6 Clever Ways Article Writers Can Find ‘Real People’ to Interview


How to Find Real People for Article Interviews. Makealivingwriting.com

I was in New Mexico to celebrate my grandma’s 96th birthday when I got an email I couldn’t ignore. It was from the editor at Good Neighbor magazine, a custom pub for State Farm insurance.

Subject line: Happy New Year, and an assignment?

A $1.50-per-word feature story was mine for the taking, but there was a big catch. I had to find three people who had survived extreme situations — with a story deadline less than two weeks away.

Successful article writers often have to scramble to find sources like this.

Going into January with zero jobs lined up, I was desperate to get the gig. I wasn’t sure I could pull this together in time, but I had to try.

I deployed an arsenal of strategies from one of Carol’s Useful Writing Courses for finding sources. A few days later, the assignment was mine.

Need help finding sources for an assignment or crafting a killer query? Here’s how I did it —

Finding victims

In just four days, I lined up interviews with people who survived a middle-of-the-night house fire, a massive tornado and multiple hurricanes. Most importantly, I landed a $2,000 assignment and earned “a gold star” from my thankful editor.

Scoring good quotes or engaging anecdotes can make a story shine. But finding sources with amazing, tragic or totally relatable stories can seem next to impossible, especially when you’ve already exhausted your friends, family and Facebook following.

The next time you need to find people with compelling stories, try these six surefire methods that worked for me:

1. Cast a social net

I started with social media. I sent a message to all 85 of my Facebook friends and my 228 contacts on LinkedIn.

Then I emailed three people I know who have experience dealing with emergencies: a nurse, an EMT, and a firefighter.

I let them know I was looking for disaster survivors to interview for a story.

Reaching out to your social network can be a good place to start your search for sources. You might even be surprised at what your social network delivers, when you make a request like this.

In this case, my social network efforts put me in touch with one possible source who survived a disaster.

2. Hit up HARO

I’ve used the site Help a Reporter Out before to find sources and had real success.

And it works for just about any niche. You submit a detailed request about your assignment. Then your request goes to PR folks, authors, speakers and others looking to become media sources. And they email you if they’re interested.

HARO is another tool you can use to help you find sources, but it shouldn’t be your only strategy to track down the right people to interview for an assignment.

It was worth a shot to see if I could find disaster survivors using HARO. But this time it was virtual crickets. I received two responses and both were off base.

3. Contact insiders

You don’t need to know someone on the inside. You just need to know how to find someone on the inside. And it’s pretty easy, once you know where to look.

If you know your niche, or do a little industry research, you’ll likely find a professional association, non-profit organization, business group, or government agency and people who will agree to an interview or point you to the right person to talk to.

Reach out, and people in these organizations will help you find sources to interview for your assignment.

I checked the websites and recent press releases for the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Then I emailed the media contacts at each of these organizations. I also reached out to a disaster clean-up company.

After a lot of back and forth, I ended up with material and stats I could use for the story, as well as one solid interviewee.

4. Call on PR folks

Public relations pros know a lot of people. They know the key players in a specific niche. And many have a broad network of contacts in multiple industries.

If you’ve worked with any PR agencies or PR professionals in the past, reach out and see if they can help. If you don’t have a book of PR contacts, try a Google search for:  “your niche” + “media relations” and look for PR agencies to contact.

I tapped my personal network of PR professionals, and they came through, putting me in touch with another disaster survivor I could interview for the piece.

5. Use the Google

With my deadline looming, and at least one more source to find, I was getting anxious.

Then I thought of something Carol has said:

“Be an unstoppable force of nature. Simply don’t stop until you have the contact information you need.”

Next, I tried a long list of creative Google searches and keyword phrases to find people who met the criteria for the kind of source I was looking for.

I scanned news stories for names and quotes, and then used whitepages.com to find phone numbers and contact information.

I even media-stalked people on Facebook and Twitter to try and connect.

Be prepared to hustle using this method to find sources. Not everyone is responsive to talking to a total stranger. But I did manage to connect with a couple people via social media this way, who agreed to be sources for the story.

6. Ask your interviewees

With a couple sources lined up, I set up the interviews, knowing I still needed to find at least one other person to talk to for the piece.

Then it happened. During one of my interviews, my source told me a heart-wrenching story about a family she met whose home had been demolished by a tornado. She was still in contact with the family and offered to connect me.

Instead of waiting around in an interview for someone to put you in touch with a valuable contact, ask.

The end of an interview is often a good time to ask your sources for other sources. For example: Do you know any else in a similar situation? Had a similar experience? Or knows a lot about this?

You can find real people to interview

Scoring this assignment required some serious legwork to find the sources. It took about 33 phone calls, emails, and social media contacts, and about 12 hours, over a couple of days. I used every one of these tactics. And it paid off.

