During my 19 years in this business I’ve learned from a lot of great leaders, personalities, friends and rivals. I subscribe to the theory that you should always keep looking for ways to challenge yourself and one area where improvements can be made in our business is when it comes to conducting interviews. While spending 2+ years at ESPN in Bristol, CT I had the chance to sit opposite Dan Patrick on a daily basis so I learned what a good interview should sound like. In my humbled opinion Dan is one of the best of all time when it comes to interviewing.
Equally as important and even more of a factor on my growth was the training sessions that I had a chance to participate in with the architect of interviewing John Sawatsky. Now most people don’t know John by name or face but if you watch NFL Live, Baseball Tonight, SportsCenter or any other form of ESPN programming, his work is on display every single night. John created a workshop built around eliminating what he referred to as the “7 Deadly Sins of Interviewing” and in this blog I’m going to take you through each of those sins and explain why his methods make sense. Most of what’s laid out below is what John passed on during the training sessions but I’ve since changed some of the audio samples and a few of the teachings to make it more adaptable to my style and those I’ve worked with.
Keys To Being a Good Interviewer
Interviewing is one area of journalism that has NOT improved over time. Everything else has, but this is one skill that has gone down. The question and interview are two different things and have different designs. Questions are very powerful and fragile and are in place to generate response and receive information. The interview as a whole is supposed to contain a series of questions which will help us better understand and learn new information about the individual or subject we are speaking with. Yet often the broadcaster sleepwalks through interviews and throws any questions out there without a specific purpose and in certain situations the interviewer aims to become the star of the conversation and create conflict and visual drama which for the entertainment portion of television or radio may be good but for the purpose of the interview doesn’t deliver what it was intended to do.
Part I: The Question
We look at a car and we don’t know how it works. We like it until it breaks down. The mechanic knows how to fix it. The mechanic is professionally trained and knows about the moving parts. You are the mechanic for your interview. You need to know the moving parts for when your interview breaks down.
Why did CBS fall flat in interviewing Phil Mickelson after the Masters?
We blame the car — it’s a lousy car. “No one can make Phil interesting.”
The answers you get are a function of the question asked.
Every question has two purposes: big and little.
Your question is the only tool. No one HAS to talk to us. We have to rely on questions. We use the question to move it along from Point A to Point B. Each question is moving it forward. That movement is the Big Purpose. The question’s small purpose is to gather information incrementally. But the big purpose and small purpose are separate. Like the transmission and engine of car. You need both, but they are completely different.
Simply defined: A question is an inquiry into something.
If you can name something, you can deal with it. The name “West Coast Offense” communicates meaning without having describe the whole system. So we will define terms.
Question = Topic + Query
If you understand that, you can ask questions with amazing precision. Think of a non-digital camera. The lens determines what’s in the picture. The shutter makes the camera operate. Lens is your topic – what you’re looking at. Shutter is the query – what does the work.
DEADLY SIN #1 — NO QUERY
About 20 percent of what we ask doesn’t have a catalyst, an engine.
Q: “You’ve lost him and you feel that you were blessed”
A: “I feel I was so blessed”
The query could be, “How can you feel blessed by losing the one you love most” or “Why do you believe you were blessed when you’ve just lost the one who mattered most to you”?
Both examples put the guest in a position to describe and explain rather than confirm or ignore. The content is result of the process. Rapport is great, but it’s not necessary. A statement proclaims something. A question creates a demand. We have to make our questions do the work to get people to talk to us.
EXAMPLE – Texas Rangers OF Josh Hamilton on ESPN
Q: “When you were in the worst of the worst it just took over”
A: Consumed me. I was basically killing myself inside.
How could the question have been asked to get Hamilton to elaborate further?
EX: “What led to this disease getting the better of you?” “Why was this disease able to take control of you?” “How did this become as bad as it did?”
Once again, if the question asked is delivered with the intention of getting the subject to describe, explain and inform, we’ll learn more new information and deliver better results.
The query is akin to blocking and tackling. It’s basic to making everything work.
DEADLY SIN #2 — DOUBLE-BARRELED QUESTIONS
This is even more popular as a sin than the first deadly sin. This is when the interviewer elects to present the guest with two questions at once. Almost every time the guest is going to select the less challenging portion of the discussion.
