The right question

This week, we’re going to talk more about interviewing. There are many different kinds of interviews, and each requires a different way of thinking.

We talked a little already about interviewing people in trauma and how important it is to be sensitive to when and how grieving people want to be interviewed. We talked about asking the hard question, even when we fear that it may spark an emotional response.

Interviewing for other kinds of “quick turn” stories (breaking news) teaches us to envision  the completed story in our heads as we interview so we gather all of the essential information and then that specific fact or anecdote that makes the story really funny, interesting, sad or inspiring.

Listen for the lead. If you don’t hear it, work harder. Think: What would the reader most want to know about this? What is the most interesting thing about this issue/person/plan/project/event? Trust your very human gut instinct about that. Then drill down deeper about that thing.

In more relaxed interviews for stories you have more time to create, you will still always need the basics — the facts. Get as many of those as you can out of the way through research and confirmation with the story subject so you can move on to the really good stuff.

What’s the good stuff?

Well, you know it when you’ve got it. And when you don’t (bummer).

I watched Mark Pachter on Ted.com talk about the series of interviews he did with famous people for the National Portrait Gallery and how he realized that there is one question a person always wanted someone to ask him/her. It can be the key that unlocks the door between the interviewer and the subject. Having empathy helped him find that key, he said, especially with the most difficult interview subjects.

He started an interview with the comedian Steve Martin (these were on a stage with a pretty big audience present) by asking him if, like most comedians, he had a terrible childhood.

Martin replied, in some shock, “That’s how you’re going to start this interview?” And then he turned the tables on Pachter. “How was your childhood?”

Pachter recounts that he said it was great. He had a very supportive father. “That’s why I’m not funny,” he offered.

The disclosure and the insight broke the ice, and Martin opened up. It turned out he’d had a pretty awful father. That fact was the source of Martin’s comedy. And the dance of the interview picked up speed and grace.

Was Pachter’s question too nosy? It was gutsy, for sure. It could have backfired if Pachter hadn’t been willing to disclose something about himself. But it worked. You can’t know if you don’t ask. If you didn’t think to ask and wish you had, that’s okay. Ask now. But if you thought to ask and didn’t because it’s not polite, that’s a problem for the story, the reader and, ultimately, the journalist.

So tomorrow we’ll talk about interviewing in breaking news situations, how to prioritize information and “listen for the lead.”

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29 Responses to The right question

  1. Sean Leahy says:

    I’ve read a lot about the importance of being open with interview subjects, and that Steve Martin anecdote seems to be a perfect example.

    As long as you are willing to share some of yourself in an interview, your subject will feel more comfortable and it can become more of a discussion than a back-and-forth interview.

    Of course breaking news situations may not lend themselves to such a form of interviewing, but if you have some time to talk to someone in-depth, opening up yourself can help your story.

  2. reedkath says:

    No, a breaking news situation is very unlikely to merit personal disclosure in an interview. Different kinds of stories require very different interview approaches.

  3. amrita88 says:

    Going with your gut as a journalist seems like the best way to get the lead, for sure.

    I’m still unsure about the ethical aspects of asking the hard questions-when is it too much/sheer invasion of a person’s privacy and when is it ok to get what you need in order to make the story complete?

    I found Pachter’s line about how “older” people talk when ‘they know how the story’s turned out’ fascinating. A lot of what he says about people’s energy and how it has nothing to do with their age supports the ‘age is just a number’ discussion we had earlier.

  4. rosiedowney says:

    It’s also important to try and gauge the willingness of your interview subject and make the necessary changes if they just aren’t playing along . I assume that if Martin had reacted poorly to Pachter’s initial question, he would have had to change gears and set a different tone.

    We all hope that every interview is easy and informative. Sometimes we get lucky and they actually are a breeze. It’s important to know different interviews tactics though. They’ll come in handy for the times where we get stuck and need to make changes on the fly.

  5. I agree with what Amrita said about Patcher’s line about “older” people.

    I’m glad we are talking about different types of interviews, because I’ve definitely been thinking about the way I interview people. I’ve noticed that my interactions with people can really vary, depending on who they are and what type of story it is.

    My interaction with a bunch of sixth-graders about the high school mascot was totally different than talking about money with the deputy superintendent, and those were vastly different than my conversations with Melissa McMillin (the “Today” show bride).

    Each situation required me to show a different side of myself, and to present myself in a different way. I think it’s important that we maintain professionalism, but show ourselves as human and relational. The best quotes and anecdotes I’ve gotten have happened in most sincere, down-to-earth moments.

    P.S. Katherine, I noticed the bolds in your post, and I found them helpful. 🙂

  6. Eva Dou says:

    I agree that being open with sources makes for better interviews. I’ve found that sharing a little about myself, even somewhat random babbling, tends to make people more comfortable talking about themselves to me.

    Of course, there’s always the question of what’s too open. I’ve had more than a few sources ask about my political views. I think that’s one thing a reporter shouldn’t share with sources, as “open” as she tries to be.