If you’re an article writer who needs to find real people to interview for an assignment, you can. I’ve used these strategies to find great sources and write everyday-people stories that run the gamut — from what it’s like having your identity stolen to birthing twins.

What source-finding methods have worked best for you? Share you tips in the comments.

Kristi Valentini writes parenting, travel, and lifestyle content for magazines including Redbook and GoEscape and brands from Brawny to State Farm.

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  1. Shane Dayton

    Great stuff! I consistently find the interviewing/tracking down people to be one of the hardest parts for me. Negotiating rates? No problem. Diving into research for a topic I don’t know anything about – sounds exciting! The actual “You need to find three people to interview,” has tripped me up – maybe because I didn’t come to writing through journalism.

    Thanks for the great tips. I always appreciate finding more tips I can actually use to improve my writing career.

    • Kristi Valentini

      I hear you Shane. It’s relatively easy to ask professionals to speak about their expertise (e.g. doctors, business owners, etc.), but asking real people to talk about their personal, and sometimes terrible, experiences is especially challenging.

    • Carol Tice

      I think you definitely want to go easier on them — they’re not media pros, mostly. And often, you’re asking them about terrible things in their lives. “So, you were driving along, and when did you realize your car was on fire?” or “Where were you when you found out your brother had been killed by a drunk driver?” (both questions I’ve asked).

      I do a lot of listening, when I talk to real people sources. Experts you can pepper with questions. With real people sources, usually, you need to sit back and just let them tell their story, the way they want, without interruption. Then you gently circle back for any facts you still need.

    • Heidi Mull

      As someone who has been through a lot of trauma, I just want to say the interview approach Carol mentions is far what I prefer, and honestly, what I *need* if I’m going to provide an accurate and descriptive portrayal of the events and my experience of them.

      When people pepper me with questions, no matter how much I focus on answering well I always realize afterwards that I accidentally left out some of the most important stuff.

      Asking a few leading questions, sitting back and listening, then circling back to anything still needed is not only going to be gentler, but also yield better material for you to quote.

    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for sharing this, Heidi.

      I also do try to end with, “Is there anything I haven’t asked you that we should discuss?” Because sometimes there IS something I don’t know anything about, and didn’t even know enough to ask about…often the aftermath of an event, what happened in the months or years after that might be relevant.

  2. John Chang

    Participate in forums – this is one of those key “long-game” strategies of building a net before you need to go fishing.

    I regularly write on Quora and Medium. Some of the best interviews have come from connecting with people there, where *gasp* they want to share their knowledge and experiences!

    • Carol Tice

      I’ve heard a ton about Quora being a great place to build authority — never thought of it as a way to build your network for sourcing, though!

    • John Chang

      Funny you should say that, Carol – I’ll be honest with you. When I originally went, it was with the intent to “build authority,” etc.

      Like I tell people who jump at Reddit or any of these social sites with an agenda, these communities will sniff you out.

      It took me over a year of solid content writing and just providing value.

      But now I’m recognized as “Most Viewed Writer” in Business Owner and Business Partners. Plus, getting featured in INC magazine.

      As you often talk about with writing in general, it’s about consistently showing up and consistently writing.

      Just a moment ago, someone I connected with on Quora wants me to help him with a video project. Although people have contented me with many things, it’s only now that this has been the first talk of “business.”

      I now get over 20k views per month, but it takes time to get recognized – (tried to share screen cap of my stats but guess this system doesn’t allow links)

    • Carol Tice

      It doesn’t, sorry!

      I’m constantly being contacted by people who want to know how quickly they can start earning a great living as a writer — could it happen this week, please, I’m really broke!

      To which I say, if it were easy to write for a living, everybody would be doing it. Building a body of useful content takes time…but it can pay off big in the end.

  3. Kristi Valentini

    Fantastic tip Abby – if your social network isn’t so big, borrow someone else’s!

  4. Abby

    These are great tips, I love HARO and there really seems to be nothing you can’t find with a decent social network. If I can add one, I’d say ask for a signal boost from someone else to diversify your network. I’m more of an introvert, but my best friend is my better half in this regard. She’s a stand-up comic so she has all sorts of weird followers, and when I am looking for people on short notice, she shares it and connects me with people who could help. I also always ask in my club, networking group, and college alumni network.

  5. Tom Bentley

    Great stuff, Kristi. I do a fair amount of interviewing for articles of mine, but I don’t usually have to scramble to line them up. You provided deep sourcings for both relaxed and scramble mode, and a couple I’ve never considered. Thanks!

    • Kristi Valentini

      So glad to provide more ideas. We need all the tools we can get to land the best interviews!

    • Carol Tice

      Personally, I’ve had good luck asking my LinkedIn connections, and just generally asking around my networks — ‘anybody know someone who sold all their stock in 2008?’

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