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Best way to get your subject to really open up

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Jim Luther Davis, May 6, 2015.

  1. Hey guys,

    So I've done several feature/human interest pieces over the last couple years.

    Can definitely see an improvement in my methods from when I started. However, I feel like there's always room to improve and take my work to the next level.

    But I've read some features where it seems like the reporter gets the athlete to open up in a way that you would think he would only do with a best friend or family. It's something that makes you wonder, "How the hell did he get him to diverge that?"

    What are some tips, tricks or questions you guys have found really helps take your piece to the next level?

    Thanks in advance for any help, guys. Always learn a lot.
  2. reformedhack

    reformedhack Active Member

    There's no really secret or trick to get subjects to open up. The only piece of advice I can give you is to have conversations, not interviews, not interrogations. Ask questions, share stories, and engage with the other person. Don't write everything down. Build trust, even if that means having preliminary conversations without your notebook and recorder before doing the one(s) for your story. Make them all personal transactions, not depositions. Without that personal relationship, any effort to dive deeper — "How did it feel when your mom and soccer coach died in the plane crash?" — just seems superficial.

    Also — and I'm going to assume this was the fault of autocorrect — you want them to "divulge" not "diverge." If they diverge, you're not going to get a good interview at all. :)
    Jim Luther Davis likes this.
  3. JackReacher

    JackReacher Well-Known Member

    Don't be a shitbag.
    ringer likes this.
  4. ringer

    ringer Member

    A ton of patience. And a bit of good timing.
  5. RecoveringJournalist

    RecoveringJournalist Well-Known Member

    Don't lead with the tough questions. Build to it. Show them you've done your research and know your stuff and then once they're relaxed a bit and don't think you're out to get them, then you ease into the tough questions.

    This may sound insane, but when I was in college, we actually listened to Howard Stern a few times and you could see how in control he was of his interviews, and I'm not talking about ones with strippers or porn stars, but he would have political candidates or actors or singers on and would get them to say things that they probably would not have said under normal circumstances because they were relaxed and he didn't go in for the kill immediately. His first interview with Paul McCartney is a perfect example of this.
    Double Down and Jim Luther Davis like this.
  6. FileNotFound

    FileNotFound Well-Known Member

    Listen. Let the pauses linger for a second, and wait for the subject to fill in the awkward silences.
    Jim Luther Davis likes this.
  7. Lot of good stuff here. Thanks guys.

    What about when you're covering an athlete who seems to be really shy or just doesn't like to give long answers? I'm doing it at the prep level, and I know it's always hit or miss where you'll find one player who loves to talk and another who doesn't.

    My subject is a sophomore catcher who has been lights out defensively and offensively. But when I talk to him--and it could be because this is on video too--he just gives me these really short answers that aren't all that helpful.

    I've found his teammates and coach to give me a lot more information, so I made it a point to reach back out to them. But also was planning on doing an off-camera interview with the catcher and hoping I could get him to speak a little more freely.

    P.S. Yes, "divulge" was the word I was looking for haha
  8. I've also personally found asking coaches, teammates, friends, parents, etc. of the subject the question of "Can you tell me any story that comes to mind of John Doe that really defines the type of person he is?" has really given me a lot of good stuff that I can work to build my narrative of the piece.
  9. da man

    da man Well-Known Member


    Has a few ideas.
    Last edited: May 6, 2015
  10. Batman

    Batman Well-Known Member

    This is a simple trick, but it works. People LOVE to talk about themselves, so make sure you don't.
    I've had 30-minute interviews where I ask about four questions and the person just fills in the silence. At the end, I'll have 10 pages of a notebook filled up and they'll say, in all seriousness, "I hope I gave you enough."
    Yeah, guy, you did.
    KYSportsWriter likes this.
  11. da man

    da man Well-Known Member

    I've had some of those, too, and they are wonderful.

    That does depend on the subject, though. Some people don't really like to talk about themselves and will just sit there during those long pauses. Or they'll say, "Are we finished?"
  12. Batman

    Batman Well-Known Member

    The great thing about the high school level is how laid back it is and how much access you can get. Baseball, especially.
    If you're not in a deadline situation where you have to have a laptop in front of you, ask the coach if it's cool for you to sit in the dugout. If it is, do it. You'll not only learn a lot about the game, the players will become more familiar with you and relax a little bit.
    Don't be an obnoxious asshole, be polite and respectful -- and never cheer -- and you'll find you can ping some in-game questions off of them about certain plays (what's this guy throwing? Did Johnny Freshman miss a sign? Why is the normal leadoff hitter batting second today?). You don't write that stuff down, but make mental notes and ask later if it becomes important. You'll also hear some dugout chatter and pick up some neat quick-hit story ideas, like the stuffed animal they keep around for good luck or the weird handshake ritual they have before a game.

    My first or second year in the business, I asked a coach if I could sit in his dugout because his home field was a death trap. Uncomfortable seats on a hill behind home plate, and no netting to catch foul balls. He let me, and a decade and a half later I've done it for almost every game since for all of our local teams.
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