Classification: public – non-fiction with Bill Coles – 23 January 2019

Our speaker to talk about writing non-fiction articles was Bill Coles – journalist, adventurer, dad, gamesman, storyteller and writer (not necessarily in that order.) He has written for numerous papers including The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Mail and The Scotsman. During the course of the evening he talked of his time writing for these papers, some of the stories he worked on and much more.

Bringing in stories to a newspaper is what defines a journalist, so how do you find stories? Contacts are very useful but can take a long time to develop. Bill then told us a sure-fire way to find articles targeted at a particular newspaper. You should use the newspaper’s own archives.
Here, you can find interesting stories from previous issues which can then be followed up. Since the newspaper ran the story the first time they are most likely to be interested in a similar story again. He illustrated his point by producing photocopies of Ayrshire Post stories from the last few years and suggesting how we could update them. What happened to those dogs found starving in terrible conditions? Do they now have happy homes? Ten years ago, parents were raising money to pay for a life-saving operation for their son. How is he now? It is useful to write updates for anniversaries – what happened one year ago, five years ago, ten years ago.

He commented that it is far easier to find contact details now using the internet and social media than it was twenty five years ago.

Bill then moved on to give us a masterclass in interviewing.

The key, he says, is to connect with the person you are interviewing. You should charm them whilst still being authentic. He gave various examples of this.

You can give them a (genuine) compliment. It shouldn’t be too gushy as this can come across as false.
You can mirror the person’s actions – arms folded, legs crossed, etc.
Similarly, if you are out for a meal, you could order the same as the person you are interviewing.
You should also try to have some sort of physical contact such as shaking hands or clasping their elbow – but not their shoulder as this is seen as patronising.
Napoleon apparently grabbed people’s earlobes and pinched them. Often he would also slap their cheeks. (Not recommended!)
Hitler, on the other hand, believed in eye contact and would stare into people’s eyes.
Of course, you should do your research before you meet the interviewee and learn as much as you can.

Bill said that you need to go into an interview with an open mind. It may result in a straightforward article but it could lead to a book or a play.

He suggested that people who are interviewed regularly have been asked all the normal questions many times and have stock answers. The trick is to come up with an interesting question. One suggestion is to ask superlatives – what is the worst/best/biggest/highest whatever.

Bill summed up his talk on interviewing skills by saying the key is to chat to people and, like every skill, you need to practice. He suggested that we should chat to five strangers every day.

This was an interesting and enlightening talk and Bill gave us lots of good tips and suggestions to improve our skills.

I’m off to find five strangers now for a wee blether.

Janice Johnston

One comment

  1. Sorry I missed this evening,but thanks to Janice I have learned a few tips from this blog and spoke with two strangers today .

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