The Art of the Interview – How to Ask Good Questions

The American Journalism Review has an article in their October issue on John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist who’s become a leading authority on the art of the interview. "His conclusion: too often we’re asking all the wrong questions."

The art of asking good questions is a skill useful in so many areas: journalism, of course, but also on sales calls, in focus groups, or simply during a chat with a personal friend who’s gone to you for help. Money grafs:

Resist the temptation to converse, sympathize, and add value or meaning to questions, he says; use short, neutral questions that repeat the source’s own words. If the source makes a value-laden statement–for example, "Brian can be excessive at times"–follow up with: "What do you mean, excessive?" …

Ask a closed-ended question and sources "will confirm or deny 98 percent of the time. That’s the science." The unpredictable part is what happens next. "Socially, people are taught to add a postscript to a confirmation or a denial. As journalists, we hope the P.S. will describe or explain the issue we’ve raised. That’s interviewing by accident. If you get somebody who doesn’t want to play, you’re in trouble." …

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?" …

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."
"I get it," says a voice from the back of the room. "Mike Wallace is like a stained-glass window."
"That’s right," Sawatsky says. "Stained-glass windows are beautiful to look at, but it’s all about the window, not about the view."

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