Often the hardest part about writing an article is just finding a decent source willing to sit with you for an interview. Even on the local level, business owners, public officials, and media personalities are usually too busy to just jump in and offer a great quote for you on a cold call. And if you’ve ever reached out to an A-lister of any ilk than you know that correspondence sent to in-demand individuals will more-often-than-not find its way to the garbage without the courtesy of a response. Though no method is fool proof in this arena, it’s good to stack the odds in your favor when writing an interview request. Many of these tricks I learned the hard way—by doing things wrong on the first go round—and all of them have helped me to land some big interviews even when writing for small publications.
1) Over-Canvas and Overshoot
It is not possible to have too many sources, nor is it possible to reach too high when it comes to the quality of those sources. Treat every local newspaper piece like a dollar-a-word assignment and reach out to the very best source you can find for your topic. Worst case scenario: they don’t have time to talk or don’t respond—no harm done. You can stifle your fear of rejection by blasting out correspondence to multiple sources at once—get five requests out each afternoon and that 20 percent success rate will start to feel pretty good.
2) Be Likeable
In everything I write—from emails to articles—I read out-loud or at least in a whisper to check for flow and tone. The tone you are shooting for in your interview request is business casual, like the language you would use while out on a lunch with a co-worker. Be respectful and appreciative for the time you are requesting from your potential source—that means say thank you—and if you can get in an appropriate joke, I say go for it (depending, of course, on the publication): making someone laugh or smile ups the chance that they will want to sit and talk with you for any extended length of time.
3) Don’t Ask for Too Much
Get in touch with your chosen subject as early as possible—your deadlines are not their deadlines and the best sources are also the busiest people on the planet. Let them know you will not need much of their time: 15 minutes is probably good for about every 800-1000 words of print, especially if you are using multiple sources in the same piece like a good little journalist. Not every article requires multiple sources, though, and for those you may want to try and get a little bit more time. This goes back to that being likeable thing—if a source is enjoying your conversation you might even get some bonus time out of your call or meeting without asking for it.
4) Do Your Homework
If you know what your source is doing professionally or personally you are going to be much more able to empathize with them (again, see #2). Don’t take this to the point of creepy (e.g. “I saw you walking your dog near your house in Malibu and…”), but if the subject is involved with a promotion of any kind (say, for a new book, research paper, concert, film, class, television show, business, or anything else) feel free to mention that your piece could be a great opportunity to spread the word. This also shows that you value their time and will minimize the amount of BS they will have to deal with when they do agree to talk to you. Doing a little research is also going to be the only way to find contact information for big-name sources, so take the extra time to read the content on their sites and get a feel for the language they use in their tweets or status updates. If they swear a lot, feel free to loosen your language a bit; if they don’t, act like you’re writing a boss you’ve never met as you draft your interview request. Oh, and a casual compliment usually won’t hurt your case, either way.
5) Let Them Know What You’re Looking For
Even if you are without assignment when you make first contact, mention publications you intend to pitch and the angle you intend to take for your article in your request. This shows professionalism and minimizes the amount of back-and-forth necessary before your source can make a decision on whether or not to talk with you. And don’t take it personal if you don’t hear back—as we all know, time is everyone’s most valuable asset.
6) Provide a Link to Clips, if Possible
Having a website helps. Short of that, sending a link to your blog or attaching a few writing samples to your request for your source to consider will usually be to your advantage—again, it cuts one more inevitable email out the exchange and, yeah, it looks pretty good for your credibility, too. No matter how you want to take it, efficiency is always your friend in these efforts, second in importance only to humility.
7) Keep It Short and Sweet
Your request to interview should look something like this:
Hello [Mr./Ms./Mrs. Famous Last Name],
I was just looking over your [book/website/film/skin cream label] and was really intrigued by your point about [homelessness/happiness/hairlessness/halitosis]. I am actually a freelance writer working on an [article/blog post/possible novel or biography] for [intended medium] and I was wondering if you might have some time in the next [intended time frame adjusted for impossibility of scheduling] to chat with me on the subject?
I know you must be incredibly busy with [optional current project] and so I promise not to take up too much of your time. I am available on [list availability and be as flexible as possible] by [phone/Skype/to meet/tin cans connected by string] but am more than willing to work with your schedule should you be able to find a bit of time for me. You can find samples of my work [at the link below/attached to this message]. Thanks for your time to this point. I will look forward to hearing from you.
Do your best not to overdo it and be considerate—that is the type of journalist a superstar source wants to talk to. Now that you’re feeling confident, get out there and start contacting some sources. It’s never to soon to get started on your next piece.
Were these tips helpful for you? Do you have any tips of your own for landing big interviews? What was the best interview you’ve ever landed and how did you get it? I’d love to hear from you.