Think about it: how many emails do you ignore? If you’re like me, you leave plenty of emails from strangers unopened, and even more unanswered. These are (mostly) emails that ask me for something without any indication of knowing who I am.
I keep these languishing emails in mind whenever I send interview request to sources. It reminds me to show up front that I’ve done my homework. If I’m going to ask someone for a chunk of time, I’m going to put my time in first.
To boost my chances of getting an interview, I carefully prepare each introductory email for each source, and I decide ahead of time how I’ll follow up. I also tend to use more formal language, closer to what would be found in a scientific paper than in a magazine article. (For more tips on how to find sources, prepare for, and conduct interviews, see Andreas von Bubnoff’s chapter in the Handbook.)
My typical email to a new source has these parts.
Subject Line: Interview request and topic
“Reporter Request: Your take on how to assess cancer biomarkers”
Part One: What I’m writing about and who I’m writing for
“I’m writing a news story for Nature about a new paper on a surprisingly efficient way to make stem cells.” Or “I’m writing a feature story for Nature Biotechnology on how to assess biomarkers.” (first paragraph, one sentence)
Part Two: Why the source suits the article
“After Dr. Big Name mentioned your work, I looked at your paper looking for biomarkers in prostate cancer. I’d like to know more about what types of molecules make the best signals, how scientists can find them, and how they can be sure the signals are real.”
Here is where I try to show that I’m familiar with the source’s work and prove that this source’s perspective will be valuable to readers of my article. If someone prestigious has recommended this source, I say so. I often refer to a particularly relevant paper or conference talk from the source. And I usually ask a couple straightforward meta-type questions, the type I guess the source likes to talk about. (first paragraph, about three sentences)
Part Three: When, where, and how long I want to talk
“I’d like to talk to you by phone for about half an hour. Since you’re in Germany, your afternoons are best. Are you available any time after your 4:00 pm (my 7:00 am) next Wednesday or Thursday?”
I say explicitly that I’d like to schedule a phone call (or, more rarely, a visit) and how long I expect it to last. I generally suggest a couple of specific times. (Getting a source to check his or her calendar is half the battle.) I add that I can make other times work as well. If the source is far away, I’ll add something about time zones demonstrating that 1) I know where the source is 2) I am willing to be at my desk outside working hours just to gain access to this expert. The fact that I’m willing to make this effort to talk to sources makes them more willing to make the effort to talk to me. (second paragraph, one or two sentences)
Part Four: How to help me prepare
PS: If there are any recent, important papers you think would be helpful for me to look at before we speak, I’d appreciate the recommendation.
For longer stories, I routinely ask interviewees to recommend two or three papers for me to read before the interview. For paper-specific news stories, I ask for recommendations for outside experts, even if I already have experts in mind. This shows that I’m willing to learn and to put in my homework. It also gives me some insight into how sources see their fields and their roles within them. Even better, it often turns me on to what papers and personalities a field is paying attention to. (usually a postscript, one sentence )
For crucial sources and tight deadlines, I make a follow-up call within an hour after sending the email. This lets the source know that I’m serious, and it often gives me a chance to talk to a source’s assistant to figure out scheduling. If a source needs to go through a press officer, I can get that request in right away. Ideally, when I make these phone calls, I’m also ready to go ahead with the interview. If not, I prefer to make an appointment rather than wing it.
This immediate follow-up also gives me a quick sense of whether I need to start looking for alternate sources. For less-urgent interviews, I’ll wait a couple of days and then send one follow-up email.
I email a reminder to sources the day before the interview. If I want to get some anecdotes, I’ll let them know that I’m hoping to hear some of their recollections; giving them time to think about the early days of a career or a project prompts richer memories. It also makes them more likely to be at their phone when I call.
I try to email sources a very brief thank you note shortly after the interview. It’s nice to send an email that’s not a request, and sometimes that quick note will prompt a source to reply with incisive follow-up comments.
How do you get people to talk to you?
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