Tricks of the Trade With Reuters’ Andy Sullivan

Today’s Tricks of the Trade interview mines the reporting background of Andy Sullivan, political and general news correspondent for Reuters. Credentials: He joined Reuters in 2000, giving him well over a decade of covering politics in Washington. We’re certain that he never appears “clueless” even though he cites it as a good reporting tactic. “I’ve covered presidential elections, hurricanes, corruption scandals and computer hackers,” he says in his bio.

1.Favorite Interview Technique Start with softballs. Let them talk — it puts them at ease and assures them that they’ll be able to get their point across. You’ve established a baseline before you move in with the more uncomfortable questions. If you want to drill down, sometimes it’s a good idea to move on to another topic and then circle back. If it’s a “man on the street” interview, with a regular civilian rather than a fancy DC type, tell them a bit about yourself first — what you’re doing, what you’re looking for.

Appearing a little bit clueless doesn’t hurt — “I’m trying to do a story on X, and it would be a big help if you could tell me what you thought.” That makes you seem less intimidating and is more likely to get results. Don’t get aggressive with regular folks, they’re not used to dealing with that and it is not fair. It’s easy to make someone look stupid if they’re not used to dealing with reporters, so don’t do it. It’s not fair.

2. Most Compelling Question You’ve Ever Asked I have no idea, I don’t keep track of these things.

3. Best Self-Editing Approach When you’re writing, imagine you’re telling the news to someone who’s smart but not necessarily an insider who knows every twist and turn. How would you tell it to your wife at the end of the day?

4. What to do When an Interview is Tanking If it’s because you haven’t prepared properly, bail out. Quit wasting everybody’s time. If it’s because the other person is a jerk, work that into your piece. If it’s for some other reason, apologize and keep going.

5. Approaching Lawmakers and other “Important People” They have their talking points ready, try to anticipate them and get around them. You have a question you want to ask, and they have an answer they want to give, and frequently the two are mismatched. If you’re talking policy, never ask “what are the political ramifications of X” as that gives them a chance to say airily that they are above such concerns.

It’s good to have follow up questions and pointed questions, but you’re not starting an argument or trying to change anyone’s mind — you just want them to explain their position as clearly as possible, using words that sound like they’re not talking points.

6. Most Surprising Thing to Happen During an Interview…

Most Surprising… When banjo great Earl Scruggs referred to me as a “fellow picker.” I made the mistake of telling him I play banjo as well.

7. Advice From An Editor You’ve Never Forgotten “Andy, arrogance is unbecoming.” — Ellen Shearer, head of Northwestern’s DC graduate journalism program.

8. Piece of Advice for Budding Journalists Focus on breaking news. Anybody can write a feature, and anybody under 40 can use Twitter and operate blog software. Actual reporting and writing will always be in demand. Focus on a beat — don’t worry that you might be pigeonholing yourself, it just shows that you’re capable of developing expertise. Learn a little bit about economics and you will greatly increase your chances of landing a job.