  7. Asif Lakhani says:

    I think understanding the situation at hand is a helpful way to find the right questions to ask during an interview.
    If your subject understands why he or she being interviewed, then you two (or more if that’s what the situation calls for) will hopefully go into the interview with an understanding of what’s to come from both parties.
    For briefs, you’re looking for facts and any other details that may be useful for people to know.
    I personally spend some time asking my subjects how they’re doing and how their day has been, so I can get a feel for their mood, vibe and attitude before I start sending loaded questions their way.
    I think maybe the best thing to do is keep it somewhat conversational and casual while still maintaining your sense of professionalism and relying on your journalism instincts to know when to ask the million dollar question. Obviously the key there is to listen to what your subject is saying and to pay attention to detail. After all, that’s what separates a normal conversation from an interview, in my opinion.

  8. Audrey Moon says:

    I’m on the Jeff City beat and constantly feel like I’m walking on egg shells around the politicians I have to interview. As much as I want to interview them and ask the gutsy questions, or at least be more demanding of their answers, I’m not exactly sure how to handle some of the situations.

    I think that a lot of my hesitation has to do with my confidence level, and I’m hoping confidence will come in time. Maybe this lecture will give me some tools for interviewing, or at least put me on the right track to getting there.

  9. rynashley says:

    I am actually excited about this topic.
    I, too, have found that it is much easier to get an interviewee to open up (and respond to subsequent contact) when they feel they know something about me. It helps build a quick rapport.

    Listening for the lead is major. It could mean the difference between being read or not, by something as simple as a quirky anecdote over something generic and stale.

    After reading this, I am definitely going to be searching for that “one question.”

  10. Tony Flesor says:

    I really like the idea that there is one question a person always wanted someone else to ask. It’s usually easy to tell if you get the right question or are headed in the right direction, but sometimes I feel like asking the right question requires going on a limb and forgetting good social behavior.

    That might be an extreme, but it goes along with Mark Pachter’s interview with Steve Martin. A good interview should work like a conversation, but maybe a conversation with someone that doesn’t have manners?

  11. Should a person bury their potentially edgy “one question” until after they get at least the basic facts?
    Just a thought, because if it were to backfire right at the beginning, you may be left with nothing….
    Thoughts?

    • reedkath says:

      That is the usual advice. But if you wait until the end, you may leave yourself with too little time to go down the new pathway you helped open up with your question. I guess I would get the fundamentals out of the way and then when I had a pretty good reading of the person’s comfort level, I would decide whether to take the risk sooner rather than later. But this is absolutely a case-by-case thing.

  12. kebedefaith says:

    This particular topic will be good for me because I have a hard time trusting my gut feelings. I second guess myself all the time because of the rawness and risk that comes from following your instinct. But I know it has a certain role in interviewing, especially in-depth stories and issues.

    I really appreciated Mark Pachter’s viewpoints about his living portrait series and deciding to interview older subjects because they know the outcome of their story and how they got there. Our job is to help them reflect.

    I agree with him when he says it’s a bore to interview someone who is too modest. I think he is in the right to say that as an interviewer, one must convince the subject their story matters and is worth telling.

    Most of all I took away the concept of empathy and how Pachter said everyone is waiting for the right question so they can be truthful. Makes the prospect of asking hard and risky questions a bit more manageable.

  13. Dustin says:

    I agree to the above comments – sharing just a tidbit tweaks the perception of us as reporters to something a little more human. Here we go again with the gray area though: how much personal info to share? Is it a chunk or a sprinkle or a dash? Is it less or more, or does it depend on the interview?

    Love Pachter’s point about getting a subject to think they have a story worth sharing. Sometimes that can be the hardest part of an interview.

  14. I agree that sharing a bit of yourself can be very beneficial. However, I think the most important thing in an interview, besides being prepared, is being able to act on your feet. All people and all situations are completely different. You may be prepared with the who, what, where, when and why, but you also need to be able to come up with questions as the interview goes along. When you hear that one line and you realize you’ve found your lead, you need to be able to delve a little deeper on that subject. Your prepared questions are necessary, but interviewing is also a lot about improvisation.

  15. asgrund says:

    I loved this post. It was helpful, but it also raised some questions for me. We’re taught over and over again as journalists to continue asking questions, to be tenacious at the cost of being polite. However, I believe that there is definitely a line there. When we start seeing our sources as wells of information for us to pump before we see them as human beings with emotions, we lose our integrity. We lose ourselves, as reporters and as good people. The question is, how far is too far?

    Mark Pachter’s question to Steve Martin worked out well for him, but I could see how that could have ended poorly. Is the difference in how you ask a question? Or should you go on a case-by-case basis?

  16. Kurt Woock says:

    I’m interested in knowing some approaches to managing interviews with long-winded people who like to talk about all sorts of things that don’t have to do with your questions. If you’re crunched for time, like in a breaking news situation, this would be a great skill to have.

