How to ask questions to bring a subject and story to life
BY RICH LANDERS, SPOKANE, WASHINGTON
Interviewing is an intimate method of harvesting a person’s experience, observations or expertise for a story. The kid who caught a state-record fish and the hiker who completed the Appalachian Trail in record time are initially just a few numbers and some background on a page.
Quotes and details, from the subject, as well as supporting characters, bring the story to life. Getting a person to talk and say something significant is an essential skill for a communicator.
Here are some of the interviewing insights I’ve honed in 40 years of outdoor journalism.
DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Preparation makes the most of the time allotted for the interview.
When I landed the rare writer privilege to take Sandra Day O’Connor fishing in Idaho, I had time to prepare while being vetted by U.S. marshals. I read three of the books written by the first woman associate justice of the Supreme Court and numerous articles covering subjects from her interest in fishing to her reputation for casting the swing vote. The interviewing was done on the fly, but the research perked our conversation as we delivered Elk Hair Caddis patterns to St. Joe River cutthroats. What I’d learned in advance was laced through my story in the newspaper the next day.
ASK SIMPLE QUESTIONS.
Nothing in a writer’s interviewing toolbox is more important than a simple, stimulating, insightful and well-timed question or statement. “What do you mean?” can elicit clarification. “Take us through it” can lead to filling a story with perspective, drama and details.
Short questions are incredibly effective. You should always be ready to ask, “Give me an example.” And don’t confuse your subject by asking multiple questions at the same time. That offers the opportunity to avoid answering the more difficult one.
PREPARE QUESTIONS, BUT STAY ADAPTABLE.
When Ted Nugent booked a gig in Spokane, I arranged for an interview in his dressing room before the concert — me, The Nuge and his gunsmith friend in the corner cleaning the rocker-bowhunter’s two Glocks. An interview with the entertainer could range from political to titillating, and it did. I had a few questions prepared. In fact, to drum up interest, I asked readers to send me questions they’d want to ask Nugent. With someone so gifted in gab and fond of controversy, my job came down to guiding the discussion and staying out of the line of fire.
Having a few questions jotted down in advance is a good idea, but be prepared to let others flow from conversation. If the subject gets on a roll in telling a story, inject only short questions, such as “How did that happen?” or “What did you do next?” to keep it moving. Fill in blanks later.
PUT YOUR SUBJECT AT EASE.
Information doesn’t always flow. It often needs to be coaxed from its hiding place. I’ve interviewed people who were self-conscious talking with friends nearby. On the other hand, I interviewed two teenage girls about their first backpacking trip and they fed off each other to bring out humor and details I’d never have wrung out of them one at a time. But if I don’t get a good response talking to a person face-to-face, I’ll often ask if I can give them a call on the phone to get more details.
KEEP THE FOCUS ON YOUR SUBJECT.
Be conversational, but avoid injecting too much of yourself. Whether you’re a freelance scribe for the local monthly tabloid or a star correspondent for “60 Minutes,” your subject is the most important person in the room in a one-on-one interview.
Don’t assume anything, and avoid trying to dazzle the interview subject with your brilliance or knowledge of a subject. In some cases, subjects might neglect to divulge important details if they think you already know everything.
ASK HARD QUESTIONS.
Find the right time to ask tough questions. Asking something pointed at the wrong time can shut down the interview, or at least make the subject uptight. Save it for the end, if you have to. On the other hand, don’t avoid asking the tough questions that readers want or need to know.
LET THE INTERVIEW DANGLE.
Anglers who fish streams know that after they’ve swung a fly or lure, strikes can be stimulated by delaying the retrieve and letting the fly or lure dangle straight downstream for a few seconds or more. This applies to the interview. After you say thanks and set aside the notebook or turn off the recorder, keep the conversation going and listen. A trophy quote or insight could emerge in this moment of relaxation. ♦
— Rich Landers is the outdoors editor for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. He’s been an OWAA member for almost 40 years.