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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Good Interview


The Good Interview

``I don't mind being interviewed any more than I mind Viennese waltzing - that is, my response will depend on the agility and grace and attitude and intelligence of the other person. Some do it well, some clumsily, some step on your toes by accident, and some aim for them.'' - Margaret Atwood, novelist

The Really great interview

By Bill McAuliffe, Star Tribune Staff Writer

Questions like ``What happened then?'' are fine if you're after plot. Questions like ``So, Senator, this $3 million appropriation will go directly into your wife's bank account?'' are fine if you're after the kill.

But if you're after character, the quirky, random and apparently irrelevant can work wonders. 

Last March I was listening to Terry Gross (of National Public Radio's ``Fresh Air'') interview musician Chris Isaak. There was a lot of talk about Isaak's audience and influences and what he wanted to accomplish with his new album. Then Gross asked him to ``redeem'' any piece of music he felt needed redemption. He picked up his guitar and played, solo/acoustic, Pat Boone's ``Love Letters in the Sand.'' 

Not only was it a stunning surprise and riveting radio, but it also led to a discussion about the 1950s, how (in Isaak's view) Boone's talent and reputation had been ruined by one movie, and how important Connie Francis had been to Isaak.

I didn't know this at the time, but Gross (who returned my phone call) said that she often asks musicians to redeem a piece of music and that she does so in advance, to give them time to prepare an answer and a song. But she agreed that it's a good tool for revelation. 

``Even the hip people love some things not considered hip,'' Gross said. ``I assume I can learn something about the music and the person by finding out what those songs are.''

The value of the surprise question, Gross added, is something she learned from the television talk show. 

``I learned from Dick Cavett that you can ask anything, no matter how bizarre or irrelevant it may seem, and it might lead in a really interesting direction,'' she said.
Gross's other point on the surprise question: Don't censor yourself. Just ask.

Sometimes even a silly question produces a kill. Last fall several of us on the metro team, looking for diversion during the mayoral races, compiled a list of a dozen or so questions for each candidate that had nothing to do with politics. There were questions about the best car you ever owned, the worst job, etc. 

One question, dreamed up by Curt Brown, was ``What's your favorite Bob Dylan song?'' 

Well, duh, if you're a politician, you'd answer ``Blowin' in the Wind'' or ``The Times They Are a-Changin','' right? 

Not Mark Stenglein. He said he didn't know any Bob Dylan songs.

Stenglein finished fourth out of four major candidates in the DFL primary for mayor of Minneapolis. At one point in the campaign he confided that his answer to the Dylan question caused him more grief than any ``real'' issue.

Interviewing: The Sawatsky method
Canadian investigative reporter John Sawatsky trains investigative journalists on how to conduct interviews. In his view, reporters engage in too much baiting, accusing and ambushing; they make too many statements and express too much opinion. Reporters who go into interviews prepared merely to ask neutral, open-ended questions get the best stuff.

Reporter Susan Paterno wrote about Sawatsky's methods in a piece that ran in the American Journalism Review in October 2000. Some of his suggestions, according to her story:

  • Avoid making a statement during an interview.
  • Avoid asking a question a source can answer with yes or no.
  • Sound conversational, but never engage in conversation.
  • Try for open-ended, neutral questions that begin with ``what.'' For instance, instead of asking Sarah Ferguson, ``Is it hard being a duchess?'' ask, ``What's it like being a duchess?'' Instead of asking Ronald Reagan, ``Were you scared when you were shot?'' ask, ``What's it like to be shot?''
  • Resist the temptation to converse, sympathize and add value or meaning to questions. Use short, neutral questions that repeat the source's own words. If the source makes a judgment - for example, ``Brian can be excessive at times'' - follow up with: ``What do you mean, excessive?''

Sawatsky has trained journalists all over Canada; in the United States, he's conducted seminars at several newspapers and the Poynter Institute.
(To read the AJR piece, look up the October 2000 issue of AJR.)

Here's more interviewing advice from other journalists around the country. Some of it contradicts Sawatsky and others, but all of it is interesting. It's useful to think about new methods of talking to sources and to employ different techniques at different times, depending on what you're after.

