Inquiring Minds

In 2011, my husband and I went to hear Umberto Eco speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. When they opened up the talk to audience questions, I started cringing in my seat as a kind of preemptive reflex. Sure enough, someone from the audience eagerly grabbed the microphone and asked Eco if he believed in God.

I intensely dislike audience Q&As at these kinds of events. I understand why they exist, and I always take questions from the crowd when moderating panels, but I’ve come to dread the whole enterprise. There’s always the “This is more of a statement…” person; the question asker who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different event; the pedantic blowhard. At the same Chicago Humanities Festival where Eco spoke, I attended a talk about composing television for music and film where during the Q&A, a woman loudly described the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange and then sat down without asking a question. I also once went to a book reading by Joshua Ferris, who mentioned he had gotten an idea for his novel while shopping at Home Depot, and a guy in the front row called out, “What’s Home Depot?” (Ferris, without missing a beat, explained that it’s a store like Menards, where you can buy lumber and tools.)

Asking good questions is hard. I make a living from asking people questions, and I’ve had my share of blunders. As a young financial markets reporter, I once lobbed what I thought was a friendly open-ended question at a source, only to have him snap, “Do you know anything about capital markets, madam?” There was also the time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called on me at a press conference and I blankly said, “What?” like an idiot because I was spacing out in the front row.

But it hasn’t been all mishaps! I’ve learned a lot about interviewing and asking questions, and my last two years talking to owners of long-running businesses for The Distance have been particularly instructive in how to do interviews for feature stories. (Breaking news and more adversarial interviews for investigative pieces have their own techniques, as do live or broadcast interviews where the journalist’s end of the conversation is equally visible.)

Come prepared but with an open mind.

Sometimes I write down a list of questions and sometimes I don’t. Even if I do have a list of questions, I review it before leaving for the interview but don’t print it out. I don’t like to be so wedded to my list of questions that I forget to listen. Sometimes the best material comes from a tangent or an offhand reference that the person makes, and it’s important to let the conversation wander down those paths.

I do a lot of research before interviews and usually have some idea of what the story’s underlying thread will be so I can focus my questions, but I’m also willing to ditch that angle if my initial instincts don’t pan out. For my most recent story about Office Furniture Resources, a company that buys and resells used office furniture, I had gone in thinking that the business gets its inventory from corporations that go under. I thought the story might have a twinge of melancholy to it, examining how OFR makes its money from reselling the vestiges of defunct businesses. Instead, I learned that OFR gets used furniture from Fortune 100 corporations that are moving or upgrading their offices. That piece of information took the interview in a different direction, and the final story ended up focusing more on OFR’s years of relationship-building and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the used office furniture business.

Ask the right kinds of questions.

All the stories we do at The Distance attempt to answer the question: “What’s the key to staying in business for so long?” But I don’t pose this question directly to business owners. It’s just too on-the-nose. Most of the people I talk to don’t really think in those terms, and if they do have a response, it’s usually kind of canned. After all, if someone asked you, “What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?” you probably wouldn’t have a pithy answer. What’s worked well for me is to ask a whole bunch of questions about how the business operates and how it’s evolved over time. I might also ask the person to describe how he or she got through a difficult period, or how they made certain important decisions. When I transcribe the tape and review my notes, I’m able to pick out some common themes in the discussion and get closer to answering the overarching question.

Open-ended questions are also really important, especially in the kinds of stories we do at The Distance, where the voice of the business owner is critical. Yes/no questions yield bad quotes, so you don’t want to get in a position where you’re just reciting a bunch of facts at the subject and getting them to confirm those facts. You’ll end up with an hour of you showing off all the research you’ve done, and not very much from the person you’re interviewing.

For feature reporting in particular, you often want subjects to set a specific scene for you—what something looked like, where they were, what they were thinking or feeling or wearing. When someone starts describing a scene you think might make a good anecdote for the story, slow down and walk the person through the scene in detail: “So you were sitting here? Where was the other person? Then what did you do?”

Location, location, location

I do all my primary interviews in person at the business itself. Seeing interview subjects in their natural habitat, so to speak, adds a lot to stories. When possible, ask for a tour or to tag along with someone at an event where you can see the person in action. If I have a choice between the person’s office and a conference room, I always choose the former because people’s office decor—what’s hanging on their wall and sitting on their desks—usually generates interesting material. That’s how I learned the president of Carma Labs (the maker of Carmex lip balm) collects motorcycles and self-playing musical instruments, and how the owner of Merz Apothecary ended up reading a framed letter on his wall that had him, his son and me in tears.

Take your time and over-report.

When you sit down to write, you want to be in a position where you are making tough, practically heartbreaking, decisions about what makes the final story. Also, you don’t know what’s the most important or interesting unless you’ve gathered a lot of material. A typical Distance episode is around 15 minutes, with that split between my narration and the tape I’ve gathered. That usually works out to seven or eight minutes of tape from interviews that take anywhere from one to three hours. It’s never easy to leave out so much material, especially since people take that kind of time to talk to me. But all that information lives in the background of the piece, informing the overall narrative and helping me tell the story with greater confidence and authority.

Perhaps the most important tip I can give is to act with empathy and be grateful for your interview subjects’ time, candor and trust. I am constantly amazed that anyone agrees to talk to journalists. A few months ago, I was on the phone with a potential subject who wanted to know what measurable benefits previous Distance business owners have gotten from being featured on the show. I was honest and said “none.” As far as I know, there have been no uptick in sales or life-changing business deals for any of the businesses profiled on the show. The benefits are more intangible—public relations, the opportunity to share your story with an outlet that will treat it with care. If I’m being truly honest, the show and I are the ones who benefit the most. We’re getting great stories that will hopefully keep building our audience and contribute to a conversation about business models based on long-term vision and staying independent.

By the way, if you’re wondering how Umberto Eco responded to the question about whether he believed in God, he said: “I don’t speak of private questions in public. Anyway, the only thing I am pretty sure—God believes in me!”

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