Tips for writing features #12: A question of good questions

TIPS FOR WRITING FEATURES #12I was talking to an editor friend of mine today who was gnashing her teeth over a story that had been submitted to her. It was a Q&A piece and it just wasn’t working.

“The answers are just not quite right,” she said to me.

“No,” I said to her. “The questions aren’t quite right.”

Whatever style of article you’re working on, be it general feature or Q&A, the key to getting the information you want, the great quotes you need, and the right angle for the piece is to ask the right questions. I have written before about interviews (specifically, one that went wrong).

About the importance of asking dumb questions.

About how to interview ‘real people’ for case studies.

And the importance of asking one final question when you find someone you think is a ‘good interview’.

So now I’m just going to lay out my four top tips for asking the right questions to get the great quotes you need.

1. Be prepared, but not too prepared
Some of the worst interviews I’ve ever conducted have been with a) people about whom I’d read everything ever written or b) experts in a subject that I’d researched to the point where I felt I knew as much as the experts. It makes for a boring interview and a boring interview will always bring boring quotes.

When I feel as though I’m learning something as I ask my questions, my interest is piqued, my questions are more spontaneous, and my eyes are bright and shiny. People respond to that. They want to tell me more. We get to cover areas of a subject that we might never have touched on if I’d left no room for them.

2. Listen for the little bell
Having said that, I always go into an interview with a prepared list of questions. I think long and hard about the brief, what I want to know about a subject and what the readers of the particular publication for which I’m writing the story will want to know. I ask those questions and I listen for the little bell that goes off in my head every single time I hear a quote I know I will use in the story. Sometimes it’s the quote on which I will build the story. When I hear that bell, I take that particular line of questioning just a bit further if I can.

3. Ask open-ended questions
Unless you’re after a definitive answer on whether Kevin Rudd will run for PM again (just as an example), don’t ask questions that are easily answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. These leave you with nightmares when it comes to writing your story. What you want are nice, juicy sentences. A bit of waffle, even. Waffle can be edited. Boring answers can be dealt with by writing interesting words around them. But turning a ‘yes’ into a paragraph in your 1500 word story is not easy. Give yourself something to work with.

4. Actually, listen in general
It’s easy as a journalist to go into automatic mode when it comes to interviews, particularly phone interviews. You can be so busy trying to get the words down (if you type them) or so confident in the ability of your recording device to catch every word that you can forget to listen to what the interviewee is saying, zoning out into la-la land, planning the story in your head. Later, you’ll read over your notes and think ‘damn, why didn’t I ask that?’ because you will, without a doubt, have missed something.

When you really listen to the interview, you won’t miss the opportunity to ask the right questions.

As an interviewer, nothing gives me a bigger thrill than when someone says to me ‘those were great questions’. It means I’ve asked them something that’s made them think, and that will hopefully give me the material to make readers think. Win/win.

Comments 23

  1. Oh god, I am going to break the first commandment of blog comments and just say ‘great post’ Al. Because it is! Such wonderful tips here – as always, thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    Love the first four lines in particular 🙂

  2. Great tips Allison, and thanks for sharing. I have a tendency to be “over-prepared” and ask too many questions. I need to hone down my specific area of interest more. That said, in my limited experience, I have found that it helps to be “human” and keep it conversational. I have found that by saying something like “i am really interested in what you’ve just said about xx, can you tell me more?”, the interviewee gets excited and will elaborate more.

    1. I agree that conversation can be a winner. It’s just good to have a specific list of questions to help bring you back on track. I try to keep the questions specific to the angle requested of my brief. It’s tempting to learn everything you can about a subject, but too much information can be as much of a nightmare as too little.

  3. I was interviewing someone and had made up my mind before hand that I already had my main case study and this person would be a nice but not important addition. And so it was for the first half of the interview until she said an offhand comment that not only made my “bell” ring loudly but which changed the tone of my story. Never go in with pre-formed opinions or expectations. The unknown is the most exciting part of my interviews. And that age old “have you anything else to add” sometimes brings up some spontaneous gems. Thanks Al, great advice!

  4. Having worked in the field of interviewing people for a long time now – first in HR and now in writing – I couldn’t agree more. I like to have a good outline of what I need to get from the interview, but the real insights always come from just listening and getting off the track a little.

    Love Maxabella’s comment too!

  5. Wonderful advice Al. As you say, I feel the most important thing is to listen carefully. I find it exciting not knowing where the conversation will go and often it is the little unimportant things that turn out to be the most valuable.

  6. There is nothing I like better than a person that loves to talk about good questions! In counselling its safe to say that just as you think you are finishing up a session you ask one more ‘was there anything else you’d like to talk about’ and you can bet on the ‘well…and then BANG’ the real issue why they are there. These are great tips for writing and for life – always be on the lookout for the good bit thats often unexpected.

    Its been a real learning curve for me to do interviews for features – I love the freedom of being a complete sticky beak…

  7. Ah yes, all so true and things that are easy to neglect in the rush to pull an interview together. I particularly like your advice about listening for ‘the little bell’.

  8. It sounds as though the piece could have been done by an actual Q&A – that the reason nothing really flowed and the right questions weren’t asked is that the interviewer possibly just sent a list of questions to their interviewee, looking just for responses to those answers. This is the joy of a real interview, where one question can lead to another and so on…

  9. Great advice as I’ve come to expect from you Allison 🙂 no pressure don’t let me down anytime soon. This is such an important post because it is easy to forget that every time we read a fantastic article the quality of it is a direct result of the quality of questions the journalist asked. I actually feel really lucky to have worked as a counsellor before becoming a journalist because it was great training for developing trust quickly and knowing how to phrase questions to give people the space to answer them in detail. I always always ask the one at the end ‘is there anything else you’d like to add? or is there anything else you’d like readers to know?’ and often they drop something fantastic in my lap that I had no idea to ask them about. My favorite quote ever was from a high profile barista in Melbourne, I interviewed him 10 years ago when soy milk was just beginning to sneak into the cafe scene he said “If you made coffee in Italy with soy milk they’d cut your hands off”. Love it. I haven’t been to Italy for about 20 years I wonder if soy latte is a punishable offence…

  10. Now I know why Skype, isn’t such a good idea for interviewing people you don’t know. It would distract from the quality of the listening.

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