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How to Interview Sources without Resorting to Torture

Date posted: May 21, 2009

On an annual basis, I conduct anywhere from 100 to 300 phone interviews, depending on my freelance and journalism workload. I estimate that I’ve interviewed more than 5,000 people over the course of my writing career. After gathering information from so many people on so many different topics, I’ve learned a few important lessons about conducting an information-gathering interview.

First Pitch Softball

I always start by asking the interviewee to state his/her name the way they’d “like to see it in print.” It puts them in the frame of mind that what they say is going to matter. Then, I ask them at least one easy question to put them at ease. The first question is never really an important one—it’s designed to give the interviewee confidence and warm them up. I always ask a question that the person—from doing some homework about their expertise—will find very easy to answer.

Anecdotal

Almost without exception, I will ask the person I’m interviewing if they have an anecdotal story about whatever it is we’re discussing. It nearly always produces the best response of the interview.

End Note

I always end with the following question regardless of the subject at hand: “Is there anything about this topic that I wouldn’t know to ask you about?” This question consistently produces an excellent quote. I often follow it up with: “Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t already discussed?” This question not only produces rich content, but often leads to ideas for future stories.

Using these strategies, I haven’t had to resort to water boarding to get compelling content for my editors or clients.