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Interviewing: Put Your Questions On A Diet

Just how much of an impact does good interviewing have?

BY DREW DUFF  | Ball State Sports Link

Conducting an interview is the most important aspect in telling a good story. Shockingly, interviewing is often overlooked by many storytellers.

If a storyteller has a good concept, and the interviews are conducted poorly, the story will ultimately suffer. Taking your time and thinking critically about how you want to attack an interview will make the story much better in the long run.

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Sawatsky at his ESPN seminar (Courtesy: Molly Mita, ESPN)

In 2004, John Walsh, senior vice president at ESPN, was troubled by how the company conducted interviews. To remedy the situation, Walsh hired former journalist-turned-professor John Sawatsky.

Sawatsky is now a full-time employee with the network, teaching a three-day seminar on interviewing techniques. He also takes a deep look at what the major news outlets and publications do wrong while interviewing (hint: it’s a lot).

Originally from Canada, Sawatsky worked as a reporter in Ottawa during the 1970s. He received the Michener Award in 1976 for a series of articles about the crimes committed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Since he retired from daily journalism in 1979, he has taught investigative journalism at many different universities across Canada as well as interviewing techniques to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Sawatsky developed a list of guidelines for ESPN that should be kept in mind during an interview. ESPN has been known for their stellar feature stories, winning multiple Emmy Awards and Edward R. Murrow Awards.  Clearly, Sawatsky’s method is working, and his guidelines play a key role.


3 Tips

ESPN was awarded nine Sports Emmys at the 2016 Sports Emmy Awards (Courtesy: ESPN Media Zone)

I chose three guidelines to highlight and illustrate their importance to interviewing. Keep these in mind during an interview and it will help your technique:

  • Put your questions on a diet

Don’t use so much background when asking a question. Stick to simple questions and allow the subject to articulate their thoughts. Simply, don’t put words in their mouth.

  • Plan, but don’t over plan

This is one I usually struggle with. Part of what makes an interview so fun is how spontaneous it can be. You can plan out questions, but don’t just read down the list. Really concentrate on what your subject is saying, and don’t be afraid to go off script.

  • Be simple

You don’t need to sound like a genius during the interview. The simple questions often provide the best answers from your subjects. If you’re asking a tough and rather long question, break it down into smaller questions.  In Sports Link we learn “you’re not there to impress the athlete, let the athlete impress you.”


Be A Storyteller

Interviewing Ball State women’s tennis coach Max Norris last spring for Sports Link.

Every storyteller develops their own style of interviewing.

For me, I like to plan out topics I want to discuss during the interview, along with numerous questions related to each topic.

I don’t always stick to these questions, however. I’ve gotten much better listening to what my subject says and how he or she is acting when they answer a question.

As I start my senior year in Sports Link, I’ll be focusing on producing more feature stories. With each interview, I’ve learned so much about my style, along with the art of interviewing.

I’ve enjoyed the process so much that I would like to get a job in the industry creating feature stories.

Interviewing is an EXTREMELY important and overlooked aspect of storytelling.

Remember when planning an interview to take your time and think about Sawatsky’s guidelines. It will help your story, and improve your abilities as a storyteller.

You can learn more about John Sawatsky and his methods here.

 

 

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