Interviewing Essentials Day 3 (Bootcamp): Drop and Give Me 20 Follow-Up Questions

Today we got to practice not only our interviewing skills, but also our observational adeptness. As I sit here making little sandwiches of humus between chip-cut carrots, I will regale you with the day’s adventures.

We convened this morning at 11 a.m. in 110 Lee Hills, where we jumpstarted what Jacqui called “bootcamp” by playing a little game I like to call “Four lucky people get to ask questions, and we all get to ask a follow-up to try to pry a story out of our professor.” It goes like this: the first person asks a question, Jacqui answers it, and the next person asks a follow up. We go through five follow-up questions before discussing what we think went wrong/right (but mostly wrong). It’s a great exercise, and Jacqui took it easy on us, but it’s slightly nerve-wracking when you’re like me and get the fifth follow-up question.

Discussion was relatively short today because of the pending assignment, but we focused on the ever-elusive “follow-up question” Here are some of the main points covered:

  • Go into an interview with a list of topics you want to talk about, but don’t be tied to them. If there’s a specifically hard question you want to ask — one that you fear will draw a negative response from the subject or that you’re embarrassed to ask — practice asking it before going into the interview.
  • When asking tough questions, remain neutral in the way you ask it. Lead the source into it with context by asking questions with answers that set up your question or by explaining what kind of answer you want from them before you ask the question.
  • Doubling up questions, like “When did you start working for Sterling Cooper Draper Price and how did the zombie attack affect that?” is a BAD idea. It won’t get you the answer you’re looking for; it’s better to stay clear and simple.
  • Steer away from asking questions with the word “favorite,” like “What was your favorite reporting experience?” (That was the follow-up question I asked Jacqui). It’s like asking someone what their favorite movie is; from experience, I can tell you it’s an impossible task to narrow down every Kubrick, Tarantino, Scorsese, Anderson, Nolan, Hitchcock, Cukor, Wilder, etc. film you’ve seen into one film that epitomizes it all. Chances are, the source won’t be able to pinpoint a singular moment in their lives to tell you, so be more specific. “What was your proudest moment?” or “What was your most discouraging moment?” would be far better.
  • The question “Where were you when ___ happened?” is a great question to get a source to reconstruct a scene for you.
  • When asking opinion, don’t just ask what the source thinks. Ask what the source does. Example: Don’t ask Jacqui what she thinks of social media being used in reporting. Ask how she uses it.

This was my major “ah-hah!” moment of the day, so I’m not adding it in the list. A lot of times, journalists get scared or don’t step up to talk to a source because they don’t think it’s ethically right. The example Jacqui gave was this: a superintendent beloved by all was diagnosed with advanced leukemia. The reporter was asked to contact him, but didn’t because he didn’t think it was right to bother him. In failing to reach out to him, the reporter deprived the superintendent of his right to decide whether he wanted to say something or not. The superintendent could have said, “No Comment,” but the reporter didn’t even give him that chance. He just assumed, which, as we all know, makes an a- …well, you know.

And for a group of people devoted to giving a voice to the voiceless, it’s pretty important that we at least give them the option of slamming the door in our faces and calling us media pigs, instead of making that decision for them.

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