Monday, September 04, 2006

Sawatsky on the interview

How should we interview? As a corporate producer, I've always been a soft-baller, learning to gently tease content out of my subjects, usually for the sake of promoting the company line. Unlike investigative journalists who need to perennially critical of their subject's responses, we corporate communicators don't get paid to look under the rug for scandal, or prompting our interview subjects into making iconoclastic revelations. The premise for quizzing our bosses, employees, customers, or consultants on camera, is an ostensibly friendly one (even though it could be considered an exploitive one as well).We're just happy with coherent statements. If we can get a genuine emotion, or a story, neatly told, we are elated.

But maybe we can learn a thing or two from our meat-eating cousins in the broadcast media. Canadian investigative reporter John Sawatsky thinks most journalists have got interviewing all wrong. It's not about the question, he claims, but the answer. In an age when politicos and corporate flacks get coaching on how to duck unwanted questions, side step negatives and spin their way along a desired "message track", Sawatsky has taken us back to the basics. We got away from that, he says, when interviewers became stars and tried to be part of the story themselves. He likes to harpoon show-off interviewers who try long-winded, stunt questions only to get a "yes" or "no" answer from the subject. Instead, he says, dump the "dialogue" and get back to interrogation.

Sawatsky's technique is akin to non-directive counseling. The point is to get to what the subject knows and feels, not to have a conversation in the tradional sense. Disciplined questions make for better and more illuminating answers, even when the relationship between the subject and interviewer is potentially hostile. The less interpretive and additive the questioning, the less opportunity you give to the respondent to spin. Sawatsky's gotten some street cred for his efforts. He's been hired by ESPN to train their reporters to work less at being "stars" themselves and harder at getting the story.

No problem there, we very humble corporate communicators are already all about answers, right? Don't we typically edit the final program entirely from subjects answers anyway, with our stuff winding up on the "cutting room floor"? What can we learn from this guy?

For one, I think we can learn to be more spirited in our questioning, and more genuinely curious. In the corporate world, we are conditioned not to ask too much; we learn not to dig for motive, seek clarification, or pull out subtleties in people's thinking. We tend to take statements at face value. Anything but conflict, hunh? Being a tad more investigative need not be a bad thing. Perhaps we can do that without being unfriendly, or even un-conversational.

Perhaps too, corporate communicators can be more than merely the trigger for prepared "comments". Maybe we can start getting our subjects to think and feel more spontaneously about the subject matter. The fact is that most people don't know what they are going to say about anything until they are asked. That's why the method of conversation can sometimes yield unexpected treasures of feeling and even a fresh insight, even if it is about the company's extended leave policy or the performance envelope of that new plane we are selling to the Chinese. So ask, and ask better.

Here's a quick Sawatsky primer on how to ask better questions:
  • Know your stuff. Prepare questions in advance. This does not mean knowing what the subject will say, it means stoking your curiosity.

  • Ask open-ended questions. Frame them to get facts and content back. Sawatsky urges us to be "inputters", saying as little as possible to get the subject to say as much as possible.

  • Don't stack up questions into two or three-parters. This is where preparedness helps. Ask one item at a time.

  • Don't grandstand your opinions or try to impress the subject with YOUR expertise. It's about her(him).

  • Keep the questions neutral in tone. Don't presume what your subject might say or how she might feel. The "friendly" interviewer can communicate warmth and curiousity
    without anticipating with or agreeing with everyhting the subject says. respectful interest is enough. Don't patronize the subject by "rewarding" good answers.

  • Transcribe your next interview and look it over. What's the ratio of your talk to the subjects? The steeper the ratio in the subject's favor the better.