EXAMPLE – Katie Couric with Barack Obama
Q: If you believe Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror, why was this your first trip there and why didn’t you hold a single hearing as chairman of a sub-committe that oversees the fighting force there?
A: Actually the sub committee that I chair is the european sub-committe, and any issues related to Afghanistan were always dealt with in the full committee. Precisely because it’s so important. That’s not a matter that you would deal with in a sub-committee setting.
He goes to the one he prefers. People default to the safest, most favorable, least dangerous question.
EXAMPLE – Keith Olbermann with Hillary Clinton.
Q: What do you think of the draft Gore stories and do you think even after all this time that you’ll wind up facing him still in the primaries?
A: I’m hoping he wins and I’m waiting to hear the announcement from the Nobel committee and I hope that we give that well deserved honor to VP Gore.
We typically do this because we are in rush, want to narrow or broaden focus, want to get the story in, for dramatic effect (especially on TV). A single barrel question hanging out there doesn’t seem like that much. Often it’s because we are trying to overcome our own internal doubt about our first question. Sometimes it’s because we want to hear our own voice. And sometimes we just don’t know what the question is.
Those are only some of the reasons. Sometime you just build up too much momentum. You have to slow down before a stop sign. When we finish the question, our voice drops. Sometimes the second question is just to get the voice from 50 mph to 0. But the damage is done. The double barreled question gives the subject a ramp off the highway. You do not want to do that.
DEADLY SIN #3 — OVERLOADING
A question can’t support a topic that is too broad, or multiple topics. “What do you think about sports?” is just too broad. In the case of overloading, this is when the interviewer tries to jam 3-4 and sometimes even 5-6 questions into one exchange. Once again you’ll find the guest picks and chooses what part they wish to respond to.
Q: So 80-100 million a year go into your corporation. You go on Sirius the satellite radio channel. How are they going to make a profit? How many people are going to go over and what are they like, $50 bucks for a subscription?
A: Is it my problem if they make a profit? Is that my worry? They paid me to go there and entertain the people and that’s what I’ll do
Howard gets defensive and answers the first part and never addresses the challenges of expecting consumers to pay for the product or touching on what he believes the future growth of the company will be due to his arrival.
EXAMPLE – Steve Kroft’s interview with Bill Clinton after the Jennifer Flowers rumors surface
Q: You said that your marriage has had problems. What do you mean by that? Does that mean you were separated? You had communication problems? You contemplated divorce? Adultery?
A: I think the American people, at least those who have been married know exactly what that means.
Clinton is bombarded with too many things at once to address anything specifically so once again the guest gravitates to the area that’s easiest to deal with.
Overloading is a cousin to the double barrel. Using the pizza principle: Usually the more toppings the better, for more flavor. With questions, less is more.
DEADLY SIN #4 — REMARKS
This is the most common violation of interviewing. Any time you put remarks OF ANY KIND in a question then you are offering another off ramp to the highway you’re trying to stay on. YOU DON”T NEED REMARKS. If you feel like you need to make a remark, then the question is flawed. You need to break up the question into several questions.
Newton’s Law: every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. There are no neutral remarks. Everything makes an impact.
Think of a fax machine. It has two functions: send and receive. Don’t go into send mode — giving information — when you want to receive information.
Q: Everyone talks about a fast start. It’s been so hard for the Yankees to get off to a fast start in the last 4-5 years. It’s part of being a veteran team. I don’t think it’s that I think it’s just probably being lucky health-wise and also getting your pitching ready to be ready on opening day. When you think about getting off to a fast start which I know you’d like to do I think it’s about getting your pitching ready.
A: I whole heartedly agree. We have to get our pitching ready and we need to make sure all of our starters are ready to go and our bullpen is healthy and pitching is going to keep us in games.
Francessa simply dominates the discussion with his opinion and doesn’t ask Girardi to enlighten him at all about the club’s lack of getting off to a fast start. Instead he’s looking for validation to his opinion from Girardi which he receives but the end result is :30 seconds of chatter with nothing new learned from the guest.
EX: “Why has this team had such a difficult time getting off to a fast start?” “What adjustments have you made to make sure this team doesn’t come out of the gate slow this season?”