Interviewing: Advice from all over

Make it a conversation - but never forget it's an interview. 
What I enjoy most about Terry Gross is that listening in on the interviews is like listening in on a conversation. True, she asks good questions, but she also is great at expressing interest, surprise, skepticism.
That builds on one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about interviewing, which is to approach interviews with the idea that you're having a conversation. As such, the best answers aren't necessarily going to be elicited by questions. A statement from the reporter can lead to a really good answer.
One caveat in all of this is that the reporter ought not be voicing opinions or taking over the ``conversation.'' The person being interviewed should be allowed to speak!
- Nancy Weil, IDG News Service, Boston

Keep in mind some good questions, such as . . .
The question I teach my students to ask, always, when racial or other stereotypes seem to be at issue, is ``How do you know that?'' It tends to justify comments that could be misconstrued, and of course it exposes bigots.
- John Miller, director of newspaper journalism, Ryerson University, Toronto

What makes you say that? What happened next? If you ask a yes-no question, you'll get a yes-no answer.
- Susan Ager, Detroit Free Press

Three basic questions that even experienced reporters seldom ask often enough:
1) What does that mean?
2) Can you give me an example?
3) Has that ever happened before? (Or, How often does that happen?)
- Lex Alexander, Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record

One of the best interviewing lessons I ever learned was courtesy of a business reporter grilling Tom Ridge, then the governor of Pennsylvania, about the expansion of a Lucent plant in our area. She had asked him about the state's role in the project. Ridge gave a perfunctory 15-second political answer, and Wendy stood, unmoving. She looked up at him and said, ``And?'' He talked for another 30 seconds. She said, ``And?'', and he went on for five full minutes explaining in detail how his office worked with Lucent to bring the new complex to the state.
The lesson, of course, is don't let the source get away with a nonanswer. By being courteous yet persistent, she got what no other reporter there got.
- Joe McDermott, Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call

Fish for figures of speech. Questions can stimulate imaginative answers. Whats it like?
- Cindy Stiff, The Freedom Forum

What led up to this? Who did what? How did it work? Reporters are often so focused on the present and future that they neglect that gold mine, the past.
Also, ``Tell me a story from your childhood'' and ``If you could choose, what would you be doing ----- years from now?'' These two questions are obvious, but they do often produce surprising answers that may pep up an otherwise predictable picture. Even if the reporter doesn't use them, they can soften up a stiff interview, make the subject more human and complex, and give the reporter insight. Ditto, a question about the road not taken: ``If you hadn't become a -----, what might you have done?''
- Kate Long, Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette

Remember this phrase: evergreen questions. These are simple questions that can be used over and over to get people to open up. You could make a list of almost any length of such questions.
Some samples:
What was the worst thing that ever happened to you?
What was the best day of your life?
Who was the person who most influenced you, and how?
If you were writing your epitaph, what would you say?
You could easily list 25 or 30 evergreen questions. They come in handy not only for profiles, but also for other stories. This doesn't mean, of course, that you will go methodically through the whole list when you interview someone. The idea is that you can pick a question that seems appropriate or that might help restart a flagging conversation. Evergreen questions can turn up information you might not otherwise get. They can get a person to talking and telling you something real instead of telling you what the person thinks would be nice to say.
- John Rains, The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

Give something back to the source.
You can't just call them up and demand information; you have to tell them stuff, too, to make a conversation with you worth their while. And respect their time; if they know you're going to keep them on the phone forever, they're going to be much less likely to return your calls.
- Buster Olney, the New York Times

Allow for silence.
A key to interviewing is allowing periods of silence to stretch a little. People are uncomfortable with it and will talk just to fill up the space. Sometimes if you just let silence hang, the source will expand on what he/she just said because he/she can't stand the silence.
- Connie McNamara, Pennsylvania Newspaper Assoc.

Ask throw-away questions.
It's handy to keep a few ``throw-away questions'' ready. Questions you don't really need the answers to for your story or don't care about or have asked before, or whatever. Toss those out when you want to have a minute to focus on jotting notes about the environment, body language, etc., so that you don't need to pay a lot of attention to the answer.
- Weil, Boston

Use the tools at your disposal: respect, humor, doughnuts.
I always, always go into an interview knowing that no person has to talk to me, even public officials. I'm respectful of that. I do a bit of a Columbo routine, usually, which is more real than artifice. I generally find something, either in the person's office or general background (hometown, college) that I can draw a connection to. I use a lot of humor to dispel people of the notion that reporters are blood-sucking automatons. Sometimes I bring doughnuts.
And then I let the conversation follow a natural flow. If there's something that I want to return to, I make a note on the back of my notebook. Sometimes, instead of saving the hardest questions for last, I bring them up early - to keep the interviewee from conforming to a series of prearranged answers. And I always make sure that the door is open for a return call or visit.
As for tricks in approaching questions about difficult matters, a friend uses: ``How would you respond to someone who would question the ethics of . . .'' etc.
- Dan Barry, the New York Times

To ask good questions you must be prepared to ask good questions.
That means, whenever possible, doing research on the subject and coming up with initial questions before the interview; understanding how much time you'll have to ask the questions; having an idea of the environment in which your interview will be conducted; and identifying your `tough questions` and setting up other ways to ask them when and if the subject dodges.
Also: Be interested. If you ask boring questions, be prepared to get boring answers.
- Curtis Hubbard, the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera