Celeste Headlee on how to ask the right questions for a great interview

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Headlee

Headlee

This is an excerpt from Heard Mentality: An A-Z Guide to Take Your Podcast or Radio Show from Idea to Hit, a new book by Celeste Headlee. Headlee is host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s On Second Thought and previously hosted Public Radio International’s The Takeaway

If the arc of the conversation is the trip from the lobby to the penthouse, your questions are the vehicle that carries you there. The quality of questions separates a good host from a great one.

As a rule of thumb, I follow the advice of legendary coach David Candow: stick with the five W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and how. David said if you put a complicated question in, you’ll get a simple answer coming out and vice versa. I’ve found this to be generally true. If you ask, “Did you feel scared?”, the person will respond to the idea of “scared” instead of telling you how he felt. If you say, “The House recently passed its fifth overturn of the Affordable Care Act. Should health care advocates be worried?”, then your guest will respond to “worried” instead of telling you what that means for advocates of universal health care.

The common pitfall here is to construct a question to demonstrate your knowledge or experience of a subject by including dates, data, numbers, and names. Some anchors like to mention their own history in covering a region or topic. To this, I say, “It’s not about you.” Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t care how much you know about astrophysics and Steven Spielberg couldn’t care less that you dabbled in film direction as a student. Keep the focus on the guest always and in everything. That applies even when you interview another journalist about breaking news. As much as you can, let the reporter report.

A good discipline in solutions-based journalism is to practice the Three Whys — a technique originally developed by Sakichi Toyota for the automaker. The principle behind this technique is that many problems have more than one root cause, and it may take a series of questions to get to the bottom of what happened.

It’s quite simple in principle, but more difficult in implementation. You go for the why more than once, but without sounding like you’re pestering.

Example:

  1. Why have state test scores dropped by 17 percent this year? Answer: The teachers only had a couple weeks to prepare their classes.
  2. Why? Answer: The federal NCLB testing was scheduled right before the state test.
  3. Why? Answer: We didn’t have any other good dates. There’s too much testing in schools.

The Three Whys is one of the most efficient problem-solving techniques in business and it’s an objective way for journalists to delve deeply into political, financial or social issues.

Here are more specific guidelines to asking good questions.

1. Ask one question at a time. Avoid this: “When did you first start playing soccer and why choose that sport instead of hockey, the sport that your dad played?” When you ask multiple questions, the guest can choose what to answer. Also, you can stress them by forcing them to remember all that you asked. You’re there to make things easy for your guest, and to let them speak.

2. Avoid making statements instead of asking questions. This one is debatable, and as respected a source as NPR’s Jonathan Kern, who created the network’s training program, recommends using statements on a regular basis. I disagree with him on this. While I sometimes use statements to get a response from guests, I think they should be few and far between. Many’s the time I’ve made a statement, only to see the guest looking at me blankly, waiting to respond to a question. But I refer you to Kern’s book, Sound Reporting, for advice on how to use a well-constructed statement to have a natural conversation. One further note: a statement with an upward inflection at the end is not a question. And adding, “Could you talk about that?” doesn’t turn your statement into a question, either.

3. Don’t ask a question you know the answer to. Your producers will try to make you do this. “Actually ask a real question,” NPR’s Steve Inskeep says. “Having asked it, stop. Very often people will ask a question they imagine they already know the answer to, and they ask it in a way that shows they already know the answer. There’s no suspense there. It sounds like the host is in on it with the guest. The host will say, ‘Tell us about the time you went to Georgia and were arrested.’ Instead, say, ‘Tell us what happened when you went to Georgia.’”

4. Don’t say “some people.” Ask for yourself.

5. Don’t ask multiple-choice questions. This is common. A host will say, “Were you scared? Calm? Or did you not even notice it was happening?” Instead, just ask them what it was like. You should jump in only if they’re struggling to answer.

We learn more easily from stories than from statistics and details, so steer your guest away from reciting facts and figures. The interview should sound like you’re saying, “Hello, friend in my home, let me introduce you to this other friend. Let me tell you why they’re here and put them in context so you have a sense of who they are and why you should listen.”

