I used to be a journalist and loved it until I burnt out writing sad stories about kids, which is what happens when you cover the education/youth beat. (Also, I needed some big city life, and the exurbs of So Cal weren’t doing it for me.)
Anyway, last week as I sorted through old clips to post to my new website (leighwritescopy.com), a rush of memories returned, and I thought about what reporting taught me about finding stuff out.
So, in honor of my first career, here are my favorite tips for getting the scoop. Apply them to other parts of your life as you see fit.
- Shut up. Seriously, sometimes all it takes to get people to open up is silence. Silence can be awkward. If you’re not used to it, you will desperately want to fill it. Don’t. Let them.
- Ask short, open-ended questions. I love Fresh Air, but Terry Gross asks the longest questions ever. Half of them are statements more than questions. It works for her, but it probably won’t for you. Give people room to talk.
- Throw a softball. Until someone is comfortable with you, ask them the easy stuff — What’s your favorite _________? How’d you get started with _________? What do you remember about _________?
- Act surprised/incredulous. My favorite professor’s go-to phrase for getting sources to offer more information was, “No shit?” He’d vary the tone depending on the situation. As a young-looking twenty-something, "No shit" didn't work as well for me as it did for my smoke-stained professor. But “Really?” always did the trick.
- Be stupid. If you don’t understand something, pipe up. If you think you get it, but don’t know if you could explain it to someone else, ask again. My favorite request for this situation, stolen from a co-worker: “Explain it to me like I’m a fourth grader.”
- Let them poke holes. My best last question was always: “Is there anything I forgot to ask?” The answer to this was often the best bit of information or best quote of the entire interview.
(Coincidently, my research professor, another former journalist, gave some of these tips during Friday’s lecture on focus groups and depth interviews.)
Hope this helps!