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Friday, September 01, 2006

Examining Interviewing

NPR ran a story about interviewing recently (which I had every intention of telling you about that day like a good little blogger, but . . . ). Seems ESPN has employed a consultant, John Sawatsky, to help its reporters interview better. Sawatsky's top three suggestions:
  • Don't ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no.
  • Keep your questions short.
  • Don't use charged words, which can distract your interviewee.
That's IT? The key to great interviews is REALLY what they taught us in Journalism 101? Well, smack my forehead. What will they think of next? Stop signs at four-way intersections?

Interviewing for TV news isn't the same as interviewing for narrative. In fact, Lee Gutkind has a hissy fit if you casually in passing without thinking about it tell him you're going to go interview someone for your story. Our goal is to hang out as long as possible and as often as possible with the people we'll write about. We are not there to pepper our subject with nonstop questions. We're not looking for sound-bite reaction. Our goal is to observe and document

But you're going to have to talk--and ask questions. It's impossible and unreasonable to spend hours with people without saying a word. Here are my working guidelines.

1. When dealing with a public figure, find out the "when, where, who, and what" from other sources so you don't have to start chatting with stuff like, "So, when were you born?" You can confirm the info at some point, but why spend valuable time covering stuff that basic research will get you?

2. Engage in a little chit-chat. At the beginning, to loosen you up with each other. Then, during lulls, it's good time to ask questions about what you've seen or expected.

3. A little chit-chat means a little chit-chat. Jeanne Marie Laskas, one of my teachers at Goucher, said that when she looks through transcripts, she's struck by how many times she says stuff like "Oh?" and "Huh!" and "Really?"

4. If you get a yes or no answer, follow it up with a "why" or "how" question. Asking why can easily put someone on the defensive or leave a person at a loss. It can work better to ask how something came to be, or to ask what happened. Think about it: "Why did you hit your mom?" vs. "How did it happen that you hit your mom?" vs. "What happened that day?"

5. Do not rush in with one question after another. Pauses are good. Many people are uncomfortable with silence; let them fill up the space with talk, not you.

6. If you're curious about something, bring it up in conversation. In a lecture at Goucher, Walt Harrington mentioned that he was drinking in the home scene of someone he was profiling. The place was full of hokey knickknacks. His impression of the people's decorating tastes changed, however, when he asked a question--something like, "Do you collect this type of thing?"--and was told that the dreadful little items were all thank-yous that various people had sent to the guy being profiled.

7. Remember that being a jaded know-it-all isn't going to help you get a satisfying story, one that answers your readers' questions.

category: craft


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