Learning to talk to strangers
In college, I was once recruited to write a feature article for a magazine. I fled more-or-less screaming from the prospect.
Writing was not the problem. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever — I was confident I could figure it out. Research has always been one of my better skills, even back in the day when you had to physically enter a library to do it. But this article, like most journalism, would have required me to go and interview actual human beings.
Asking questions of total strangers? Terrifying. Absolutely out of the question.
That was roughly twenty years ago, and since then I have consistently ignored the idea that I might ever do anything resembling journalism or reporting. This despite having worked in a national newsroom, dating a journalist for several years, and having a journalist as my closest friend for most of the last decade.
Two things happened in September that changed my mind.
First was Liz Weston’s talk at FinCon, which as I mentioned before was influential. Liz had two main points (I almost want to say ‘two beefs with bloggers’, since she clearly thought as a group we were failing in those areas): statistics and sources. I was already on top of basic statistics: I know the difference between ‘average’ and ‘median’, I understand the importance of sample size, and so on.
Sources were another matter. Why would I need to talk to a live person? With the web, a good public library, and access to a university collection of scholarly journals, I am a Research Goddess. I can find nearly anything anyone’s ever said, any fact ever published. Still, her vehemence that they were necessary left me thinking.
Almost simultaneously, my aforementioned journalist friend got the idea that the salary negotiation study I wrote about for Pocketmint would make a fine article for an editor she knew at Fortune magazine. She provided the introduction, and he was willing to give me a shot.
I was still terrified of doing interviews, but with a paid gig in the offing, I forced myself to do it anyway. And I discovered two amazing things.
The first surprise was: I like talking to scientists. Interviewing corporate mouthpieces was fully as awkward as I could have imagined, but scientists … maybe it’s my science-fiction background, but in some way I feel like scientists are my people. And it turns out that at least some of them are articulate, passionate, and (seemingly) thrilled to explain their particular expertise to a random interested person. When we’re dealing with a field in which I’ve done a lot of reading and am somewhat comfortable — like behavioral economics — I even lose some of my fear. I did four interviews for that article (including one that I wasn’t able to use), and I would describe two of them as ‘fun’. Who knew?
Second was the aha! moment when I put Thorsteinson’s salary negotiation paper in front of Dr. Rachel Croson, a highly credentialed expert in the economics of negotiation. She zeroed in immediately on an important oversight in the study design that hadn’t occurred to me … or to anyone else who’d written about this study and its findings, anywhere. Something that, in fact, you’d pretty much have to be a negotiations expert in order to think about.
And I suddenly got it. That was why you do interviews — because sometimes as a journalist you are making a new connection, one that couldn’t be researched because it previously didn’t exist. Sometimes, it changes everything.
(When I told Stacy about my conversation with Rachel, she laughed. “Yeah, that’s why reporters bother with that pesky reporting thing.” Doh.)
The end result on the Fortune article was not too far different from what I originally advised here on Pocketmint after reading the study myself. But after getting Rachel’s input, I would place even more emphasis on researching your prospective workplace, on finding what she called the ‘zone of agreement’ — which could be described as the Venn diagram overlap between what works for you and what works for the employer.
My Fortune editor accepted the article and published it in November under the headline Salary negotiation: Everything you’ve been told is wrong. If you found my original post interesting, it’s worth reading that update.
So far, that one article is the sum total of my professional journalism portfolio. But I’ve started looking for a way to do more. I’ve been studying the way reported articles are put together, trying to grok the patterns. I’ve been pulling down unedited interviews from the NPR Marketplace web site, listening to the way Kai Ryssdal approaches his questions.
My editor at Fortune is soliciting more from me, but that’s tricky, since his area is all about corporate management, and I’m about as non-corporate in my outlook as it’s possible to be. I might be able to write for him about education, though, if I can find the right hook. More broadly, I think there might be a niche for me in science journalism, especially the social sciences like economics and psychology.
In any case, this experience is definitely going to impact the budget book — in fact, my approach has already shifted as a result. (Unsurprisingly, my earlier hope to be done with a first draft by January was wildly optimistic and will not be coming to pass. Ah well.)
Will I make Liz Weston happy and start interviewing experts for my blog? Well, my most recent pieces for Pocketmint have been pure personal experience stories, not the sort of thing that would benefit from outside sources. But I can see where expert input could be helpful in situations where I’m giving broader advice.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether people will be as cooperative and eager to talk to me when I’m writing for ‘blog you’ve never heard of’ instead of ‘Fortune magazine’. And — although it may get somewhat faster with practice — the whole process (first finding good sources, then setting up and conducting interviews) does take quite a bit of extra time. Not a problem when I’m getting journalism rates, but I have to consider the tradeoffs when I’m writing unpaid blog posts.
So we’ll see; I’m not making any sweeping resolutions yet. But I’m happy to have a new tool in my box, so to speak, and to discover that not only can I overcome a decades-old fear, but that there is enjoyment for me in a place I never suspected.