My friend Allison used the quote in the headline this weekend when we were teaching her daughter/my goddaughter how to negotiate for better prices at a flea market in South Haven, Michigan. It turned out to be a golden bit of advice she learned from Peter Greenberg, a Emmy-award-winning journalist who was talking to the students at our old college newspaper.
Here’s the story as relayed by Allison (Greenberg himself recalled this story during a guest appearance on the “Destination Everywhere” Podcast):
Greenberg was explaining how to get an important story and how to persist when people didn’t want to be helpful.
He wanted access to a nuclear attack sub as part of a story he was working on. This was in the late 1980s when this was happening, which happened to be when we were still in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so letting a journalist wander around a nuclear sub was laughable at best.
Greenberg kept poking at Naval officials for access, each one basically telling him, “There is no way this is happening.” At one point he asked, “OK, if this COULD be done, who would be the one person who could allow it to happen?” It turned out to be the commander-in-chief in the Pacific, stationed in Pearl Harbor.
Greenberg got the Navy to agree to give him the meeting, which was supposed to be kind of a 10-minute, “we had a meeting” meeting. Instead, Greenberg noticed a photo of a ship on the admiral’s wall and Greenberg knew a lot about that particular ship. Instead of talking about sub access, they started talking about the boat. By the time the 10 minutes had ended, the admiral invited Greenberg to lunch and eventually granted him the permission he sought.
“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes,'” he told the group.
At the heart of his story were three key things that can be helpful to you as a journalist:
TAKE A SHOT: When Greenberg kept hearing “no,” he asked for a meeting that the people essentially told him wasn’t going to lead anywhere. In the podcast mentioned earlier in this post, Greenberg said the people setting up the meeting for him basically asked him why he’d want to fly all the way to Pearl Harbor just to hear “no” from one more person. He figured he had nothing at this point, so he might as well take a shot in person with the one person who could get him what he needed. What was the worst thing that could happen? He might have no story and a case of jet lag and that’s about it.
If the story is important enough to you, you need to take a shot at it before deciding it’s not going to happen. You never know what you might get if you give up before you give it a chance to succeed.
FIND COMMON GROUND: The thing that made this work was a bit of serendipity. If the admiral had a picture of a sunset, a poster of Porsche or a velvet Elvis on his wall, Greenberg might have not found his in. However, as he explained in the podcast, he realized he needed a connection and he found it:
They gave me a ten-minute appointment at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday. I flew up on a Saturday. I walked in to see him. He could care less about me. I was told to have a meeting. He didn’t want to be there. It was an office the size of Grand Central Station. Everybody was in their dress whites. They didn’t want me to be there. It was like a courtesy call, give him a commemorative coin and get him out.
This is the difference. You seek out common ground and I knew that I had maybe fifteen seconds to figure out what the common ground was. I got lucky because behind his desk was a photograph of a boat and it turned out I knew the boat well.
I said to him, “Is that a Bertram 31?” He said, “Damn straight.” I said, “That’s the best boat they ever built.” He said, “You’re not kidding?” I said, “Let me guess. When you make a hard right turn, the engine cavitates and the water pump overflows?” He goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Here’s how you fix it. You’re going to do a bypass on the impeller.”
We start talking like that and ten minutes later, the officer is going to say, “Admiral, your time is up.” He looked at me and said, “Do you got lunch plans?” I said, “I’m all yours.”
That’s called chutzpah and luck.
If I’d walked into his office for that ten-minute meeting, he’s like, “Can I go on a sub?” “Get the hell out of here.”
You want to look for ways to connect with a source during an interview. That’s why doing it in person is often so valuable. You can look around and see things that they have around them to help you size up your subject. Starting with a discussion about a picture or a plaque or even a baseball card they have on display can get you an “in” that makes them see you as a kindred spirit as opposed to a pain the butt.
GO TO WHO CAN SAY YES: I think I’m going to use that quote with every interviewing class for as long as I live now, in that it perfectly captures what we should be doing when it comes to getting key information.
“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes'” is simple, direct and yet amazingly mind-blowing, as it dawns on me that I’ve probably failed in this regard myriad times in my journalism career and my daily life.
When you want permission for something, you need to go to the person who can grant it. Unfortunately, there are often underlings, minions and other pencil-pushers who get put in your path and try to dissuade you from getting that permission. If it’s important enough for you to pursue that permission, get past those people and go find the person who is empowered to grant it.
Like many things, this can be taken too far or in the wrong way. I am in no way saying you should become the snotty person who is holding up the line at the store, loudly proclaiming, “I need to speak to your manager!” because the bananas are ringing up at 39 cents per pound when the sign clearly said 36 cents per pound. However, I am saying most folks take the first “no” as a reason to give up far too easily.
Find the person empowered to say yes and see what that person says. If it’s still “no” at least you’ll know that nobody else is getting your story. If it’s “yes,” you got what you came here to get.