The Born Freelancer on the Care & Ethical Treatment of Interviewees

They are among the most invaluable assets a professional freelancer can cultivate and yet their care and well-being is too often taken for granted and ignored. I’m talking about your list of “contacts” or sources or interview subjects. They are the life blood of any freelancer’s career. I’d like to share some thoughts with you on dealing with them – an important basic but frequently overlooked aspect of our craft.


The importance of contacts

Everyone is a potential interviewee with their own story, agenda or cause. How well you listen to them and represent their story or POV in print or on air will determine the basis of your ongoing professional relationship with them. I try never to think of a source as a “one time” contact – you never know when you may wish to talk with them again.

Too often a short deadline and an inflexible editor/producer mean you need to pursue a story using some variation of the “cookie-cutter” approach. It’s sloppy at worst and uninspired at best but we’ve all had to employ the technique from time to time. You – or your commissioning editor/producer – have already decided upon the thrust of a story and you just need some quotes to round it out. So what do you do?

In most cases you call on an “expert”, usually a public figure well known in their field. A local college or university can be a gold mine because they possess staff with expertise and well-honed public speaking abilities. This combination is irresistible to most of us seeking articulate subjects to quote. To make the best of the time-imposed “cookie-cutter” approach I think it’s important to at least call on intelligent experts who can give you some genuine insights or unusual perspectives on a story.


Professional interviewees

All colleges or universities have a public relations person. Call him or her first, they will become your best friend in finding suitable professional interviewees. Be prepared to explain who you are, what it is you want and what kind of person you would like to talk to. If you are writing on spec be honest up front but stress the work you have already had published or aired as examples of your credibility. Their mandate is to promote the image of their institution and so it is in their best interest to find you someone articulate and presentable on their faculty. Always remember to thank them and keep in touch with them, they will inevitably become invaluable “first” contacts. (And if they like you they may also throw some outsourced freelancing work your way one day too.)

Having found a willing and suitable “professional” interviewee, someone trained in talking to the media about their area of expertise, be aware that their time is precious. They may be running between classes or meetings. Offer them whenever possible the option of a phoner or in-person, they’re doing you a favour. Apprise them of the nature of your piece and what it is you need from them. You can then ask exact questions, even so-called leading questions, to elicit the responses required. Most professional academics are used to the need for clarity or sound bites and will give you a concise, quotable response.

Of course you may get an answer that doesn’t fit into your preconceived notion of how the story should go. Do not panic! In fact, this can be solid gold. It may add an unanticipated element of drama and conflict within the story that could heighten public interest in it. Or else it might prevent you from making a fool of yourself – it may be an early warning that you (or your assignment editor/producer) have not done your preliminary background research thoroughly enough and that there are more elements in the story to consider before going any further with it.

In summary, to get the best results from a “professional” interviewee…

* Insure you have the right person – spend the necessary time to find the best candidate to illuminate your story. Develop a network of college PR reps to facilitate future searches;

* Explain your idea for the story and how their POV will be used, whether it is as background research or direct quotes, always asking how they wish to be designated and insuring that their credit is accurately reproduced. They need to feel they are promoting their brand in a positive light by talking to you; and

* Don’t waste their time. Once you have got what you want, thank them and briskly conclude the interview.


The “organic” interview approach

My preferred approach to freelance interview assignments however is the exact opposite of the “cookie cutter” approach – longer form interviews in which you come to the discussion with genuine lines of inquiry but without any assumptions about the answers. I call it “organic” because it evolves as it unfolds. I liken this approach to the old joke about the sculptor who when asked how to sculpt an elephant replied “You just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant”. This approach takes longer but you can almost always find unexpected nuggets of gold in the resulting conversation that you never knew about ahead of time, nuggets that ultimately will provide you with a unique story angle.

A freelancer is frequently looking for the unusual, the unexpected, the underreported to write or broadcast about. It is the trademark of our work. Staff reporters are increasingly under horrendous deadlines and don’t have the time for this approach and so are more likely to use the cookie-cutter or its many derivations. It is within our brief as freelancers to spend more time to uncover unexpected stories. Taking the organic approach will often result in such discoveries.

The trick is to keep an open mind during the interview but to really be able to zero in on the nuggets when you are reviewing your interview notes or tape. Most experienced interviewers will immediately recognize elements or “hooks” in a story that are especially “salable” even though the subjects themselves may not be as aware of them. Afterwards you will spend extra time chipping away at all the parts of the interview which don’t merit inclusion. What you are left with (once edited and rearranged) may pleasantly surprise even you.


Nonprofessional interviewees

If you are speaking to a “civilian” or nonprofessional source, someone not trained in speaking to the media, the organic approach will often reap rich rewards (as it will with professionals too – if they can spare you the necessary time). Nonprofessional interviewees include folk in every day life who have their own personal story to share. They may not be used to the cut and thrust of the interview process that a media-savvy professional takes in stride. They usually require more patience and understanding to elicit their story. In short, you need to connect with them on a much more personable level than necessary with a professional. And to do that you need to put them at their ease so that they will be less self-conscious.


