Ask the Masters:
Interview Tips for Calling Experts
Recently, one of our students wrote to ask how to go about calling experts and interviewing them. He said, "Being new at doing this kind of research, I'm a little shy and unsure of exactly how to present myself. If I were a journalist, it would be easy. But introducing myself as a direct-mail writer? I think most experts would be reluctant to cooperate."
We asked Bob Bly and John Forde how they approach experts for an interview. Here's what they had to say…
From Bob Bly:
- Realize that the subject of your interview is doing you a favor – not the other way around.
- Defer completely to his/her time, schedule, etc.
- Ask initially for a brief interview with a specific duration (e.g., 20 minutes) and when the time is up, say "I'd love to keep going but you had only 20 minutes, right?" If the person is willing to continue, he/she will say so – and you can.
- If you're going to be speaking to an author, get and at least skim his/her book in advance. Say that you have it and like it when you call.
- Be sensitive to your interviewee's mood. If you sense that he/she is impatient, move on quickly. If he/she has a temper or an attitude, end quickly and say "thank you."
- Always ask if you can call back and/or e-mail if you have questions.
- Before asking a sensitive or personal question, say, "I understand this is sensitive/personal, so if you do not wish to answer just tell me so."
From John Forde:
Most outside experts will be happy to share their expertise, given the right introduction.
Cold calling is difficult. I'm not sure I can give you a recommendation there, except to say that even the best phone script should be a guide, not a crutch. I remember that Bob Bly has some good ones in his book(s).
An alternative idea might be to drop a note or e-mail. Nothing fancy. In fact, the simpler the better. Anything along these lines would be OK:
"I recently saw your [book, interview, some work that made you want to contact him/her]. You made an interesting observation about [something relevant to your project]. If you have a few minutes, would it be OK if I contact you to ask a few questions? I'm a writer working on a related project that could benefit from your expertise.
"As your schedule permits, of course. I'm hoping we could talk for only about 15-20 minutes sometime on _____. [Be sure to suggest a few specific days in the following week. Even if those aren't available to the expert, being specific about your deadline up front is more likely to get you onto his/her schedule.]
"You can contact me at _____. [If it's long-distance, tell the expert to make it a collect call.]
"Thanks in advance for your help. I hope to hear from you soon.
"Best regards, etc."
By the way, I used to write editorial articles and tried introducing myself as a journalist. It wasn't always the best way in, either. Fortunately, I was also in graduate school at the time. Saying "student" opened a lot of doors.
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