Getting people to talk to you

by February 26, 2014

I recently interviewed my former Arizona Republic colleague Tom Zoellner at the wonderful civic treasure that is Town Hall Seattle. The occasion: His tour promoting his new book, Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.

Train by Tom ZoellnerThere is life after journalism. Zoellner has a well-reviewed book from Viking. And here I am, still writing for a newspaper and laboring in the crowded vineyards of genre fiction. I’m not bitter or jealous. Not at all. Where was I?

Train is a beautifully written account of some of the best rail journeys in the world, but also a call to action for Americans, especially, to rediscover and support this indispensable mode of transportation. But at its heart, the book is excellent journalism.

Like all great reporters, Zoellner has a gift for getting people to talk to him. Train is enlivened with characters from India to Russia and America. He demurred, saying a train is a place where people naturally talk. As a train traveler, I can attest to this. But the good reporter doesn’t just show up.

Getting people to talk to you is an essential part of being a business journalist. This is not a lazy call for more “real people” and anodyne quotes. Weaving people effectively into your stories takes more.

1. Get out of your shell. You have the best job in the world: You get to ask people questions. But a surprising number of journalists are painfully shy and socially challenged. So get in the habit of talking to strangers.

3. Master the give and take of conversation. That means you talk about yourself, too. But it’s a device, to keep them talking, get them to open up, finding the tunnel into the most taciturn individual.2. Get people talking about themselves. Here is where you will find the human element behind the news.


“Master the give and take
of conversation. That means
you talk about yourself, too.
But it’s a device,
to keep them talking,
get them to open up. ”

4. Be empathetic. If you’re a sociopath, learn to fake empathy. Emotional intelligence is an essential part of your toolkit. You want to put the interviewee at ease, get him or her talking.

5. Ask good questions. This ranges from the simple, “What caused you to go into private equity (software engineering, building airplanes, being a union organizer, etc.) to the more complex ones where you must have a basic grounding in the field to ask intelligent questions. Behind all this, you want to know “Why is that?”

6. Encourage a promising strand to keep spooling out. For example, the person starts to talk about how his or her parent failed in business, “but you wouldn’t want to hear about that.” You bet you would! Asides, back stories, and personal tales can often provide the greatest insights.

7. Learn to take notes while looking at the person, not the notepad. Don’t be too quick to slap down a tape recorder and turn it on. Sometimes you need to memorize an interview or interaction without taking notes, then write it down immediately after you’re alone.

8. Transcribe the interview in its entirety the same day it happens. You’ll have things fresh in your mind. Not only the words, but facial expressions, body language, what was happening around you and what caused the subject to light up or shut down.

9. Find a shorthand way to highlight the best quotes. I use a check mark. Some journalists circle a quote. Use what works best for you and is least obtrusive. This is especially helpful if you need some good or pertinent quotes on deadline.

10. Get great quotes. Boring quotes are useless quotes. How do you do this? Be patient. Be a conversationalist. Learn how to toss a couple of softballs before dropping the important question — sometimes light as a feather, sometimes like a grenade in the room. If a CEO curses at you, bingo (and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase curses all the time if he likes you), you’re in the sweet spot.

You may not end up with a New York publishing contract (and if you do, I won’t hate you. Really.). You will take your journalism deeper, into the human territory where great storytelling happens.