How to begin

If you have a nonprofessional subject I have found it is usually easier to get right into an interview with them when using the telephone. If you are recording of course you must let them know and get them to give their verbal (recorded) permission for its unrestricted use. They are usually in their home or office or in a place they feel most comfortable. It’s hopefully a quiet location where they can focus on your questions. (If they are not in such a place it may be best to ask them to phone back when they can so arrange themselves.) When meeting a nonprofessional subject in person I like to first “break the ice” with them over a coffee or tea, briefly outlining my story and then getting a sense of what their anecdotes or points of view will be all about. It’s also a good chance for them to get comfortable with talking to me. Having noted the key points ahead of the recording I can then easily insert appropriate questions when we talk on tape to insure they give me back some of the anecdotes they provided me during our casual “pre-interview”. The danger is not to exhaust them with too much unrecorded conversation if it is for radio. If it’s for print you can of course just note down whatever they say whenever they say it.

If a nonprofessional subject seems especially nervous I will start the in-person interview with more general questions about themselves or their work or hobbies, just to get them talking and comfortable with the back and forth of an interview. People love to talk about themselves! It may be a waste of tape but never a waste of time if they start to relax. I try not to think of my preconceived questions but genuinely listen to them and maintain eye contact (inserting those questions only when readily appropriate). There is nothing more distracting or off-putting to a nonprofessional interviewee than to have the interviewer constantly looking at notes or the recorder and repeatedly losing eye contact. People can tell if you’re interested in them or not. In the moment of the interview, you must give them your one hundred percent attention. Nothing else, no one else matters. This is not just common courtesy and respect but also to insure that you are getting the best possible results. If you are not giving the interview your “all” then why should your subject?

In summary, to get the best results from a “nonprofessional” subject…

* Allow as much extra time as possible for your conversation;

* Listen, listen, listen! Use the “organic” approach if possible without a preconceived notion of their POV or story;

* Be aware that this may be their first interview. Although you should always remain in control and gently guide the conversation, a little extra kindness and lots of extra patience will be amply rewarded by their growing confidence and openness.


After the interview

It’s important to follow up with your best interview subjects, professional or nonprofessional, from time to time. At the very least I always let them know when the article has come out in print or when it is airing. They may want it for their own CV or files or just as a personal keepsake.

But maintaining a healthy and constantly updated interviewee list is also a good business practice for the working freelancer. I keep a file of all my successful interviewees with up to date contact information; also brief notes on their topics of expertise, mannerisms/speaking abilities and any personal information that might help me quickly reconnect with them (e. g. names of their spouse or children, etc. if they were ever casually mentioned.)

When I have nothing else to do I will often email or call an old “cold” contact just to see how they are doing. My inquiries are not just casual courtesy, these cold calls have often generated tips and ideas for new freelance stories. Once you have a contact inside a particular topic area they are much more likely to open up to you more easily a second or third time assuming you have covered their initial story well and treated them with respect. You may get the inside dope on an emerging story well ahead of any staff reporters without the time to make such general inquiries. Such calls or emails need not be lengthy nor ill-focused, rather, they can be along the lines of “just calling to follow up on our interview – what’s new in your line of work?” Keep it professional and keep it focused. If the subject doesn’t have time but says they have a good possible story for you make the time for a follow up meeting or phone call. This could be your next paycheque in the making.

In summary, always try to follow up successful interviews when you have time…

* By keeping a file of all previous contacts noting their topics of expertise, speaking abilities and any key personal information, in order

* To facilitate future follow up stories, quotes or background research; and

* To discover unexpected and potentially exciting future new stories.

By treating your interviewee with dignity and respect you will inevitably gain an invaluable new addition to your list of contacts. Treat them the way you would like to be treated and you will be rewarded with an ongoing rich source of useful future quotes, potential new stories and background research, all of which will help provide you with an unbeatable professional edge in the pursuit of your freelancing career.


Got any favourite tips on putting interviewees at their ease and providing you with optimal results? Please share them with us using the “comments” form below.



Posted on April 5, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Lesley Evans Ogden
    on April 5, 2013 at 2:25 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Thanks this is a great post. Lots of very interesting points and tips in here. One question that wasn’t addressed here… I’m curious to know how others deal with the exceptionally wordy and talkative interviewee — the expert that turns what you think will be a 10 minute interview into a 1 hour one. Tips for politely but efficiently steering them back on track, and cutting off verbal diarrhoea so it doesn’t carve a huge hole out of your day? How do you cut through the blah blah when you have someone that absolutely loves the sound of their own voice? It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, it’s a real pain.

    • Written by editor
      on April 8, 2013 at 8:52 pm
      Reply · Permalink

      The Born Freelancer promises to respond to this great question in a second post about the care and ethical treatment of interviewees… stay tuned!

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