Jeff Pearlman, the best-selling sports author, has a mantra I have made my own: Make the extra phone call. A story is only as good as the color and the quotes you acquire; you have to talk to people.
I realize this is a daunting request to ask writers, many of whom – including myself – like to avoid regular human interaction in favor of a blank screen and a quiet space.
Freshman year in college, my friend James and I had to talk to an expert for a class project. I was petrified to call this woman, even though a.) she expected our call and b.) wanted to help us. Yet I stared at the phone as if it were a loaded gun and it was my turn to play Russian roulette.
Thankfully, James made the call, handling himself like James Bond at a baccarat table. I probably curled into the fetal position and sobbed uncontrollably.
More than 20 years later, my writing career mostly consists of talking to strangers. I’m working on a book right now that is built on it. Putting that fear aside in favor of making my stories better took years of effort.
You can do it, too, if you confront the fear with practicality.
*Good interviews require time. “In conversation, you go off on tangents,” says Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning freelance journalist who frequently writes for the New York Times. “You have commonalities. You laugh; you smile. The simple fact of interviewing is it takes time. It takes time to relax. It takes time to trust. It takes time to circle back to what you were trying to say and then say it again more clearly. That doesn’t really happen in email and text, right? It’s very performative. It’s just very dry.”
*It’s your job. Kelly is baffled by young journalists who disdain in-person or phone conversations. For those unable to handle such intimacy, she has some advice: find another job.
“You are not prepared to do this for a living,” she says. “You do not understand what this takes. I really mean that, and you can quote me saying that. This is not a game for sissies. This is a game where real people talk to real people about real things. And if you have to hide behind a screen, you’re not ready to be doing this well.”
That means you will get burned. Before becoming a crime editor for People’s website, Greg Hanlon wrote acclaimed, hard-hitting profiles on sports’ seedy figures, a beat that featured its share of reluctant sources.
“When people hang up on you or shout you down, you have to realize it’s not a personal rejection,” he says. “The rejection is part of your job – in a sense it’s often a game of failure.”
*Your weaknesses are your strengths. I tend to talk quickly. I stammer. But I sound like a human being. That makes me relatable instead of slick, which leads to a better conversation. Also, your own ears can deceive you. Every time someone has overheard me conducting an interview, they’ve commented on how professional I sound.
*Be prepared – factually and emotionally. On my desk sits a legal pad. Before every interview, I jot down questions or topics to address with the source. The list also reminds me that I’m calling this person to improve my story, not to sell them a time-share in Boca Raton or to upgrade their cable package.
Pamela Colloff, the superlative ProPublica reporter and former Texas Monthly executive editor, does something similar “for calls that I’m really nervous about…I plan the order I want to say things in and how I want to say them,” she explains. “I even write down my name and phone number. Having that information in front of me when I call helps a lot.”
Kelly’s attitude is “to think like a lawyer going into court. Anticipate every question. Anticipate every objection. And if you haven’t done that, then don’t get on the phone. But once you’ve done that, you’re prepared.”
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*People do want to talk. “You’d be surprised at how receptive some people are, though,” Hanlon says. “Often, hearing from a reporter is validating to people, and they want to talk about their experiences – even more than they might have thought they would.”
*Using email is OK – sometimes. Email is an easy way to introduce yourself to a source and set up an interview. If you’re writing about technology or science, typed answers can provide much-needed clarity. Occasionally, sources feel more comfortable and get more candid behind a keyboard. (For this story, Colloff and Hanlon shared their thoughts over email.)
That’s great, but it “doesn’t let you off the hook,” Colloff explains. “You still need to pick up the phone and speak to her at the very beginning of your reporting and periodically along the way,” she says. “Not calling a source really limits you.”
Kelly offers this terrifying possibility: With email, there’s no guarantee the person on the other end is answering your questions.
*Doing in-person interviews is even better than phone interviews – always. Not only do you know who’s speaking, but it’s also the best way to accumulate details that enhance your story.
Over the phone “you can’t read their affect, but when you’re in a room with somebody, and you ask them a question and, for whatever reason, they pause – that’s information,” Kelly says. “That is important information. They may shift in their seat. They may look down. They may tear up. My interviews are often quite deep – and I hope many people’s are – that’s what we do them for. If you do it by text, you have no notion of that. If you do it by email, you have no notion of that.”
Journalism involves trust, she adds, and looking someone in the eye goes a long way in establishing that. “The person you’re talking to needs to know who you are.”
I tend to talk quickly. I stammer. But I sound like a human being. That makes me relatable instead of slick, which leads to a better conversation.
*The more you call, the easier it gets. Like anything else involving writing, repetition leads to routine.
Days come when my internal pleas for making a cold call go ignored. That’s when I do something that millions have done for years: I call mom.
Dot Croatto is retired and is always happy to talk. Her willingness nudges me to call someone who might be less receptive. If mom isn’t around, then I talk to my brother or a friend or anyone who can provide a conversational warm-up.
That conversation reframes my perception of the phone. It becomes a tool that makes me a better writer, not a weapon I use on my psyche.
Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.