The best conversationalists don’t tell you what they know; they ask questions. They get people talking, and the resultant conversation is typically more lively and more inclusive of different opinions; in other words, they’re more interesting. This is what journalists do – they ask questions. The answers to these questions get woven into a compelling story. Doing this is not as easy as it sounds; there’s a way to ask questions that elicit great responses.
One of the things I like to say at Scribewise is that we don’t have all the answers, but we do have all the questions. That helps to uncover compelling stories on behalf of our clients.
Here’s how to ask questions like a journalist:
Know your material, but don’t try to show how much you know.
There’s a temptation to prove that you’re not a complete noob and know your stuff. Fight that. That’s not your purpose. You want to get the interviewee talking, not listening to you.
(Related aside: When I was a kid reporter a long long time ago, I interviewed the great Arnold Palmer about a golf course he had designed. I asked him a couple questions that I thought were smart and showed I was a fan (Example – “it looks like there are a lot of blind shots on this course; can you talk about that?”) (Also, by the way, that’s a horrible construction of a question). After Palmer corrected the faulty premises in my first few questions, I felt foolish, asked him two more perfunctory questions and went on my way. In other words, I had wasted an opportunity to interview the great Arnold Palmer.)
Ask dumb questions.
If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask the interviewee to explain it; that takes confidence, and can save you some embarrassment down the road (when you publish your post and it’s wrong).
Ask forward-looking questions.
Yes, you want to have an action in the past explained, but the deeper thinking and better answers will come from what the interview subject intends to do next. The best question a journalist ever asked me was “who are you going to hire next?” To his way of thinking that was the best way to understand the direction we intended to take Scribewise – by knowing the future roles on our team, he’d better understand our goals.
Ask open-ended questions.
Yes/no answers just aren’t as interesting.
This is where you find the gold.
Ask follow-up questions.
This is really hard to do if you’re conducting an interview via email, which is why an email interview is generally less productive. Follow-up questions are your chance to dig deeper into the rationale behind a statement.
Remember, you’re there to uncover a story, not deliver a sermon.
In other words, don’t do this. If you go into an interview determined to discuss your preconceived notion, you’ll never discover something new. It’s certainly logical to occasionally interject a personal opinion in order to create a conversation, but if that’s all you do, you’ll never learn anything new. Which is generally the point of an interview.
Lastly, think about your interview questions ahead of time. It’s wise to have at least some of them pre-planned. But remember, it’s a conversation, and no human being scripts his conversations. The best interviewers react to what the interviewee says.