In James B. Stewart’s book, Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, he writes about the art of the interview, and he poses the question: “How do you get people to talk?” In general, he states that people like to talk; they want to talk.
Having interviewed hundreds people—Big Four accounting firm partners, Fortune 500 CFOs, academic deans and professors, corporate attorneys—for finance and business articles that I’ve had published, I have to say it’s true. People honestly like to talk. I might not have believed this at all if I hadn’t had to pick up the phone and cold call people who are busy and important and who have information about a topic that may yet to be put in print.
It’s flattering to a person’s ego to find out that someone is thinking about them and seeks them out for their valued opinion. To the interviewee, there is the thrill of knowing that one’s name—and perhaps photo—will appear in print. (I’m not counting the movie star crowd and the paparazzi here.) It’s a credit to individuals to know their names will be affiliated with recognizable media sources.
The perception that people do not want to talk may be a bit twisted, in that it may be the interviewers who are averse to picking up the phone and making the call. It’s a matter of practice, a matter of overcoming one’s preconceived notions.
Some tips that work for me when I have to egg myself on include writing a to do list with line items that begin with “Call,” state the person’s name and company, and the phone number. If you write that wee bit of information down, it will stare you back in the face and remind you of how easy it will be to dial the number. If you think you’re going to call someone for an interview, but don’t have the phone number, you’re deluding yourself, and no action step is possible. If you have to, write on your list a to do item that tells you to find the number. Then write it down. Then call.
Another technique I use to ward off the heebie-jeebies is to start smiling the minute I place the call. If you are smiling, it is almost impossible to come across as being nervous. Smiling, even over the phone, is infectious.
Stewart believes that people talk to reporters because no one else will listen. From the interviewer’s point of view, here is an opportunity to work on that very skill: listening. Take advantage of it. In having to refrain from butting in, speak over another person, or pass judgment on thoughts shared, take the rare chance to bide your tongue, to honestly try to comprehend another person’s perspective.
You may even learn something.