Welcome back to the sell-your-first-article series. (You'll find step 1 and steps 2 through 5 here.) Today we'll only be covering one step, but it's a critical one--step 6, interviewing your sources.
Remember that for this short piece, I only needed to do one interview with one of the coauthors of the NEAT study. I'd already contacted him to see if he was willing to do an interview with me, and he was.
To make sure I wouldn’t forget any relevant questions, I wrote them down beforehand. Here’s my list:
1. Confirm name and title
2. Mailing address (so I can send him a thank-you note after the interview)/email address
3. Explain research findings briefly
4. Was he surprised by this? Why or why not?
5. Take-away message for women who want to lose/maintain their weight?
6. Anything else you want to add that I haven’t asked?
Questions in hand, I called Dr. Jensen at the time we’d agreed. The first question I asked him was, “Is this still a good time for you to talk?” That shows respect for his time, and if he needs to push back the time, I can accommodate him. Then I asked permission to record the interview (I use a digital recorder that hooks into my phone jack); in some states, it’s illegal to record without the subject’s permission. (You don’t have to record interviews, but it makes it easier to quote your sources accurately, especially if they turn out to be fast talkers. Check out Hello Direct, www.hellodirect.com, for headsets and digital recorders. On the other hand, if you take notes quickly, you may not need to record your interviews.)
At the conclusion of the interview, I thanked Dr. Jensen for his time, and told him I’d be in touch with any further questions via email. I also asked whether he’d be available in the next month or two in case my editor had any follow-up questions. Finally, I promised him I’d be in touch to let him know when the story was published. And then I sent him a thank-you note via snail mail, expressing appreciation for his time.
Scared about conducting an interview? I used to be, too. In fact, I’d say I was petrified I’d forget to ask something, or that I’d sound stupid (or both!) during pretty much every interview I conducted for the first year or two of freelancing. But I’ll tell you something—the person you’re interviewing doesn’t care about you sounding stupid—he’s more concerned about whether he sounds stupid.
Keeping that in mind, I’d like to give you some tips to get better interviews, regardless of who you’re speaking with. First, always do your homework ahead of time. Second, let your source know that you have. I’ve interviewed hundreds of experts and real people over the years, many of whom are busy professionals. They may be willing to be interviewing, but that doesn’t mean they’re eager to be. As soon as I make sure that it’s still a good time for the person to speak with me, I demonstrate that I’m prepared to speak with him.
So, for example, with Dr. Jensen, I told him that I’d already read the entirejournal article, but wanted some “live” quotes from him for the story. With another source, I might let him know that I’d visited his website or mention one of his books or some of his latest research. It depends on the source and the subject, but even with an anecdotal source, I can say something like, “Becky, thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me. I understand from Sarah that you’ve been homeschooling your kids for three years, and I had a chance to check out your homeschooling blog. Is this still a good time for you?” It’s that easy to start your interview off on a positive note.
I always tell the person I’m interviewing how much time I’ll need (say, 15 minutes) and I stick to that estimate. Watch the clock. If the interview is going to go over, tell your source. “I’ll say something like, ‘You know, I told you I only needed 15 minutes to speak with you, but we’re about to hit that. Can we speak for a few minutes, please?” It’s another way of doing what you said you would, and demonstrating your professionalism.
Finally, I always send a thank-you note. I mentioned that already but I’ll tell you that it’s made a huge difference in my career. Sources remember me! They remember my name even years later because, “You’re the one who sent that note!” People think of me as a professional, thoughtful writer—and there are much worse things to be known of in a business where your reputation may precede you.For this story, I only needed a couple of brief quotes from Jensen, so the interview took less than five minutes. My transcript included Dr. Jensen’s contact information and several short statements about the study. With the study and my transcript in hand, I sat down to write the story. That's step 7, which will be the subject of my next post!
**In the next post, we'll talk about how to start researching this short piece. In the meantime, Dollars and Deadlines: Make Money Writing Articles for Print and Online Markets, from which this post is drawn, in now in print. (Prefer the Kindle edition?)If you're interested in writing articles, be sure to sign up for next week's Write Now! Mastermind class. Rochelle Melander will be interviewing me for How To Pitch And Sell Articles To A Variety Of Freelance Markets. The call is free, but you need to sign up at http://www.writenowcoach.com/resources/write-now-mastermind.html. I hope to "see" you on the call!