Go talk to a stranger. These five words strike fear into the heart of any introvert. No, fear undersells the emotion. Terror is a better word. Yet, talking to strangers is an integral component of my job as a journalist. Street reporting is a major part of my work for Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service because we focus on providing a voice for central city Milwaukee neighborhoods. The news service's "On the Block" series gives local residents a platform to discuss what is important to them.
While covering the recent closure of the Mitchell Park Domes in Clarke Square, I needed to talk to local residents about what they hoped would happen to the Domes. That meant hitting the streets, racking up steps on my pedometer and getting the story. Not an easy task.
A year's worth of street reporting has by no means made me an expert but I have found some strategies work better than others for approaching interview subjects on the street. Here is what I have learned.
Smile, do not startle
The people who say they enjoy scary movies are liars. Call them out on it. No one likes being scared. The same is true of interview subjects. Approaching a stranger from behind, only to startle them when you introduce yourself is a surefire way to get a rejection.
Instead, always try to approach a stranger so that she or he can see you coming. Flash your pearly whites and move slowly. Would you be friendly to a stranger speed-walking at you with a scowl? First impressions can make the difference in getting an interview subject comfortable enough to talk to you.
Know your elevator pitch
Cue the eye roll. Yes, elevator pitches are synonymous with networking events, which the majority of humanity has agreed are awful. However, how you introduce yourself and explain what you are doing can win you the interview. Clearly stating your purpose is another step in making the person comfortable. My opening goes something like this:
"Hello, my name is Wyatt Massey. I'm a reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. We are doing a story about ______ (story topic) and I was curious if you would be willing to answer a few questions about what is going on with ______ (story topic)?"
Quick and easy to remember, those are the traits of a successful pitch. If elevator pitches make you queasy (I understand your pain), remember that you are doing it for the story, not self-promotion.
Take it slow
The elevator pitch can be quick. You know the story and you want reactions. Yet, the person you are talking to has not done the research you have. The interview subject has not taken the time to pitch the story to editors, make phone calls and travel to the neighborhood. In short, they need time to think.
Up until a few moments ago, the interview subject was going about her or his day before a nosy journalist butted in. Make sure to give the person the time to get comfortable with talking to you.
You can help the process by opening the interview with simple questions. Have the person spell her or his name, which ensures that you will have it right for the story, too. Ask where the person is from. Heck, you can even ask about the weather. The point is to ask simple, fact-based questions to help the person build confidence in talking to you before you dive into more complicated questions. When the interview subject is comfortable, she or he is more likely to provide authentic answers later on.
What street reporting strategies work for you? Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter.
A chance to see the world from the perspective of a 6-foot-2, aspiring human rights journalist. Will include lessons learned and reflections.