A version of this story was first posted on the blog Ninja Journalism.
When I say I’m a reporter, the looks I get are priceless. When people see this soft-spoken, high-voiced young woman who routinely spends entire evenings reading and sipping coffee, they never guess I spend my 8-to-5s (and more) in a position typically portrayed on TV as gutsy. Despite the fact that “reserved” and “reporter” don’t sound like they go together in the (fictional) media’s perception of the world, I’ve found that the two correlate quite well in the real world. It is highly possible to prefer smaller groups, alone time, and quiet—and be a successful reporter. Here’s how I’ve found introversion actually aids the reporting process and has helped my career grow:
Introverts are listeners. When I’m in a conversation, I’m not caught up in trying to get my point of view in or draw attention to myself. I pay attention. I read people well. That’s how I find stories—I listen intently and I catch key points mid-interview to use as my angle.
Real-life example: I interviewed a local artist in his hilltop home. I planned to ask about his work and leave—straightforward. However, I observed the sweet way his wife, Rosemary, led him into the room. I saw the way the artist looked at her and listened to how his voice fluctuated when he spoke to her. I interrupted my own preliminary list of questions—all about museums—to ask how he met her.
He told me the most perfect love story. While working in the same hospital, one day they had to walk down the street for supplies, and as they were walking, they were photographed by a street photographer. The artist bought the picture, knowing that very day he never wanted to be separated from that girl. I asked if he still had the photo—he did. I noticed young Rosemary looked not unlike the paintings of girls in his living room. His muse became my story angle. When the story ran in the paper, I delivered a copy to his mailbox at the foot of the hill. Three days later, he appeared at the newspaper office, handwritten note in hand, asking for a subscription.
“Throughout the years I have been interviewed by [five other local papers], and I think you did the best job,” the note read.
“No one ever asked about Rosemary,” he told me.
Imagine a conversation between two extroverts. Animated, energetic, flowing: an extrovert interview subject is no problem for a reporter. You just need to get them to finish talking in time for your next interview! Now, an introvert subject is a different story entirely. If you’re an introvert, you know that talking to an extrovert can make you clam up and revert to listening. An introvert—especially an introvert with information you need—needs to be given the space to speak at their own pace. An extrovert can interview an extrovert, sure. But can an extrovert interview an introvert with success? I’ve found that my introverted observational skills allow me to change my approach, based on my interviewee’s temperament.
Real-life example: The city where I work is centered around the school district, so I spend a ton of time in classrooms, in lunchrooms, and at field days. Introverted adults are tough enough to pull answers from, but introverted kids are notorious for clamming up. At a Girl Scout event, I had to interview a first-grader, representing her troop at a cookie drop. She saw me, camera in hand, and immediately grew silent. When her mom egged her on to talk, talk, talk and I saw it wasn’t working, I had to think on my feet. I pulled her aside and had her show me the cookie pile. I asked non-threatening questions such as “Which cookies are your favorite? I like Thin Mints…What do those boxes look like? Oh, what a pretty green.” She relaxed, started speaking, and smiled for a photo shortly after.
When your heart aches, whom do you call: the bar-hopper who can fill you in on the latest Kardashian gossip or the listener who will hear what you have to say for as long as it takes you to get it out? My listen-first approach sets me up to be the person my friends come to for comfort. In this respect, the tough stories are the ones an introvert can master.
Real-life example: One of my all-time favorite articles I wrote was also the saddest. I interviewed a family going through a terribly tough time—the mother had been diagnosed with a mental illness, and the father had heart problems and needed medications the family could not afford. Their two children suffered through homelessness and constantly feared for their dad’s health. When I sat down with the family at a local charity and asked them to tell me their story, I felt every bump in the road they’d been on. When I left, I was wrung out—it was as if I had been the one to desperately search for employment from the streets or fear that the next heart attack would be the last. Writing the story, then, came naturally.
No matter what any professor, friend, boss, or colleague tells you about the pitfalls of introverts in public image careers, know that introverts carry their own set of worthy skills that can add to any field. I’ve found that my unique skill set—my listening, my flexibility, and my empathy—has made my reporting process special in its own way and has led me to stories I never would have found if I’d had a more gregarious personality type.