You want to have a conversation, not an interrogation. A good interviewer makes their interviewee comfortable. Going back to your list of questions all the time can rattle the person you’re interviewing. It also limits your story’s potential. I love this story from Porter Anderson:
I interviewed Cokie Roberts (the Emmy-winning journalist) once for a magazine. I asked her about all the needlepoint she had in her office. She grabbed a piece she was working on, a duck, and worked on it as we chatted. We found out her favorite vacation spot wasn’t far from my home sea island off the South Carolina coast.
Your ability to be present, to keep your nose out of your notebook, will make your interviews shine with life.
To be more present, I always write out about a dozen questions before going into a face-to-face or phone interview. President Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Your questions are your battle plans. You might not use them, but they prepare your mind for the task ahead.
What Kinds Of Questions Do You Ask?
I asked my panel what kinds of questions they ask in interviews. Here are six pieces of expert advice:
1. Ask about the person’s actions.
“It depends on the person, but usually I ask them about their specific habits and practices,” says Jeff Goins. “I’m less interested in what they would write in a book and more interested in how they try to apply the ideals they write or speak about.”
Jeff is trying to get under a person’s rhetoric to see the routines they’ve cultivated to be successful. If you can get people to describe their actions rather than their beliefs about themselves, you’ll see a clearer picture of them, one unmarred by slogans.
2. Ask “forward” questions.
“Never ask, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ Ask ‘What’s going to keep you up tonight after this interview?’” says Porter.
“The past, unless your interviewee is relatively unknown, is research-able. Keep in mind that as much as we all may like our laurels, resting on them is never as interesting as diving off them into a new pool. The reminiscence interview is never as cool as it sounds.”
“The ‘What’s the best part of the next thing you’re doing?’ question will engage your subject’s current, forward-looking energy. You get a more excited interviewee, who wants to tell you what she or he is into.”
3. Ask open-ended questions.
Morgan’s goal is to get athletes and coaches talking.
“I try to ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he says. “I also ask people to explain to me certain aspects. Such as, ‘describe how this team came together this season.’”
“I also say ‘how’ a lot. For example, ‘How was your first-ever varsity start at quarterback?’”
What a cool idea: to get them talking, just write the word “HOW” in bold letters at the top of your list of questions. Every time you look at it, ask, “How?”
“How do you do that? How do you feel about that? How did it go?”
4. Ask dumb questions.
“Dumb questions are my favorite,” says Marissa Villa. “Today, I asked someone, ‘Um, what does that mean?’ when he used an abbreviation. You can’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.”
If you’re confused, don’t move along to the next question. Ask for clarification, even if you sound stupid. You don’t want to start writing your article and then realize you don’t know what you’re talking about because you were confused during the interview.
“It also strokes people’s egos when you tell them they’re the expert and you want to learn from them,” says Marissa.
5. Ask pointed questions and light-hearted questions.
Try to mix up the tone of your questions. “I try to ask a few pointed questions that contrarians might ask,” says Jeff. It’s always good to poke a little, as long as you don’t go too far. “And throw in the occasional light-hearted question for fun,” he says.
This is a good way to tailor your interview to your audience.
6. Ask short questions and then follow up.
Don’t try to pack all your questions into one super-mega question. “Instead of asking a long-winded question,” says Morgan, “split it up into two parts. Follow-up questions can be key.”
How about you? What kinds of questions do you ask?
Today, we’re going to come up with a lot of questions. Fifty questions, actually. Then we’re actually going ask someone a few of them. Sound fun?
First, let’s come up with a person to interview, some local figure. How about the mayor of your town, or a columnist for a local newspaper, or maybe the person in charge of the city dump? Pick someone with an email address that’s easy to find.
Next, pretend that local figure is your hero. You’re almost obsessed with the trashman, for example. You’re fascinated about their dump truck. You want to know about every piece of trash they’ve ever picked up. Why? Because at least half of good journalism, in my opinion, is curiosity, and it’s easier to be curious about someone you admire.
Then, start brainstorming questions. Come up with forward questions, open-ended questions, questions about their actions. Brainstorm pointed questions and light-hearted questions. You should even think of a few dumb questions.
When you get to fifty, pick out your favorite five, and write out an email to your little local hero. Say you’re on assignment for the Write Practice. Once you hear back from them, post their answers in the comments.