John Sawatsky and the power of simple questions 30 Aug 2006
22 comments Latest by bond007
How do you know that?…What makes you say that?…What happened next?…What does that mean?…Can you give me an example?…How often does that happen?…What’s that like?…And?
Simple questions. But their strength lies in their simplicity. At least that’s what investigative reporter John Sawatsky argues. In The Question Man, he explains why reporters often ask the wrong questions. (If you prefer audio, there’s a less-meaty but still good NPR piece on him too.)
Sawatsky’s advice is valuable to a wider audience then just reporters. Everyone asks questions. When you conduct a usability test, you ask questions. When you gather information from a client, you ask questions. When you write a customer survey, you ask questions.
So are you asking the right way? According to Sawatsky, smart interviewers don’t try to sound smart. They are transparent. They stay away from leading (yes/no) questions, charged words, and drawn-out statements.
The best questions, argues Sawatsky, are like clean windows. “A clean window gives a perfect view. When we ask a question, we want to get a window into the source. When you put values in your questions, it’s like putting dirt on the window. It obscures the view of the lake beyond. People shouldn’t notice the question in an interview, just like they shouldn’t notice the window. They should be looking at the lake.”
Other advice offered by Sawatsky…
Bland personalities get spicier information:
“I can go into any newsroom and usually tell you who gets the best stories in the paper. It’s usually the reporters with the blander personality. They’re not the life of the party. They’re amazingly consistent if you eavesdrop on them during interviews: You’ll hear plain, neutral, bland questions. Colorless questions usually provide colorful answers.”
Don’t hog the mic:
“The granddaddy of all rules is this: We must balance input and output.” When the source “is outputting, we need to be inputting. The fact is, you can’t suck and blow at the same time.”
Try to learn, not validate your own opinion:
His method is based on asking questions beginning with what, how, why and to a lesser degree, who, when and where…Instead of asking Sarah Ferguson, for example, “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?”
More tips: Sound conversational, but never engage in conversation. Ask one question at a time. Don’t ask too many questions. The star of an interview should never be the interviewer.
[Note: It’s interesting that effective interviewers sound like effective interfaces in many ways. They lubricate information flow by getting out of the way. They focus on content, not theatrics/glitz. They are ok with seeming bland. They are minimalist. They are concise. They value space. Etc.]
After the jump, more interesting interviewing quotes and links.
The Good Interview offers interesting anecdotes and tips for interviewers.
“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…
NPR’s Terry Gross said that she often asks musicians to “redeem” a piece of music….it’s a good tool for revelation…
Evergreen questions are ones you can always turn to no matter the subject: Tell me a story from your childhood…If you could choose, what would you be doing X years from now?…If you hadn’t become a [blank], what might you have done?…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?…
Allow for silence. A key to interviewing is allowing periods of silence to stretch a little…
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.
Best Newspaper Writing Award Winners on Interviewing also has some nice advice.
Peter Rinearson, The Seattle Times:
One thing I learned early on as a reporter, that it’s a lot better looking stupid to your sources than looking stupid to your readers. Throughout my career I’ve confronted people who have said something to me in a very offhand way as if I should know exactly what they are talking about. And I’ve said, ‘Wait a minute, what are you talking about?’ I think sometimes their esteem for me fell a little bit as a result of asking the question, but I’d much rather have that than having to write around some point to camouflage the fact that I didn’t know what I was talking about or else get it wrong.
Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press:
Somebody once wrote that there’s no more seductive sentence in the English language than, “I want to hear your story,” and maybe they’re right. Because often you don’t have to do any more than just say that.