  17. I’m also excited about this topic today in class. I always forget to ask a few questions while I’m interviewing someone for breaking news and I always find myself calling them a couple times to ask more. I think this happens because I’m always worried about getting the facts, that I forget to ask the “one” question that’s important and interesting as well. I always get too nervous to ask personal questions, but this article has helped and hopefully lecture will also help me get over that fear of being rejected or yelled at.

  18. Waqas says:

    I don’t know if I buy the Steve Martin example. Martin’s a comedian. He might’ve been acting up, but I liked how Patcher replied to his question. He was alert and replied wittily, and the interview took off from there. I think that’s something I’m trying to learn, to be alert and conversational while interviewing someone because I think that helps get the interviewee to open up and feel more engaged in the process.

    • reedkath says:

      What do you mean you don’t “buy” it?

      • Waqas says:

        Oh, I’m sorry, I meant just the bit where Patcher says, “and he (Martin) looked at me, you know, as if to say, ‘This is how you’re going to start this thing, right off?”‘ I think that Patcher might be exaggerating Martin’s reaction. But that’s just my opinion and I maybe completely wrong here. I think Martin’s reaction (given the question he asked immediately afterward) might’ve been more like “Ha, you think you can do me in? I’ll get right back at ya!”

        I wasn’t showing disbelief in the fact that Patcher’s question is a good example in the context of your blog post. It was a brave question, one that would put Martin out of his comfort zone and as it appears, Patcher’s intelligent reply to Martin’s response made it work.

  19. Álvaro Guzmán says:

    The key is to build empathy. Even researching the person before, not just for the stuff that is going to be covered in the interview, but also as a tool to look for some common interest, some aspect (a hobby, a mutual background…) and throw it at them either before the interview or when the conversation is getting stuck.

    In Spain, especially if I am interviewing a man, I always find out whether or not he likes soccer (all Spanish men -and many women- do) and of course, what team is his favorite.

    A little conversation about soccer has always helped me cool down before or even during an interview, and building that empathy.

    You can also, if you are interviewing somebody in their house, look for a picture, a book on the shelves or something that might lead to creating that empathy. Something that you are sure the interviewee is willing to talk about and comfortable with talking about and try to expand that moment of empathy throughout the interview.

    • reedkath says:

      These are great tips. Since I became pretty conversant in sports, it’s been easier to break the ice with men in particular.

  20. Abi Getto says:

    I found this post, as well as today’s class discussion, to be incredibly beneficial. As a journalist, I often find myself completely terrified going into interviews. I often get the feeling that I need to constantly impress the person I am interviewing with professionalism; I forget about the human factor. It’s nice to be reminded that the people we are interviewing are only human, and that we as the interviewee share that in common with them. It reminds me of why journalism interested me in the first place–to share other individuals’ unique opinions and stories. This post reminded me that being transparent doesn’t mean being robotic, especially with face-to-face interviews.

  21. I’m already finding myself having to adjust my questions, tones, and even mannerisms in certain interviews. I’ve already run into the people who never want to talk to reporters, and I’ve also had the joy of having people who love to talk, and it almost catches me off guard.

    In those situations, although different, I always seem to find myself wondering how to ask things, what to ask, do I joke with them? It’s as if my intuition needs to be raised to an entirely new level, to be able to read their words, their body language, while being conscious of the task at hand.

    It’s definitely a much more delicate balance than I realized and I in no way have it all figured out, but I’m happy to see there are resources to calm my nerves.

  22. I found it interesting that Pachter asked such a oddball question in the beginning of the interview. Usually I aim to make the people I’m talking to feel comfortable and this almost seems like the opposite approach. In his case it worked and seemed to be an ice breaker, but I think it will be awhile before I feel confident enough to ask such a question.

    I also feel that by implying Martin had a bad childhood, the interview could have seriously backfired. In a way I almost feel like Pachter was force feeding Martin his angle. You may now have a story, but is it the right one? I guess its just something you have to listen for and use your best judgement.

  23. joharmony@gmail.com says:

    I am recognizing the uncomfortable questions, and I am still asking them. For example, in obits, after talking about relaxing things I go ahead and ask the questions I feel like I am “probably not supposed to ask” because it might offend them. The only problem is sometimes the person just doesn’t answer, they say “so and so” wouldn’t want that discussed. I guess I need to get better at making the questions flow so they don’t even realize they are telling me the story.

    I appreciated what Marc Pachter said about pre-planned answers. I definitely get what I feel are pre-planned answers. In fact when I was sent to interview people during the Muslim holiday Eid-Fitr the first answer almost every person gave me was…..”this is one of the major holidays in the Muslim religion…” I felt like I got that answer even when I wasn’t asking that question. But I persevered and kept asking more questions.

    I think you do have to find a balance between letting the person talk and asking pointed questions. I find that people can get off topic easily and there might be something good around the corner, but then again I might just be getting really off topic.

  24. Johanna Somers says:

    Whoops, Joharmony@gmail.com is Johanna Somers.

  25. R Johnson says:

    It definitely took a lot of confidence to start of with that question. I wondered if he already had an idea about Martin’s childhood. His response was very quick and nicely answered.

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