “If someone is wandering off point or being too vague, I’ll say something like, ‘I’ve noticed in talking to other people (who do what you do) that X has become a big problem lately,’” she says. “Referring to someone’s colleagues and a common problem often loosens sources up. I think it’s a combination of competiveness – I’ve spoken to their colleagues – and the familiarity of an inside topic – I know the scoop.”
6. Cut Your Losses. If all else fails and the source just won’t respond or give you anything you haven’t heard 1,000 times before, it may be time to call it a day. Tell the source you have five more minutes and make one last ditch attempt to get something – anything – you can use for your story. Worst case, “if the wording is dull but not the points, paraphrase,” suggests Sherman. “If the person is only making points that others have made, use the interview as cover material, adding an additional voice and freeing up another source to say something different.”
Editor’s note: This blog post is a counterpoint to a piece Buttell wrote for financial advisors, “Six Tips to Work Better with Reporters.” That post appeared on the Financial Marketing Wire blog.
Amy Buttell is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Journal of Financial Planning, Hospitals and Health Networks, American Executive, Better Investing Magazine and Savingforcollege.com as well as many other publications and websites. She reports on a variety of trends and industries including finance, healthcare, legal and real estate. In 2009, she earned an Advanced Certificate in Accounting from the Walker Business School at Mercyhurst College. Her book, Personal Investing: The Missing Manual, co-authored with Bonnie Biafore and Carol Fabbri, will be published in May. She lives in Erie, Pa., with her two sons and two cats. Her online home is at www.amybuttell.com, her e-mail address is lecreative@ mac.com and you can find her on Twitter at twitter.com/lecreative.
Very useful column! You should blog more often for ASBPE members.
The points made are all well taken; however, I think the assumption made for the column is that the reporter hasn't met the interviewee before.
In B2B writing, there often is a completely different atmosphere when you are interviewing someone you know. Even when you have an ongoing relationship with a source, it may be a bad move to press for a decent comment when better information is not forthcoming. In B2B situations, you must be careful about turning up the heat, especially if you are interviewing top management.
In advance of face-to-face interviews, I attempted to apply two forms of insurance that the actual interview would not be a lemon. (1) In the telephone conversation to set up the session, I rehearsed a few key questions with the source to determine how knowledgeable that individual was about the subject involved. (2) When a complex subject was involved, I submitted a list of questions in advance. I don't like to surprise interviewees.
Just one more point that may seem like editorial heresy. I always regarded interviews as an important way to build a relationship that went beyond just getting a quote for an article.
Several times when I managed to secure a first interview with an important industry player, that person asked to see a copy of the article before publication. I had no trouble complying. Eventually, the source had enough confidence in me to forego a pre-publication review. Sometimes this practice can work against you in surprising ways. But for the most part, my batting average was pretty good.