Friday, December 7, 2007

Better interviewing

More from Jacqui Banaszynski (credentials), who was in Greensboro, N.C. the past couple days for a reporting/writing seminar. These notes are from Dustin Long, who covers NASCAR for the Greensboro/Roanoke, Va./Norfolk trio:

"She noted how so little time is spent in J-school or even in newsrooms on how to properly do an interview. Everyone says make (an interview) like a conversation. Jacqui says that's wrong. In a conversation with a friend, if you say something that makes them feel uncomfortable, you'll back off. In an interview, it is your sole job to get the information - sometimes that makes the subject uncomfortable (but you still have to work around that and get the info if at all possible).

"She said to think about the story and subject as a canoe on the river. You're role in interviewing is to steer the canoe, steer the story and subject.

"Ask more questions. For every question, you should have five more. If a source says they don't want to talk to you, come back and ask them, why. If they say something like they've had bad experiences with the press, then ask them if they've had bad experiences with you. Or even say you'll go over to their office and meet them so they can get to know you. The key is to keep them talking whatever way you can so you can possibly steer things toward the interview.

"Ask strong questions. She mentioned how the question she hates is "What was it like to win the Pulitzer?'' Her response is: "Great.'' Not much of a story there. I asked her during this who was the first person she called after she found out she won. (I figured it would be family). Instead, she first called a former editor. She didn't call her family until the day of the announcement (she knew about it the night before). She then goes into this great story about how her parents don't use the phone often unless it's for bad news.

"So, when she calls home to tell her parents, her mom's first reaction is what's wrong? Are you sure? Yes, mom. Then Jacqui tells her mom about the Pulitzer and her mom seems unimpressed and quickly mentions that one of Jacqui's brothers just got a promotion. When Jacqui says she won the Pulitzer, her mom mentions that her brother got a raise with the promotion. When Jacqui says Mom I won the Pulitzer, her mom chides her for being so self-centered. 20 minutes later after they hang up, her mom calls Jacqui all excited. "There's a TV truck in front of the house. You just won the Pulitzer!''

Point is that's a great story. It's telling of the family. Whether it makes it in print or not, who knows, but see all the information you get by asking a question (that frankly I thought was a throw-away) about who she called first after the winning the Pulitzer. Jacqui became animated as she told the story because it was one she was not normally asked. That's the stuff we have to do. Even if they're throw-away questions, you never know where they are going to lead. It's why in those Esquire-like profiles of NASCAR drivers some of the questions I ask are: "What is God, Are we alone in the Universe (and then follow up on the answer) and when was the last time you cried.'' I've gotten great responses out of those because they are questions not often asked and they lead to telling stories.