5 ways journalists can overcome shyness during interviews

When I was a kid, I was the walking definition of “painfully shy.” I was so shy, I couldn't read out loud when teachers called on me, even though I could read at a higher grade level than my classmates. I was too paralyzed by anxiety to open my mouth.

Soon, I discovered I could write -- and write well. When writing, I felt safe to express myself, so I wrote a lot. As a teenager, I found a home at my high-school newspaper and realized I could make journalism a career.

But there was a catch: being a journalist meant talking to people. It meant picking up the phone and cold-calling strangers. It meant walking up to people on the street and asking them personal questions. It meant practically stalking politicians and public figures for a chance at a juicy quote. Each of these prospects terrified me.

With time and experience (not to mention a desire to earn a living), I developed methods for tricking myself into doing all of these things. Here are some of the strategies I used to get there.

Use your job as armor

As a journalist, it's your professional responsibility to talk to people, to ask probing questions, to get the information you need to inform the public. If you're shy, you may fear what people will say when you try to talk to them, or you may think they'll wonder what gives you the right to ask them questions. Your role as a reporter gives you that permission.

In addition, stepping into the reporter's role is a little like KISS painting on stage makeup and putting on their platform boots. Taking on a role can sometimes give us the degree of separation (and courage) we need to approach people in ways that would otherwise give shy reporters nightmares.

Let your curiosity override your anxiety

If you're a reporter, chances are good that you're an incurably curious person. Even if you're apprehensive about talking to strangers, it's likely that you're driven to find out how people and societies work.

Let your desire to ask questions override your shyness. Again, your role as a journalist gives you special permission to be nosy. Police, legislators and everyday citizens might think it's weird if a stranger starts asking them questions, but if you whip out your reporter's notebook and give them your business card, they'll usually accept that it's your job to cross-examine them.

Do prep work to give yourself confidence

It's important for every journalist to do his or her homework before picking up the phone or stepping into a room with a source. But for shy reporters, it's even more important, for two reasons. One, it gives you a script you can follow, so you're not scrambling to come up with questions while you're nervous. Two, it gives you confidence in your knowledge of the subject and in the questions you've prepared -- and confidence is a good antidote to shyness.

Prior to each interview, research the topic at hand, as well as the person you're questioning. Come up with a list of questions, and have them in front of you when you go into the interview. Even if the conversation goes off course, and you wind up asking questions that aren't on your list, you can always go back to what you've prepared.

There will be times when you have to interview someone without preparing ahead of time, especially when news breaks. Even so, you can come up with a script ahead of time for how you'll introduce yourself, and one or two initial questions. Rehearse them in your head as you approach your subject; it'll distract you from your nervousness.

Pick up the phone before you psych yourself out

Many journalists are expert procrastinators. This is especially bad news for shy reporters who balk at the prospect of cold-calling sources. The longer you sit staring at the phone, imagining all the ways your interview can go horribly wrong, the more afraid you'll become.

Shy journalists have their own bogeymen; I always found calling the families of the recently deceased particularly tough. Instead of sitting and fretting, just pick up the phone and dial as soon as you have your questions ready. They'll answer, and you'll be forced to talk, distracting you from your anxiety. Or, you'll get their voice mail, where you can practice introducing yourself to their “digital assistant” (who won't judge you, I promise).

Remember that reporters make people nervous

Many people -- from random citizens to seasoned politicians -- would rather get a root canal than talk to a reporter. There's a reason Edward Bulwer-Lytton said, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Writers have the power to take casual comments and record them for posterity.

You can see it in their eyes when you approach, pen and notepad in hand. They're worried about what you will jot down, and what you will write about them later. So if you're nervous about asking them questions, remember: you're probably not the only one with butterflies in your stomach.

Keep practicing & finding ways to grow

Research shows that our brains are plastic: the more we do something, the easier it gets. The same goes for overcoming shyness. Think of it in terms of statistics: the more interviews you do, the more successes you'll have under your belt -- and the less likely failure will seem.

When you're getting your start, find a mentor or colleague in the newsroom who's a pro at interviews. Ask if they can offer any tips, or if you can listen in while they work the phone. Pay attention to how they introduce themselves, ask questions and introduce new queries on the fly.

Then, it's time to put your education to work. Sure, you'll have some flops, but you'll come to see that your fear of constant failure is unfounded. With time and repetition, even the most reluctant reporter can come to feel a little like Terry Gross.


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