The most difficult person I interviewed was the Arsenal double-winning manager Bertie Mee. The interview would always be over in around 30 seconds – no matter how many questions were on your list. All you’d have in your notebook at the end was: ‘Yes. No, Yes. Yes. No. Possibly.’
Some people are like that. Even if they have a job that includes dealing with the press, trying to get a quote of out them can be as hard as getting a pay rise on a local paper.
But the challenge is to try and find a way of getting them to speak. A good way is to get them drunk… though once when I tried this, the interviewee fared better than I did. By the time he started talking I wasn’t able to hold my pen.
But there are other techniques that we can use:
It may be tempting to ram a reluctant interviewee’s head through the nearest window after a silent 45 minutes, but this doesn’t normally help. If someone is not forthcoming, it’s better to avoid letting your frustration show. Instead, be as nice and as undemanding as possible.
Try to find some common ground to get them talking about something. I once spent 15 minutes marvelling the fact that I had the same carpet as this woman (I hadn’t) – but at least it got her talking. So be on the lookout for anything to talk about.
Prepare what you’re going to say in advance
Sometimes you can anticipate that someone may be reluctant to speak to you. Fear of reprisals? They don’t want their name used? They’ve been badly treated by the press before? Work out responses to all these problems, so you can be ready to give appropriate reassurance.
Give reasons why they should talk to you
Be prepared with incentives for your interviewee – what they stand to gain from speaking to you. Be persuasive. For example: ‘Publicity may help your cause; it’s better to give your side of the story than have an article published without it; it’s your chance to set the record straight.’Or give examples of how other people in their position benefited from publicity.
Be a good listener
Some people clam up because the journalists keeps interrupting them, or seems to be in a hurry. If you sense that someone is finding it difficult to talk to you, give them time… don’t keep butting in. Look as though you are listening. Smile and nod encouragingly.
Tell your story
If you are speaking to someone about a difficult situation, then maybe find a similar example from your life and tell them about that. Your vulnerability may help them to open up.
Phrase your questions properly
I often laugh when I hear parents speaking to their children: ‘Did you have a nice day?”Yes.”Did you eat your lunch?”No.”Did you make any friends today?”Yes.’Then the frustrated parent says to a friend: ‘He never tells me anything.’Maybe if she had asked open questions, she might have got better answers, for example: ‘Tell me about your day…’
Leave tough questions until last
If someone has begun talking, then don’t spoil it. Ask plenty of ‘safe’questions, and keep the tricky ones until later.