Five Interview Tips To Get A Source To Open Up

Conducting Interviews
As a freelancer, interviewing skills are a must. Everyone can ask the grade-school basics of who, what, why, when and where, but it takes finesse to get a source to actually open up and offer answers that aren’t canned PR-speak or evasive responses that lack substance.

To get the kind of answers that result in exceptional writing, we’ve brought in two well-known journalists to help you. Rick Kupchella, a former KARE 11 anchor and founder of BringMeTheNews, a Minnesota news site, shares some advice from his years in the business. Plus, Mary Tan, a former WCCO reporter and owner of a video production company, Mary Tan and Associates, which specializes in storytelling for nonprofits, shares her trade secrets.

Rick Kupchella

Rick Kupchella


Mary Tan

Mary Tan

Here are a few pieces of wisdom to help you nail better interviews from two newsroom vets with a combined 40+ years of experience in the business.


Reaching A Source

From email to private Facebook messages, what’s the best way to track down a source these days? It varies, Kupchella says. Before cold calling or tweeting, make an effort to get to know the person. This is especially true if you’re trying to get a reporter to cover a specific story, he says. His advice? Build a good base of sources and reporters through social media sites and actively communicate with them. Once you have a rapport with someone you’re more likely to get a response when you email him or her about an interview or story.


Conduct The Interview In A Comfortable Place

If you can, it’s always best to conduct an interview in person, rather than over the phone or through email. Let the interviewee suggest a spot where they feel at ease, Kupchella suggests. An interview can make people feel edgy and uptight, so giving them the home field advantage can yield better responses.


Don’t Neglect Small Talk

An interview is all about conversation. Both Kupchella and Tan agree on this one. When you’re talking with a friend, conversation flows freely. It’s hard to establish that “normal” feeling in a reporter-source relationship, especially when you’re working on a deadline. To help establish a sense of normalcy try a little small talk to let your source get to know you. Comment on a family picture sitting on a desk or talk about a hobby you have in common to get the conversation started, Tan suggests.

If you’re doing an on-camera interview, take some time to talk before setting up the gear. On the phone, talk for a few minutes before jumping into the questions.

In a day full of priorities, sometimes we forget to be human, Kupchella says. You can’t lose that element if you want your source to trust you and open up.


Don’t Settle For Surface Answers

When you’re conducting an interview and you aren’t getting the answers you want, push for more. The only way to go beyond the surface answers is to do your homework, Kupchella says. Know the topic and the interviewee so that when you get a generic answer, you can ask specific follow-up questions that force your source to provide a substantive answer.


Make The Questions Personal To Avoid Canned Responses

Tan says making an effort to ask personal questions can get your source away from a canned response. Tan used this tactic while covering the crime beat in Minneapolis. For example, when a cop ran down a jargon-filled, by-the-book response about a missing child, she would ask the cop if he or she had children and how they would feel if the situation happened to them.

In a fast-paced, deadline-filled freelancing world, it’s sometimes easier to skip the small talk, skimp on research and accept surface answers in the name of churning out enough copy to pay the bills. It happens. But if you want to push your writing to the next level and secure higher paying gigs, both Kupchella and Tan agree that getting meatier interviews and writing high quality content is the answer.

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About Lisa Furgison

Lisa Furgison is a freelance journalist and co-owner of a media company, McEwen's Media. Find her on Twitter @lfurgison.