What do you do when someone doesn’t want to be interviewed?
This has happened to me. When I began working on this series, I made some big asks. I emailed Malcolm Gladwell. His assistant emailed me back, “Malcolm asked me to thank you for your kind invitation to interview, and to apologize for not being able to accept it. Thanks for your understanding.”
You’re welcome, nice assistant. I do understand.
I also emailed Mr. Ira Glass of the popular NPR show This American Life. His assistant was very nice, as well.
I don’t blame them for not talking to me. There are a million blogs, and a limited number of hours in these niche celebrities’ lives. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that sliver of disappointment.
What do you do when your interviewee won’t talk to you? Let’s turn this thing over to the professionals (here is more info about our “panel”).
What Do You Do When They Won’t Talk
Porter Anderson told me a funny story about a Broadway star he was interviewing for the Village Voice. “For some reason, the guy would only give me yes and no answers. I threw my best stuff at him and all I got was, ‘Yes. No. Yes.’ Very unusual. I really don’t remember ever talking to as hard a wall.”
Most of the time, though, if they don’t want to talk to you, they just won’t show up. As Morgan Lee says, “I’ve rarely had someone say to my face that they don’t want to talk to me. I have had plenty of people be hard to track down or elusive.”
For those wily foxes out there, here’s what you can do:
1. Let them go.
“Unless you have to have an interview, don’t stake people out,” says Porter. “If there’s that kind of barrier, back off nicely.”
Jeff Goins agrees:
I NEVER interview people who don’t want to talk. What would be the point? You’re not a celebrity stalker; you’re a blogger. If certain people don’t value the kind of organic exposure you’re giving them and their message (and plenty don’t), then you could be spending your time in better ways. Frankly, there are a lot of high-profile leaders and communicators who will say “yes” to an interview. Most, in fact. (That’s what I’ve found, anyway.)
Porter sums it up nicely, “There are people who will feel your outlet is too small, but I don’t think you want those people anyway. Maybe they’ve just gotten a little too big. You can do without them.”
2. Be persistent.
Marissa Villa, the spunky local journalist, on the other hand, believes in persistence: “If I need that person’s thoughts for my story, I do everything I can to make them talk.” Go Marissa go! I like to imagine her chaining the school board to their seats before bringing out the blowtorch.
Jeff’s right there with her: “Every once in a while, I have to be persistent before someone will respond. My rule is go until you hear a no.”
And Morgan says, “In those cases I simply refuse to be put off and continue calling/emailing the subject until I catch them or I track them down in person. If someone is reticent to talk, the best thing you can do is be polite, honest, and assure them you aren’t trying to blind side them.” I like that; just be polite. Morgan is always the southern gentleman.
3. Get the information from an assistant.
This might work better when you’re doing the fact-finding Q and A interview, but try Marissa’s advice. Get your information “from the next best source.”
“For example,” she says, “if I need to speak with a superintendent of a school district and he’s out of town, then I try to speak to the assistant superintendent.”
Maybe I should have just asked Mr. Gladwell’s nice assistant what advice she had to give about interviewing people.
4. Suggest an alternative.
Jeff has a great suggestion that I’ve actually used with some success. “If there is some resistance, I’ll suggest a more convenient platform (the easiest way to do an interview is via email).”
Start with person to person (if possible), then suggest doing it over the phone, then email.
Be careful with this, but if you’re writing an article about someone, you can always do what Marissa did with the school district. “If nobody from the district wants to talk because it’s controversial, it’s best to say that the story is going to run whether or not they comment on it. Usually that helps.” For such a small woman, she’s feisty.
[Porter doesn’t suggest this approach for bloggers, by the way. He says, “You don’t want to burn bridges. It is a small community.”]
6. If all else fails?
Recently, I asked Sean Astin (the actor who played Rudy in Rudy and Sam in Lord of the Rings) what he does when his ideas fail.
“What I never hear,” he said, “how about mourn.” I love that. When you don’t get the interview of your dreams, it’s ok to grieve it.
Porter says, “Don’t think it’s you. They can just be too busy. Try to move on.”
Today is rejection day.
I want you to ask someone famous one perfect question. Think big: Ben Bernanke, former Representative Anthony Weiner, Jack Black, Dr. Drew Pinsky. When you’ve figured out who you want to interview, start searching the web for an email address or phone number.
Shoot for the stars. Literally.
If you get a hold of them, just say you’re on assignment for the huge, international writing website, the Write Practice (hey, we are international. Got a hit from Uzbekistan the other day).
[Why? Because the stars are just like you and me, and most of them want to be treated as equals—just really busy equals. Make the big ask, but don’t waste their time.]