John Sawatsky and the power of simple questions Matt 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.

Tools of the Trade: The Question []
Chip on Your Shoulder [] (scroll down to “More Resources”)
The best interview ever []

22 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Sandy 30 Aug 06

Great article! Very handy! Good points!

Geof Harries 30 Aug 06

The power of straightforward questions, where you intentionally play dumb - or ask simply because you don’t know any better - is one of the most refreshing, insightful ways to talk to another person.

When you purposely put yourself beneath everybody else, you uncover a world of information that most people don’t even know exists. It’s a beautiful, humbling experience.

Mike 30 Aug 06

Yes! This is what is missing from any of those White House Press conferences where the reporters get on a soap box for 5 minutes trying to box them in a corner. No wonder they elicit such dodgy answers…

George 30 Aug 06

Try to learn, not validate your own opinion

There’s a great video up on Google Video, of George Lakoff talking about exactly this problem - the issue of framing. He’s mostly talking about it with respect to politics in this instance, but it’s still highly compelling viewing.

Geof Harries 30 Aug 06

In the starting process of establishing a business news media company, I’ve hit a wall when it comes to writing sources.

Do we need a business writer or will a journalist, specifically one who asks these simple to-the-point questions, more than suffice?

What sets a business news writer apart from a news writer?

ML 30 Aug 06

The power of straightforward questions, where you intentionally play dumb - or ask simply because you don�t know any better - is one of the most refreshing, insightful ways to talk to another person.

Reminds me of the Denzel Washington lawyer character in the film Philadelphia who says several times, “Now, explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old.”

nate 30 Aug 06

Yet another re-affirmation of the fact that Katie Couric is teh suck.

Nathan Ostgard 30 Aug 06

So true. I’ve can’t count the number of interviews I’ve heard where a compelling interviewee didn’t give anywhere near the amount of interesting information I’d expected, mostly because of an interviewer who loved to hear themselves talk.

It can go the other way, too, though. I hate when an interviewee gives an answer that makes me want to know more, but the interviewer isn’t listening well enough to ask for more details, and continues to the next topic… opportunity missed.

&e 30 Aug 06

Interesting article and extra points for the phrase

_lubricate information flow_

I am definitely going to try and work that into conversation.

sham 30 Aug 06

Listen to Brian Lamb (C-SPAN) interviewing ANYONE, and you will walk away knowing much more about the subject of the interview, and impressed with Brian’s ability to listen and shift gears to get the most out of the time. It makes me hate watching interviews done my anyone else.

He usually hosts Washington Journal on Friday mornings and Q&A, as well as all the old Booknotes. Please enjoy!

Morgan 30 Aug 06

To expand on this tip:

“Allow for silence. A key to interviewing is allowing periods of silence to stretch a little�”

This works very well, but takes practice. When someone finishing answering the question, don’t quickly ask another question or start talking. Wait. React to the answer with facial and body expressions. This silence may be uncomfortable for the both of you. Wait. To fill the void, the subject will start talking again, now saying something they didn’t plan on saying-something real and unrehearsed.

Fel 30 Aug 06

Good interviewing, like good thinking, requires emotional maturity and confidence. Not so much self-confidence, at least in the normally used sense of the term, but confidence in the ebb and flow of the conversation itself.

I have found that just maintaining my natural curiosity, an open mind and ear, is all it takes to elicit useful, interesting information from a client or other interviewee. Like Nathan above, it drives me nuts to see so many poor television interviewers entirely miss an obvious follow-on question and move on to the next topic. Seems to me this normally happens when the interviewer is worried about what s/he is going to say next.

Hell, sometimes you even see the interviewer ask a question, then immediately look back at his/her notes to prepare the next question, half-listening at best, and completely miss an intriguing answer to the question s/he just asked, a response that should have lead to more questions.

Toji 31 Aug 06

[Meta Comment]

Won’t it be good to remove those ‘After the jump’ lines from the main article (after the jump)? What about adding a sort of footer to the entry in the main page?

Kris Tuttle 31 Aug 06

Geof, I think the difference in the business space is knowledge of the context and ability to know which questions people are interested in. There you can be more specific but still open-ended in your questions. Kris

James 31 Aug 06

This post remids me of the worst interviewer I’ve ever seen - Zane Lowe, Radio 1 DJ and MTV2 presenter in the UK. He does the exact opposite of everything mentioned here. His style when interviewing bands can be summarised thus:

ZL: “So you guys have a new album out…”
[Band talks about new album]
ZL: “I met band X recently, aren’t they cool?”
[Band mutters vague agreement]
ZL: “Seriously, aren’t I REALLY COOL for knowing all these awesome bands?”
Band: Actually, we prefer band Y at the moment.
ZL: Oh yeah… band y… yeah, I love them too! Remind me, what’s their famous song?
Band: Song y…
ZL: Wow, I love that! How cool am I?

Ugly, ugly, mic-hogging, name-dropping, ill-informed, uninteresting, egotistical rubbish.

Thanks for this post, haven’t had a chance to rant about him in a while!

Todd Dominey 31 Aug 06

One “journalist” I’ve seen on television that uses this interview approach often is Neal Cavuto (sp?) on Fox News. He will often times bring guests on, thank them for appearing, and then *bam* — a short, concise, simple question that can seem obvious on the surface, but the lack of additional prattle often times doesn’t give the guest enough time to formulate a generic answer, and are instead forced into offering a quick (and sometimes more honest than they’d like) answer to avoid dead air.

Darryl 01 Sep 06

GEORGE: Condescending and denigrating link you provided!

indi 01 Sep 06

This reminds me of Huell Howser on KCET (LA PBS station). He started a long time ago doing a short fill-in program called Videolog. He would visit interesting places and people around Southern California. I recall one show where he visited the guy who created Uncle Milton’s Ant farms. His first question was something like, “Why ants?” and then let the guy tell his story. After which he followed up with, “Where do you get all the ants?”. Huell has gone from his original short show to do “Visiting with Huell Howser and “California’s Gold”. Always him visiting some out the way places and people and asking simple questions while manageing to seem genuinely interested in what they have to say.

indi 01 Sep 06

George: Interesting lecture, thanks for the link.
Darryl: You are right. George Lakoff seems to know what he is talking about regarding framing and semantic thought. It would have been nice if he could have been more even handed in his presentation, though his self-admitted bias made it more entertaining.

random8r 02 Sep 06

Nice work man :)

bond007 04 Sep 06

Good insight! Everyone, not only journalists, can and needs to improve their questioning.

Formulating good, solid and clear questions usually signals that the listener is attentive, considerate, concerned and respectful. It can build better relationships.

The article is simple but of great use and interest. I will try to incorporate the tips whenever I interview or simply have a conversation with other individuals.