Friday, April 20, 2007

Interviewing mistakes

More from Poynter's current seminar on sports writing:

John Sawatsky, a Canadian professor who also is with ESPN, where he teaches interviewing techniques, talked about some of the mistakes make in interviewing.

1. Ask a question.
Sawatsky said a question creates a demand or obligation for the subject to respond. If you make a statement, it merely proclaims something and there's no demand for a response. He showed an example from a 60 Minutes interview where Lesley Stahl was talking to Paul Newman about the death of his son. She made a statement instead of a question. Newman responded but really didn't say anything. It was weak. A question could have gotten a better response that could have been more telling from Newman.

2. Don't ask multiple questions.
How many times have we all done this? Swatsky says make only one demand. Asking more than one question is giving your subject an out. They may not like one question you ask, so they'll focus on the second question and if you don't catch it, you could lose what you were trying to get.
He showed a Barbara Walters interview with Monica Lewinsky's dad from 20/20. He did not believe Linda Tripp's tapes of Monica were real. So, Barbara asked: "How do you explain her visits to the White House? How do you explain the tapes?''
See that she asks two questions?
Well, Mr. Lewinsky responded by addressing the White House visits by saying that's where she worked. He ignored the question about the tapes and went with the response that would be safer for him. Barbara Walters gave him an out and he took it.

3. Don't put in too many topics.
A bad question is: What do you think of sports? Or can be, What do you think of politics? That's too broad a category.
Be sharper. Make the questions more precise. Keep them simple. Don't overload your questions.

4. Don't make remarks. Just ask the question.
Swatsky shoes a tape from 60 minutes where the reporter asks a government official about why the gov. was paying a company a $7 million bonus despite poor and shoddy work. That's the crux of the report.
This is how the question was phrased: 'Why give a bonus at all? If they mess up, why did they get anything? And $7 million is a hefty bonus in anyone's book.''
The problem with that is 1.) they're asking more than 1 question. 2.) By making the statement, the subject has been given an out.
The subject responded by saying that $7 million is really a small amount of money in a $2 billion a year operation. Notice that the issue of why pay the $7 million bonus -- the main point -- is not addressed by the subject.

5. Avoid trigger words.
These are words that instantly wreck an interview. Some may be obvious and some may not. Swatsky showed a tape of a 20/20 interview with a pro wrestler asking the standard question of is it fake? Well, fake is a big trigger word to a wrestler -- that's something that should be obvious. The wrestler responded by hitting the person doing the interview so hard on the side of the head, he fell to the ground. The interviewer got up and got slammed on the head again and fell again. Needless to say the interview was over.
You don't want a word to overtake the question. Be careful about word selection as you create your questions.