5 ways to draw out even the most reserved sources

Follow this guidance to make even shyest subjects shine—and freely share colorful quotes.

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If you’ve ever interviewed a subject matter expert for a press release or an article for your website, you know that not everyone’s a natural extrovert.

Some people are shy and reserved, while others might be skeptical of your intentions. Nevertheless, you need content for your project. RCG consultant Nick Lanyi has been there. A former journalist and Porter Novelli SVP, Nick has five tried-and-true tips for helping you get the story—even when people aren’t eager to open up.

1. It’s not an interrogation.

Set your sources at ease; you want them to feel relaxed and confident. While you do need to ask them questions in a straightforward way, you don’t want them to feel you are demanding information from them.

“In a previous life I used to interview mutual fund managers who weren’t used to talking to journalists,” Lanyi says. “I found it useful to banter with them a little bit so they knew it would not be a painful experience. Sometimes I would disclose my own challenges in writing the story, and that invited them to feel like they’re helping someone instead of doing something they don’t feel like doing.”

2. Talk less, listen more.

Sometimes journalists want to show off how much they know, but we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listening is what gets your sources talking.

“In fact, it’s better to sound a little more ignorant than you actually are so the person you’re interviewing will fill in those blanks,” Lanyi says. “It can also be a good technique to pause after they’ve given an answer before you go to your next question, because they might fill in the silence with juicy quotes.”

3. Ask about emotions.

If you’re writing a feature story—say a profile of a colleague—it’s appropriate to ask about their emotions in an open-ended way. Let’s say your source closed a deal or led a team that brought a new product to market. Ask them: “How do you feel about that? That must have made you really happy.”

Perhaps you have to interview someone about overcoming a challenge on the way to success. You can empathize by saying, “That sounds like it was upsetting, or that must have been really hard.” And then pause to let them respond.

“You’re trying to get quotes that inject some emotion into the story – a point of view, not just information,” Lanyi says.

4. Restate the question.

Sometimes your source will evade a question during the interview or won’t remember the details you need to make the story come alive for the reader. Follow-up questions, written in another way, may prompt a more useful answer.

“Several years ago, I was interviewing a manager who worked for a government contractor,” Lanyi recalls. “She was describing a night that everybody had to stay late, but she couldn’t remember some of the details – what they were eating, the music that was playing. So I kept bugging her to ask around, try to dig those details up.”

She ultimately did email those crucial details – the “color” good storytellers covet. To get their work done that night, the team indulged in fruit, donuts, 5-hour Energy shots, Skittles and Mountain Dew.

5. Persistence pays off.

Conduct a second interview if the story warrants it – especially if your sources are reserved. At your follow-up meeting, they’ll usually feel more comfortable because you’ve created that rapport. They will have had the time to process the first interview and recall details they didn’t remember initially. And they’ll likely give you additional insight.

“At the end of the interview, ask if you can call back with follow-up questions. Often, that second interview is better than the first,” Lanyi says. “This is especially important if you’re writing a profile or a feature story, where details matter the most.”

RCG specializes in corporate communications training, consulting and strategic counsel. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your brand journalism and media relations strategy. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here.

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