I was in my third year as a USA Today sportswriter in 1985 when Hank Aaron sat down at the desk next to mine. For 15 minutes, I tried to muster up the courage to talk to baseball’s career home runs leader. I failed. I almost never talked to a stranger.
I was so shy in grammar school that school administrators told me that I’d have to repeat a grade unless I talked. I didn’t talk and wasn’t left back. In college, I never talked in class and begged a teacher to never call on me. I was also the college newspaper’s football writer, but I was too shy to talk to any players.
I thought my shyness would prevent me from becoming a successful reporter – even after USA Today hired me. I had a desk job. Phoning strangers was difficult, but I overprepared for every interview. Talking to strangers in person regularly seemed incomprehensible. In fact, I had interviewed only one person, a teenager, in person during my journalism career before Aaron sat next to me. On the same day, I was assigned to interview ex-baseball players personally at the Old-Timers’ game in Washington, D.C.
Before the game, about 25 players practiced hitting while dozens of reporters asked questions. I was just a few feet away from the players, but I was too shy to introduce myself. After 15 minutes, I walked away. “I just can’t talk to strangers,” I thought.
Then, Joe DiMaggio saved my journalism career.
Far away from the other players, DiMaggio was autographing a ball for a boy. After the boy walked away, I approached DiMaggio. Stuttering and stammering, I asked him what his favorite all-star game memory was. He stared into space, looking puzzled as he tried to formulate an answer. One minute later, he said “I don’t remember having a good game. There must have been one.”
Moments later, dozens of reporters surrounded DiMaggio, and I walked away. I had failed.
Fifteen minutes later, I was alone when DiMaggio, 70, sprinted toward me. “Young man, ever since we spoke, I’ve been thinking about your question,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about all my all-star games. I’d really like to help you, but I just can’t think of a special memory. I’m really, really sorry.”
During our second conversation, I felt a bond with DiMaggio. He was once Marilyn Monroe’s husband and was regarded as elegant and sophisticated, but he seemed to be as shy as I was.
The DiMaggio interview transformed my personality temporarily. Within the next few minutes, I interviewed several other Hall of Fame baseball players. In the 28 years since, I’ve interviewed thousands of people as a reporter and press release writer.
I have three tips for shy writers who want to be journalists. First, don’t be intimidated by the fact that all the reporters you see on television appear to be outgoing and pushy. I’ve met several shy, but successful, reporters. Secondly, you should compensate for your shyness by overpreparing. Thirdly, you should envision your desired final product before your interviews. Following tips two and three will enable you to ask fewer, but better, questions.
I once took notes on the questions that newspaper reporters asked after a game as I watched them on television and read their articles on the game to see how much of the answers they used. As I suspected, they used almost nothing from the press conference. Their aggressiveness was pointless.
Approaching strangers is still difficult for me, but I learned after I interviewed Joe DiMaggio that I can interview people once I’m in the proper frame of mind and I could be a successful reporter.
Martin Z is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.