By Simon Perez, RTDNA Contributor
“No one will talk to me.”
One of the biggest hurdles students face in broadcast reporting classes is lining up interviews for stories. Students feel no one will talk to them because they are not professionals. Well, there’s not much we in academia can do to change that status - we’re teaching, not hiring. But, we can help students change the perception.
So, what’s the difference between an interview request that sounds like it’s coming from a student rather than a professional? Much of it depends on how one speaks, one’s demeanor. From the moment reporters open their mouths, interview subjects are sizing them up and deciding whether to invest 30 minutes of their busy days in the project. A mumbling, rambling interview request is more likely to result in a “no.”
I was reminded of some successful strategies to get people to talk to me during my annual return to KPIX TV in San Francisco, where I spent a couple of weeks reporting in May. One story in particular got me thinking about what it is reporters can do to turn the “no” into a “yes.”
I was following up on a story about a homeowner who had been attacked by a man who broke into his house. The police reports said he’d been beaten up pretty badly, so I was not optimistic he’d want to put his bruised face on TV. Still, I went to his house and knocked on the door anyway. He agreed to talk, on camera. I’m convinced part of the reason is the professional way I approached him. Students can do it, too. Here are some tips to making yourself look and sound professional to interview subjects, even if you’re just a beginner:
- Be transparent. We expect the people we interview to be straight up with us, so let’s return the favor. It builds trust. The first thing I say is: "Hi, I'm Simon Perez with Channel 5." I prominently wear my station ID on a lanyard so everyone can see it. There’s no mistaking I’m a TV reporter.
- Be polite, be direct and be clear about what you want: "I'd like to talk to you about the intruder who broke in to your house last night."
- Even with people-on-the-street interview requests, get to the point right away. Not: “Do you have a second?” Instead: “I’m doing a story on....”
- Show empathy, but don’t pour in on too thick; people can see feigned emotions a mile away. Go with something simple: "I can imagine this is pretty tough on you. Still, I think it’s important for people to know this isn’t the first time this has happened."
- Offer comfort and encouragement. This might be the only time this person is on TV – ever. It’s the reporter’s job to mitigate the nervousness: "We can talk anywhere. I'd just like to chat about what happened. It's all on tape so if we mess up we can start over."
This fall, I will have my class practice setting up interviews with me, where I’ll play the role of dubious lawyer/principal/police officer who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to deal with student requests. But first, the students must prepare. Most of the tips above require reporters to know their stories backwards and forwards. If the reporter isn’t clear about the direction of the interview and gives a long-winded, incoherent introduction, it only gives the interview subject more time - and more reason - to say “no.”
The goal here is to inspire confidence in the interview subject. Student reporters must present themselves as knowledgeable, capable and sincere. All that happens in the first 30 seconds of the conversation. Follow these tips, and it’s more likely the first word you hear in return is “yes.”
Simon Perez is an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at the Newhouse School, Syracuse University.