A recap of CMA NYC ’16 day one lecture from Henry John Latta
By Cheyenne Schoen
It’s my first time in New York, and from the first step off the metro I’m in awe of its grandeur and dazzled by its vibrancy. The city pulses with life, because the city is full of lives. A whopping 27,857 people fill this city per square mile, which is about the number of people that lived in my entire hometown. Talk about culture shock!
With all these people going about their busy lives around me, I can’t help but think that each new face has a wealth of stories behind it — struggles, strifes, accomplishments, talents, fears. I want to know each person’s story, to ask them questions and get at the heart of who they truly are.
Luckily, my first workshop of CMA NYC 2016 helped me with that! It taught me how to maximize my interviews in order to get to the important stuff.
Here are a few take-aways:
1. Don’t do long introductions or explanations before asking questions.
Trying to impress your interviewee with your personal accomplishments or prior knowledge of the topic? Don’t. Unless what you’re explaining has to do with the question, it’s best to leave these things out of the questioning process. The entangled intro “sets the stage for a loose encounter”, where the interviewee will realize you’re not as efficient as you could be.
2. Beware of adequacy and safety.
A certain amount of push is involved with interviewing. Don’t stick to the safe questions! There is a balance between attacking someone and asking questions that get you absolutely nowhere. Find a way to be professional and ask certain questions and don’t be timid about asking them.
3. Don’t ask two questions in one.
I’m definitely guilty of this! Asking two questions “leads to either one of two non-answers”. Ask them separately. Two-in-ones signal to the interviewee that you’re not engaging in a particularly sharp exchange. Instead, ask hard, clear questions.
4. Understand the PR-person behind the subject.
Be aware of what your interviewee may have been told by their PR person. Lots of interviewees have agendas. Try to know what their agenda/priority is so you can recognize their avoidance of your questions and address that avoidance later.
5. Ask follow-up questions!
Know when you need to ask a follow-up. These should be carefully thought-out, crafted questions. Be aware of what people are saying to you as they answer so you can bring their answers up again later on in the interview. You have a “built-in bullshit meter”. Allow that to guide your interview, and ask questions like, “What do you mean by that? How is that so? Can you give me some specific examples of that?”
6. Don’t rely too heavily on digital equipment.
Interviews are old-fashioned tools. Interviewing is a “performance art”, where you and the interviewee are “on stage in a naked situation” (naked…meaning somewhat vulnerable). Phones can transcribe and record, but they can’t ask the questions for you.
7. What do you hear?
Focus on the small nuances of the interviewee. Examples: When someone hesitates with an answer, are you hearing the bits and pieces that might lead to a different story?
8. The leading question: To be avoided, except when it isn’t
Leading questions are potentially unethical, but depending on the situation, they must be asked sometimes.
How do you frame the question so you can get the most out of your interviewee? Do you ask a soft or a hard question? You must be agile in guaging your interviewee’s responses and understand what communication techniques to use to get the most out of them.
10. The curse of the sideline reporter
The public thinks sideline reporters are very good journalists because they are not pushing or probing and they are also very likeable and popular. There is an expectation for all reporters to be like sideline reporters, and while it may work for them, it isn’t necessarily good interviewing in a news situation.
11. Entry points
List of questions you bring to an interview is simply a guideline, and can be adjusted depending on how the interview veers. There is no reason a story can’t change. If we stick to the lines of questioning, the interviewee will know and see what’s coming. Look for different entry points to the story or else you could leave something important behind.
12. There is no such thing as a boring interview subject
Don’t let your guard down, even with what you think are the less important interviews. Get from everyone the best quotes you can. Any one-on-one interview will teach you as much as the next.
13. You are the equal of the person you are talking to.
There is no need to be timid, or to feel that you are the “second person”. As a professional journalist, you are doing a professional job and so are they. Some people are cautious or overly respectful, which leads to a passive approach.
14. Fear interviewer’s remorse.
Think: “When I go back and type this transcript, will I have enough for the headline, quotes, story, etc. ?” If you have writer’s block, you haven’t come back with enough material. To avoid interviewer’s remorse, ask: “What did you mean by that? Could you give me some examples?”
15. Be nice, be fair, be sensitive.
If someone is uncomfortable, react to that in a fair and sensitive manner. There is no reason why one can’t back off something if there is distress or discomfort during an interview. It is part of our professional role ethically to back off in this case.
16. Don’t ignore the trivial ramblings of an interviewee.
The little tidbits said by the interviewee can be tremendously revealing about a person, especially for writing a feature or profile. “Little stuff can be just as valuable as the bigger stuff.”
17. Know-nothing situations: Own them!
If you have no idea what the interviewee does, tell them that! Ask them to explain it simply. It will show them that your wheels are turning and it will help you to understand the situation fully.
18. Always end with a, “Hey, if I need more, can I call you back?”
Allows you to go back and get the facts if you see there is something you didn’t get the first time.
19. Be prepared for someone to criticize your work.
They have their own area to protect. Be prepared to stand your ground, but in order to do this, you must be sure you did a thorough reporting job on the story.