Elizabeth Redman has a BA in Media and Communications and a Diploma in French from the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is a former co-editor of Farrago, the student magazine there. She has been published/broadcast in Crikey, Voiceworks, Beat, lip and SYN Radio, and has completed placements at The Conversation and the World Association of Newspapers in Paris. She tweets at @elizabethredman.
I’ve watched plenty of young journalists faced with opportunities to speak to their heroes. Some freeze and can’t manage to approach them, even though they’d have no trouble vox-popping a stranger on the street. Others proceed to “word vomit” all over someone they admire, gushing about how much they love their work, and feeling rather embarrassed later.
I’ve done both. But I’ve gradually learned not to make either of these mistakes.
I’ve just finished a one-year term as co-editor of the Melbourne Uni student magazine, Farrago. We invited our contributors to events like the journalists’ union student development days, student media conferences, and the National Young Writers’ Festival. Guest speakers at these events included senior journalists, recruiting editors and well-known television personalities. As a result, I had several conversations with our writers about the best way to approach someone you admired after they’ve given a talk, or at a function. Here’s what worked well for us.
Get the details right
I know this sounds super-obvious but it’s crucial that you get their name right. I heard a second-hand story about someone who recognised a well-known Asian-Australian television personality at a party. They mistook him for a well-known
Asian-Australian magazine journalist and addressed him using the wrong name.
Think about your introduction
Don’t walk up to someone and open your mouth without knowing what’s going to come out. If you’re nervous, think of an opening line and say it to yourself a couple of times, or write it out in your notebook.
A friend of mine is great at just opening with a compliment: “Hi, my name’s ___, and I really like your work.” It’s flattering but truthful, and I’m sure we’d all like to be in a situation where a stranger said that to us.
Something that worked well for me was to think of a specific question: “Hi, my name’s Elizabeth, and I really enjoyed your talk. I was interested in the point you made about abc, and wondering what you think about xyz?” It gets them talking,
and whenever they’re talking, you’re not gushing.
If you’re involved with a publication, particularly a student publication, it doesn’t hurt to drop that in as well: “Hi, my name’s ___. I do a radio show with the Student Youth Network and was really interested in your experience as a rural radio reporter.” Many well-known journalists started out at university magazines or youth community radio stations and will fondly reminisce about their time there.
Be brief and considerate
Your famous person might be rushing back to work, or there might be a long queue of people wanting to talk to them. You don’t want to be remembered as the one who wouldn’t shut up. If all you really want is to intern at their
publication or pitch them an idea, cut to the chase. Explain your idea briefly and ask for their email address to send them more details. Make sure you have a pen/notebook or smartphone address book ready.
Avoid “banned” words
I’m sure your journalism teachers have told you not to use clichés – particularly if you’ve studied travel writing. I had a lecturer who banned the use of words such as “beautiful”, “amazing”, or “incredible” to describe exotic locations. The same
applies here. If your response to everything the famous person says is, “That’s amazing!” or “That’s incredible!” you’re likely to regret gushing later.
Follow up… and do it quickly, while they remember who you are.
It’s great having an excuse to talk to them more at a later time. At Farrago we set up a radio show about breaking into the media. Every week we interviewed someone different who had a job in the media about how they got their job. I approached a few journos and editors after talks they had given and asked if they would be on the show. It meant we could schedule a convenient time and ask them heaps of questions
about how they broke into the industry.
Some friends of mine have a publishing-focused podcast where they chat to industry people about reading and writing books. Another magazine where I volunteer has a semi-regular blog series called “Q and A Monday”, featuring interesting writers and editors. You could set up something
similar if you’re super keen, or suggest interviewing the famous person for your student publication or blog.
What’s your experience of talking to famous people? Have you ever really embarrassed yourself infront of someone you really admire? Let us know in the comments or tweet us @wannabehacks