How to ask better questions…

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Are you good at collecting quotes from your interview subjects? Here’s a primer on how to ask better questions…

As a former journalist, I’ve done more than my share of interviews, many of them with then big-name Canadian authors. I was a books editor at a metropolitan daily for just under a year and during that time I interviewed such well-known Canadian writers as Timothy Findlay,  Margaret Atwood, June Callwood  and W.O. Mitchell. 

I learned my interview technique by osmosis (no one taught me) and, at the very least, refined it with constant practice.

But if you don’t get enough practice, interviewing is a hard skill to learn. And I’ve noticed new corporate communicators tend to make two classic mistakes:

  • They treat interviews as a cross-examination rather than a conversation. (I’ve experienced this as an interview subject myself and it’s unpleasant.)
  • They ask only factual questions: What? Where? When? How? And they focus on data such as years, amount and volume. In fact, the very best quotes almost always come from questions about feelings and opinions.

A recent article in the New Yorker, headlined “R U There?: A new counseling service harnesses the power of the text message,” underlined this importance of feelings and opinions.

This is because the article described the genesis and work of the American Crisis Text Line, the first and only national 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline that does all its counselling by text-messages. And guess what? They’re really good at asking questions.

In fact, I was surprised to learn that the text communications team has names for all of the techniques they use. So, if you find yourself emerging from your interviews with a big fat nothing to add to stories, (or — just as bad — only truly banal quotes) consider working using some of the following strategies:

  • Validation questions/comments: “What a tough situation! What, in particular, made it so challenging/interesting/demanding?”
  • Tentafiers: “Do you mind if I ask you about….” This preamble might be especially valuable if your subject makes you nervous or has a far senior job position superior to you (e.g. the CEO)
  • Strength identifiers: “You’re a great employee/boss for being so worried/concerned/emphatic about this situation. What happened when the crisis was over?”
  • Empathetic responses: “It sounds as though you’re feeling challenged/excited/frustrated/energized by this project? Why?”

The whole concept of validation is strange to many people — even the writer of the New Yorker article, Alice Gregory. Here is what she said about it:

The etiquette encouraged for counsellors can be surprising. When an agitated friend texts me bad news (a breakup, a layoff, a sudden rent increase), my instinct is to find a positive response to the predicament (“But you didn’t even like him!” “Now you can finally go freelance!” “MOVE!”). But this is precisely what one is not supposed to do when communicating with a teen-ager in crisis. Instead, counsellors are trained to deploy language that at first seems inflammatory: “You must be devastated” is a common refrain; so is “That sounds like torture.” The idea is to validate texters’ feelings and respond in a way that doesn’t belittle them.

But it’s not just teenage texters who benefit from this treatment. Don’t you agree that it’s a truism of human nature that everyone wants to be validated and no one wants to be belittled?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you’d ever deliberately belittle your interview subjects. But if you place them on too-high a pedestal, if you don’t ask them interesting enough questions, if you don’t work to connect with them on a human level, then there’s no way you’re going to collect interesting, useful quotes.

I suggest you take each of the four techniques I’ve named above and try them one-at-a-time in your next interviews. And if that seems too challenging then be sure to use the super-easy trick of repetition. Here’s how it works: Your subject says something and you repeat it (word for word is okay) and add a question mark to your voice.

Subject: “The sales and marketing team had never before faced such a massive challenge.”

You: “The sales and marketing team had never before faced such a massive challenge?” (Remember to upspeak.)

Think about all these techniques before you embark on your next interview. And then use them.

What’s your favourite technique for asking better questions during interviews? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me in the comments section, below.  Anyone who comments on today’s blog post (or any others) by February 28/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of the copy of the marvellous book Weinberg on Writing by Gerald Weinberg. To see the comments box, scroll directly below.