It’s good to take your guest back to a formative moment and ask what they were thinking or feeling at the time. You can also ask what they saw and heard. That will help put them in the moment. What does the guest know now that would have been good to know at the time? And you can also research whatever it is they’re working on, find out what’s not working, and ask them why.

If the guest doesn’t answer your question, you can say, “What I really wanted to know was …”. Keep control of the interview at all times. Sometimes your guest will get off on a tangent. You should interrupt them. Kojo Nnamdi at WAMU in Washington, D.C., will finish his guest’s thought and then bring him back to the point. He’ll say, “And I know you’ve been complaining to the FCC about that, but let’s get back to what happened during the broadcast.”

If your question is short, sharp, and respectful, the audience will often be relieved you interrupted, instead of thinking you’re rude. We’ll talk more later about how to cut off a guest at the end of your interview. That’s a different challenge.

One more tip: it’s generally best to end the interview with a question that looks to the future. What happens next? What’s your next project? Anything that gets the guest to talk about the story as ongoing is a good finish.

In addition to asking questions, you’ll have to jump in from time to time for other reasons. For example, you should acknowledge when a guest mentions a fact you can’t verify, like mentioning that Georgia has more unwed mothers than any other state. You can ask the guest what their source is, where the data come from.

You’ll also have to jump in to provide what Jonathan Kern calls “drop-in context”. That means you have to recognize terms and references guests use that listeners may not understand immediately. Do they say someone is “like Carrie Bradshaw”? You need to quickly explain she was Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Sex in the City. Do they mention ACORN? You should say that it stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and give enough context so listeners remember it was the voter registration group that was brought down by a hidden-camera scandal.

You are at the helm of this ship: keep relaxed control at all times. Set up the topic clearly and bring the audience along with you every step of the way. Keep the conversation moving among the guests, even the bad talkers. If you have three people at the table and you ignore one of them, the audience will notice and they’ll think you’re being rude. Own your chair. You have to believe you belong there, although that doesn’t mean you should ever pretend to know more than you do. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t. You can’t be any smarter than you are.

Sometimes, you will have to stop someone who’s talking too long. If you don’t, listeners might think, “Why is this person droning on?” Interrupt them by saying something like, “I think what you’re saying is …” or “Let me bring this other guest in here …”. The person you’re most concerned with is the audience, not the guest. People don’t like hearing someone being rude, but they also want the conversation to have forward momentum at all times.

Also, do not allow one guest to attack another. Say something like, “We’re not having that here” or “I’m going to stop you there.” Take control. Have courage. Be firm.

You’re storytelling as a host and constructing a piece just as a reporter does with actualities. The difference is, you’re doing it live. You’re the narrator. If someone says something that doesn’t make sense, you have to jump in and make sense of it. You weave the through line. What’s the next question that arises naturally? Let’s answer that or go to another guest.

If an interview is boring, that’s often because there’s no suspense or tension. What’s at stake? Something important should always be at stake. It doesn’t have to be life or death. Steve Inskeep tells a story about an interview he heard when he was in Morehead, Kentucky. The anchor brought on a guy who was in charge of encouraging tourism in Morehead. The anchor’s first question was “Who the heck would want to come here?”

Leading the segment off with that question grabbed Steve’s attention, and probably the attention of other listeners as well. Asking a direct, simple, surprising question can turn a boring interview like that into an entertaining segment.

Practice asking great questions. Hosting is all about interviews, and interviews are all about questions.

  • Katherine Fink

    I really dig the ideas here, but I have to nit-pick: Toyota’s technique was based on five whys, not three.

    • Celeste Headlee

      Toyota eventually narrowed it down the the three question system which is widely used in business today. I went back and forth on whether to go into that and decided just to go with the current system. But you’re right. The original method was five questions.

  • cheryl head

    It would be great if you could share these ideas with Gayle King on CBSThisMorning. Kidding, but not so much.