EXAMPLE: Sean Hannity interview with Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska
Q: I am mad at the republican party. As a matter of fact I am re-registering in NY as a conservative. I consider myself as a Reagan conservative. I predicted year out that they would lose power in 2006 because I believe they’ve abandoned their principles on spending. They haven’t given a solution to our energy dependence. They haven’t controlled our nation’s borders. The earmarks they’ve got worse than the democrats. If republicans continue down this path they deserve to lose don’t they.
A: Well sure because the power is in the hands of the party that controls the congress in the white house.
The final part of the question gives them an out. The power comes from focusing a topic and subjecting it to them. When people want to escape questions, they will resort to a volume answer — they will take on a different premise. In this question, all Hannity did was get Hagel to agree with his opinion. Not once did he ask Hagel to provide insight or opinion on how he viewed the republican’s efforts. He didn’t ask him how he felt they were matching up to the democrats in the eyes of the public. Instead he just sought validation to his opinion. The result = no insight learned from the guest.
DEADLY SIN #5 — TRIGGER WORDS
Often when we interview a guest there are certain stories that emerge that we have to ask about. If we don’t we compromise our credibility. When difficult areas of a conversation arise it’s extremely important to stay neutral. By leading your question in a specific direction you place yourself in a position to have the interview go south!
A:: [Smacks him hard, Stossel falls down] – You think it’s fake huh?
Who attacked whom? This was a physical attack from the wrestler. But Stossel had a verbal attack, and those are lasting and deep.
EXAMPLE: Andrew Dice Clay on CNN
Q: You were a headline guy and now you’re coming back
A: I’m still a headline guy
Q: For a while you popped out but now you’re coming back
A: Coming back? It’s what I do.
Q: You were running a gym for a while. Tell us about that?
A: Running a gym? You’re supposed to be a news guy, where are you getting your information from? This is ridiculous, I come on CNN and the guy doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.
Every question is made up of words that each have independent meanings. Sometimes people will react to the meaning of a word. The trigger word eats the question. It sets someone off. You put a trigger word in your question, and you can just forget that the subject will answer.
DEADLY SIN #6 — HYPERBOLE
What is hyperbole? This is what comedians do. It’s great at driving home a point.
Leno: It was so cold that the accuser at Duke changed her story, she now said it was the ice hockey team.
When you’re hungry, you’re starved. When you’re bored, you’re bored to tears. Really? No one takes it literally. We use hyperbole all the time. It can be useful as long as it does not mislead. Was the shot really heard round the world? No, but this makes our copy colorful and gets the point across, so there’s a role for hyperbole — and that hyperbole is when we are in “send mode. ”
Think about a voice over. It’s job is to paint a picture and excite you BUT Hyperbole is bad if you are in receive mode. If you put hyperbole in a question, you are done. The focus becomes the excess in your question. And that excess is the exit ramp. We are communicators. We receive and send. That’s all we do. The problem is that each are governed by opposite principles. What makes you good in one makes you bad in another.
TV –the journalists who are the most colorful are usually the worst interviewers. They can send but can’t receive. The great exporters are lousy importers.
Q: There were times when you’d elevate to take your shot and it was like you had another gear up there. Like you were flying.
A: Well we all fly. Some just fly higher than others.
What is Jordan supposed to do with that question? It’s small talk with no purpose.
EXAMPLE: Barbara Walters interviewing Jon Benet Ramsey’s parents
Q: They call Jon Benet a six year old Lolita, a pint sized sex kitten.
A: That didn’t come from Jon Benet.
What do you expect a mother and father to say when asked a question like that? If the question was “How does it make you feel when you hear people say that your daughter was a 6 year old pint-sized sex kitten”? This now makes it about their feelings towards the question instead of disagreeing with the characterization of their daughter and based on the question, you’re likely to get a strong response.
If you put hyperbole in your question, you will get understatement in your answers.
DEADLY SIN #7 — CLOSED QUERIES
This is the worst one and as John Sawatsky would say “it has a special place in hell.” We ask twice as many closed queries than open ones. A closed query is a yes/no question. A closed query only works with an absolute topic — a topic that, like a coin, can only be one or the other. Heads or tails. No in between.
Q: Purpose of jail is to teach a lesson. Did it work with you?
A: It was a very traumatic experience but I feel like God makes everything happen for a reason
Q: Think it changed you?
A: Yeah definitely
Q: Read a lot?
