How to Be the Liam Neeson of Reporting

Unlike the live-out-of-your-car journalists you see all over the television, I’m one writer who gets to stay put — for the most part.

It’s an odd switch from my life in J-School, where everything was about going out and seeing. Jacqui Banaszynski told us numerous times in her interview class that environment can be more telling than words. But when you’re doing the kind of reporting I do on human resource practices and learning and development programs, there’s not much sense in relying on in-person. One story can have a source in California, one in New York and another in Texas, and unfortunately the magazine doesn’t have the time or budget to send me cross-cross-and-cross-again-country for three 40 minute interviews. Because of this, I’m attached to my phone.

I am the Liam Neeson of reporters.
I am the Liam Neeson of reporters. (Thanks EmpireNews.Net for putting together a collage so I didn’t have to.)

That’s not to say I haven’t gotten out of the office. Last week I flew to Carlsbad for our annual Chief Learning Officer Fall 2014 symposium. You can read and watch recaps of the event at our site, so I won’t turn this post into a travel log, but let’s say it was a great way to put faces to names I had read and interviewed since February, as well as meet people I hadn’t yet talked to but know I will in the future. I also learned a “very particular set of skills” (to continue on this Liam Neeson trend), such as how to do a video interview without appearing to be a total spas. Half-spas, yes. Total spas, no.

In my learning and development reporting, I’ve heard time and time again about the 70-20-10 rule: 70 percent of what we learn is from experience, 20 from other people and 10 from formal reading and lecture. After spending three days at the Chief Learning Officer Fall Symposium in Carlsbad, California, I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe that’s not giving enough credit to experience.

I’ve also learned that it is possible to play Cards Against Humanity with your boss and not get fired.

To be fair, I never had to play "__."
On the upside, I had one of the mildest hands ever. For those unfamiliar with the game, that’s actually saying something when “Alter Boys” is your most politically dangerous card.

The experience factor is pivotal to gaining more and more skills, and even when I stay in the Chicago Loop, I learn something from every day of honest work. The Missouri Method of journalism got me an editor position right out of college because it gave me the foundation. This first job at Human Capital Media is giving me the finesse.

I’m not always trapped in a cubicle — just today I made my escape from phone-bound journalism when I interviewed some of the top people at Coeur Mining about their practices. I got to make the long trek down four blocks of Michigan Ave. to their corporate headquarters. It was a tough journey, plagued by the Starbucks-craving, camera-clutching leftovers of Chicago Marathon weekend.

Kidding aside, the chance to sit in a boardroom with a few people and ask questions was such a change from my usual dial-and-dialogue that I was taken off my guard a little. My mind has been so used to talking to people over the phone with nothing but their voice to act as a queue for whether I’m asking the right questions, missing the mark entirely or connecting with them on what they really want to talk about but are too polite or too tricky to actually say. Sitting at a conference table across from my subject gave me facial queues, but it also provided a gorgeous view of the city outside the windows that could have been distracting at best.

But seeing that view was pivotal to my reporting on this story, as environmental observation is critical to telling the story of how a company moved from small-town Idaho to big-city Chicago (see our February issue of Talent Management for the full scoop). The work I do isn’t event coverage or descriptive, but being in person offered the opportunity to add those details to my upcoming case study. I now can use the view of the Art Institute’s north garden, Millennium Park and the peak of Lake Michigan as a scene-setter instead of what I’m told by people who talk to me through a little black box in the middle of my paper-filled workstation.

Behold the fortress of phone calling.
Behold the Fortress of Phone Calling, complete with makeshift standing computer desk. For the record, no one knows where the Hum-Vee came from.

Now you know what I’m usually looking at when conducting these interviews — cascading papers reminding me of everything currently and imminently on my docket and a strip of Rosie the Riveter tape that acts as a motivator. Apart from that, I’m usually armed with a LinkedIn profile picture and a phone-mutilated voice. The person on the other end could be building a Lego pencil holder for all I know (cough, Katie, cough). I can’t get intensity from the spark in their eyes or enthusiasm in their gestures. I can’t tell if they’re in sweatpants or Armani.

Sometimes the voice is enough — it was when I interviewed Sherryann Plesse, former chief learning officer of the Vanguard Group with a very sweet, giving voice, or Monica Garcia at G4S Secure Solutions, who passionately emphasized the how Hollywood’s stereotypes of the security guard industry harm its image to the point I thought she was angry at me for asking the question— but other times, I might as well be discussing the weather.

That brings me to the first of many lessons I’ve learned about focusing solely on phone interviews: Discuss the weather. Opening chit chat can get you accustomed to the cadence of someone’s usual speaking voice. That will provide the baseline for when the source gets more animated through the rest of the call.

Skill no. 2: Long pauses are your friend. There’s the rule in negotiation that the last person to talk is the one to lose. That applies to interviews, too. People hate silence, so staying silent after a source gives their answer means there’s an uncomfortable silence to fill, and that’s where the particularly good pieces and quotes come in. Sources will rush so fast to fill in a silence that they won’t really think about what they’re saying, and that gives you either another side of the story, their true feelings on a subject or at least some more options for direct quotes. Note: this can be used in face-to-face interviews, but it might just result in a really awkward stare-down.

Except less Wolverine-hands-made-of-broken-liquor-bottles-(and-hey-aren't-airline-liquor-bottles-plastic-nowadays?)-y.
Except less Wolverine-hands-made-of-broken-liquor-bottles-(and-hey-aren’t-airline-liquor-bottles-plastic-nowadays?)-y.

Third, ask provocative questions to get provocative answers. If you’re going to go through a verbal duel anyway, you might as well hit them with your best inquiring shot. Liam Neeson is direct (“Where have you taken my daughter?” “What are you going to do with my daughter?” “Why haven’t I taught some of these particular skills to my daughter so she stops getting taken?”). Be even more direct.

That said, it’s also OK to start a question over. Anyone listing to the cassette tapes of my interviews (yes, I use old-school cassettes, and it’s bit me in the butt fewer times than using a digital recorder) will hear me on a few occasions say, “Hold on. Let me start that question over again.” It’s often better to catch yourself before the source catches you because it shows you’re engaged, not misreading the question you wrote days ago in preparation. But if the person on the other end asks you to reword something, acknowledge that it was muddled or provide more context. It keeps you looking competent but flexible in recognizing your own infallibility, something Liam Neeson may want to consider before signing up for Taken 4.

I feel like I should end with some Liam Neeson pun, like “Take(n) it away, journos!” or “Skills, actually, are the best way to get the interview you want” or, perhaps too off-color, “Make sure you study this (Schindler’s) List of tips.” Instead, here’s a GIF of him giving you props for conducting good phone interviews:


Keep calm and Liam on, my friends.


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