The Power of Listening
To be a good interviewer you must learn to listen -- both to others and to yourself.
"A lot of times we beat ourselves," says Pat Stith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer. "We don't listen. We don't ask simple, direct, follow-up questions. We just talk, and we talk, and we talk. We forget why we're there. (We're there to acquire information.) When we're talking, we're not acquiring anything."
Effective interviewing is a pillar of good reporting and writing. The ability to talk comfortably with people and to persuade them to give you information is one of the reporter's most important skills. Yet journalists get little or no training in this vital aspect of their job. Most learn by painful trial and error.
To help rectify that situation, this Best Newspaper Writing brown bag is devoted to interviewing skills. Listen to ASNE winners and finalists talk about successful interviewing techniques, practice some of those tips, and explore other resources.
How do I use this BNW Brown Bag?
I. The Power of Listening
II. Award Winners on Interviewing
A gallery of quotes from the Best Newspaper Writing series
III. Talking Points & Assignment Desk
How to learn from BNW winners' work, with a group or on your own.
What's your best interviewing technique?
V. Download the PDF
The Power of Listening
>> BNW Index
More profiles and brown bags.
Buy the book:
BNW books at the Poynter Bookstore.
ASNE Writing Awards
Perhaps not, but a good interview may also require preparation. The night before an interview, legendary Associated Press feature writer Saul Pett recalled, "I'll be sitting in a motel room, nervously trying to think of questions, and it makes for a more spontaneous interview."
Prepare your questions. Write them down. Train yourself to ask them as you wrote them. Don't stumble. Ask the question and then stop. Don't apologize for asking it. Don't be afraid to ask the question again and again. Broadcast journalists know they may have to ask the question more than once to get an answer on tape that conveys meaning.
A good interview may have to be short, but the smart reporter always makes time to listen. Colin Nickerson's prizewinning package of Boston Globe deadline coverage of the first Persian Gulf War in "Best Newspaper Writing 1992" included a story written "four hours after I started reporting" and was based on "two or three good interviews," he recalled. It's not time that matters, he said, but interest: "You need to show that you care about their story."
During my reporting career, using a tape recorder taught me my most important lesson of interviewing: to shut up. It was a painful learning experience, having to listen to myself stepping on people's words, cutting them off just as they were getting enthusiastic or appeared about to make a revealing statement. There were far too many times I heard myself asking overly long and leading questions, instead of simply saying, "Why?" or "How did it happen?" or "When did all this begin?" or "What do you mean?" and then closing my mouth and letting people answer.
"Learning to listen has been the great lesson of my life," David Ritz wrote in The Writer. "You can't capture a subject or render someone lifelike, you can't create a living voice, with all its unique twists and turns, without listening. Now there are those who listen while waiting breathlessly to break in. For years, that was me. But I'm talking about patient listening, deep-down listening, listening with the heart as well as the head, listening in a way that lets the person know you care, that you want to hear what she has to say, that you're enjoying the sound of her voice."
There's a scene in "All the President's Men" when Robert Redford, as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, asks a Republican how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It's a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then hang there, not saying a word, until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out another piece of the puzzle. The moral here: To get people to talk, we need to learn the power of listening.