Q: When I cold-call someone to interview them, I feel like a fraud because I think they must be wondering what my real reason for calling is. I have a suspicion this is clear in my voice. Basically, I just seize up and try to rush them off the phone, which isn't doing my writing any good. How does a writer in this position—not having a clear assignment or impressive credentials—best approach this? —Liz A.
A: I've been in the same position several times and have found that cold calling for an interview isn't too different from picking up a stranger at a bar: To find success you must be prepared, open with your best line and hope your voice doesn't crack. Obviously it's much easier to land an interview when you have a contracted article—after all, offering exposure in "XYZ magazine" is a good selling point. But a query letter tenders no guarantee of publication, so you have little leverage.
"Because there's no guarantee, definitely keep the conversation short," advises Guide to Literary Agents editor Chuck Sambuchino, who's interviewed hundreds of sources. "Even tell the professional that you want to keep things nice and short to save their time."
In order to keep it brief, have your key questions ready to go. Be sure to get the must-haves—full name, official title, etc., and then go for the biggest questions.
It's also important to carefully word your questions. With limited time, you don't want to waste any of it on a question that doesn't help your cause. Prepare each question to lead your interviewee toward your desired response.
"Guide them into saying what you want them to say by being specific, for example, 'I'm just calling because I want to talk to a professional who can tell me if the infant mortality rate is increasing or decreasing in the country, and point to the reasons why, especially the reasons people may not think about immediately.'" Sambuchino says. "Notice I'm not pushing the source toward a "yes" or "no" answer, but merely showing them how I want the question answered. Ideally, the next 60 seconds of them speaking should be filled with key information and solid quotes."
Also, be honest with the potential interviewee. Explain that you're putting together a proposal for "XYZ Magazine" and need to talk to an expert before you submit it. Mention that if you land the assignment, you'd like to call back and have a more in-depth interview. This way they'll give you some time now in the hopes that it helps you get the assignment, which will, in turn, help their chances of getting their name into print.
Keep in mind that even if you do everything right, you may still get rejected—and that's OK. Just like with the stranger at the bar, one rejection shouldn't deter you. There's almost always multiple sources for any topic; you just have to find them. If you're prepared and professional, you have the best chance to succeed.
Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.
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