A: A lot. I received fan mail from all around the world. So many letters.
Q: Nicole Ritchie. How’s she doing?
A: She’s doing great
This interview with Paris is a classic case of having a flawed plan from the start. The easy response is to suggest that Paris isn’t a good interview but listen closely to the questions and you’ll find that she’s led to pointless places and never put in a position to have to provide detail. Of all the interviews I’ve listened to in my life this one ranks right up there among the worst of all-time!
When interviewers miss golden opportunities and do this poor of a job it also leads to additional criticism from other media outlets. Take a listen to the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News the following night.
Great interviews are ones that bring surprises, something we didn’t already know or didn’t expect. What is the problem with using a closed query for a topic that is not absolute? First, let’s look at the moving parts inside a query that work together for an effective question. (Don’t think about this in terms of content — that’s the paint on the car. We’re talking about the engine).
Topic + query= Question
If a topic is not absolute, it must be relative. Almost all of our topics are relative. What we are trying to find out in most interviews is beyond absolute information. We want people to describe change that is incremental. A relative topic would be the position of a door. It could be open at different stages — half open, barely ajar. If you simply want to know if the door is locked or unlocked, then go ahead and use a closed query. Topics such as fairness, power, freedom, justice are matters of degree. Great reporters listen to what the person values and get them to go further than they have ever gone.
What poor interviewers do: when they don’t get answers, they blame the subject. But it’s the interviewer’s fault. Why not go for the confession? Isn’t that the best story to be gotten?
Here’s the danger of using closed queries with relative topics: The tougher the topic, the more your subject feels backed into a corner. You have given them only one extreme or the other. Morality is really good or really bad? No, there are many shades in between.
If you are trying to understand someone, especially on a sensitive subject, you must use an open query to create a safe zone for your subject to explain their side. With a closed query, a subject often answers a closed query with one of the two extremes offered. But once they have chosen their extreme — the yes or no — they can’t move. They’ll lose face. They are going to deny to protect themselves. They are not going to feel safe to explain themselves. This can even damage gathering information on a fluffy subject.
Have a game plan and ask open ended questions and put your guests in positions that require them to share their insights with you. The goal is to create an atmosphere which is neutral and invites the guest to speak about themselves and what they know while steering them in the direction you wish to take them in. Remember, you can still be tough with your questioning while being fair and you will always get a better response when asking questions that request an answer.
This is a game of percentages and while nothing is guaranteed, you will win more times than not by following these methods. Nobody bats .1000 but if a hitter could bat .400 instead of .300 they’d use the advantages every time up to the plate, interviewing is no different.
Here are three interviews that contain great questions and a smart strategy. You’ll find the momentum continues moving forward with each question, the guest is put in position to describe and explain and each interviewer keeps a neutral position which leads to gaining the information they seek.
Suzy Kolber of ESPN with former Cincinnati Bengals Wide Receiver Chad Johnson
John Sawatsky’s classic Beaver Interview example from Canada
Keys to being a better interviewer
The Primary Impulses
Question = Topic + Query
Deadly Sin #1 = No Query
Deadly Sin #2 = Double Barreled Question
Deadly Sin # 3 = Overloading
Deadly Sin # 4 = Remarks
Deadly Sin # 5 = Trigger Words
Deadly Sin # 6 = Hyperbole
Deadly Sin # 7 = Closed Question
Verb Non-Starters = Do, Does, Did, Have, Has, Had, Is, Are, Was, Were, Will, Would, Can, Could, Should
- Chart a Path
- Set a Goal – Choose a direction
- Locate the starting point – Before change/conflict/contrast
- Connect the dots – struggle/reason
- Select a route – When/What
- Do It – Forward/Backward, On/Off, Enhance/Advance
- Mop Up – U-Turns, Tangents, Less Important Stuff, Hunches, The Left Overs
Goal = To discover and scrutinize the change
Top 10 Questions
10. What’s an example?
9. How did you deal with that?
8. What were the options?
7. What was the turning point?
6. In what way?
5. How would you characterize that?
4. Why is that?
3. What is it like?
2. What do you mean?
1. What happened?
What is the effect?
What are the implications?
What do you make of it?
How does it manifest itself?
How did you feel?
What went thru your mind?
What was your reaction?
How did you arrive at that?
How does that work?