Interviewing – You steer, they paddle

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By Dick Miller

Stickman and farmers in canoe smaller.jpg

Interviewing is at the core of what we do to bring stories to the radio.

A good interviewer is only interested in getting the guest to tell his/her story.

He is not interested in making statements or telling stories himself. He wants to help the guest tell his/her story in the best way possible. A famous Canadian interviewer named Peter Gzowski suggested that if an interview was a canoe, the interviewer simply steers the boat while the guest does all the hard work of paddling.

Of course, that means that the interviewer has to know where the interview is supposed to go in order to do the steering.

And that's where the pre-interview comes in.

A pre-interview is essentially a planning tool. It helps the interviewer discover which story he wants from the guest. As each person has many experiences and thus many stories, the pre-interview allows the interviewer to zero in on the right story that will be gathered through the formal interview process. It provides, and there will be more on this later, the focus for the story.

A pre-interview is usually not recorded. It is a simple conversation, but take notes. These will come in very handy later when you design the formal interview.

The 3 parts.jpg

Part 1.jpg is called The Search. As its name suggests, this is where the interviewer searches for the beginning of the story. This part of the pre-interview is comprised mostly of small talk, making the guest comfortable, introducing the reason for the interview, assessing the potential for pursuing what you had in mind, or whether there is something else the guest has in mind that might be more worthy of pursuit.

Part 2.jpg of the pre-interview is called The Pursuit. This is the time to get down to business and get the story. You have established the subject either before the pre-interview began, or discovered a new subject through The Search. As an example, let's say the story you are after is about how your guest managed to get enough money to send his children to school.

Start by asking for a description of the conflict, in this case how much money was needed and what difficulties he experienced in trying to get it.

From there, you would move on to questions that allowed your guest to describe the actions he took, how he felt about it, what sort of stress it put him under. You don't need every detail and emotion in the pre-interview, but you do need to know the essence of the story.

You will find during this part of the pre-interview that your guest will mention, as an aside, another event, a person, a memory… something in answering your questions triggered another thought.

They will probably not talk about it because it is not part of their answer to your question, but it might be very important to the story.

We call these breadcrumbs.

Example arrow.jpg Here's an example:

If you are asking me about whether I would take a second job to get enough money to send my children to school I might say: Well, I can't sell off anything else, so I guess I'll have to take that job as a night watchman.

"Can't sell off anything else"…. So it seems I have already sold some things. What did I sell? How valuable was it? Does this show that I am desperate? Probably. And willing to do anything for my children.

A little trail of breadcrumbs can lead to a very big loaf.

Take note of these breadcrumbs and be sure to follow up on them in the pre-interview and in the interview. There will be more.

Part 3.jpg of the pre-interview is called The Cleanup. Once you are satisfied that you know the story and that the guest can tell the story, you can get some of the details you need for presenting it on the radio. These would be things such as proper pronunciation of the name, title, contact information and availability for a formal interview.


So now you have done the pre-interview, know the story and written the focus, it is time to prepare for the formal interview.

We now move Who? What? and Why? to How? What? and Why?

Interviews have a shape. They have a structure. They have a beginning and middle and end. The focus helps you decide where to start.

The beginning of an interview usually deals with the "what": what is someone doing. Then it moves to the "why": why would they do that? What is driving them? And finally the interviewer tries to find out what it means for now and in the future.

The questions, how you word them, can greatly affect the outcome of the interview. Having the shape isn’t enough. You have to ask the right questions in the right way to get the best response that provides for a complete story.

This is where the "you steer – they paddle" theory comes into effect. We steer an interview by asking questions that do not constrain the guest to simple one or two word answers. That means that an interviewer asks questions that require the guest to do some storytelling – to describe action, to provide description, to give emotion and understanding. The best questions for doing that are called "open ended" questions. These are questions that require more than a yes or no answer.

The following notes are from John Sawatsky, who has taught interviewing to many journalists.

We have known the 5Ws for longer than we care to remember: who, what, when, where and why.

The 5Ws are both good and bad. The good news is that they always produce open-ended questions. The bad news is that not all open-ended questions are equal.

Open-ended questions break down into two basic types: high order and fact recall. "When did it happen?" is fact recall, because it requires nothing more than a fact, for example, "Yesterday" or "This morning." It doesn’t take much work to answer that question. On the other hand, "What caused it to happen?" is something else entirely. Work is definitely required. It is high order. Notable answers are usually high order.

What, How and Why are the magic words of interviewing because they produce the answers that build stories. Most of our questions (80-90%) should start with What, How or Why.

Off-The-Shelf Questions

Now that we know how to start the question, we need the rest.

How often has this happened to you? The subject says something which you want to follow up, but at the crucial moment the mind just goes blank. Sometimes the mind just locks up and quits. Now is the time to reach for an "off-the-shelf question."

Off-the-shelf questions are generic questions - stock questions - which we pull off the shelf and plug into the interview, anytime, anywhere. People dismiss them because they look dull and sound banal, but they generate some big surprises, and have a habit of producing the clip.

There are hundreds of good off-the-shelf questions. Here are my Top 10.

1. What happened?

The best question—but we don't use it. Too plain, too simple. We think we need something more elaborate, but nothing beats "What happened?"

2. What do you mean?

Pulls more out of people than people realize they possess. Totally universal and almost impossible to over-use.

3. Why is that?

If a five-year-old has ever asked you a consecutive series of "Why" questions you know how hard it works. "Why?" and "Why is that?" are identical, except "Why is that?" sounds softer, less brusque.

4. What are/were the options?

Amazingly intrusive, and yet raises no red flags. Once somebody lays out the options we know what they are thinking.

5. How would you characterize that?

Very boring, but don't be fooled. It's both deceptive and hardworking. Gets great description.

6. What was the turning point?

Okay, it's a cliché, but look at the results. It's a heat-seeking missile that locks in on movement and change.

7. What did he/she/they say?

Turn people into your personal reporter and get the actual words. It reduces the event to its pure form.

8. What is/was it like?

It makes them fill the void. Consistently gets great description.

9. What went through your mind at the time?

A more consistent alternative to the "How do you feel?" question.

10. What's an example?

Use when people make broad statements without being specific. Immediately their answers become hard and specific—or alternatively their lack of knowledge is exposed. These are my personal Top 10. See which ones work for you and come up with your own Top 10. Then write them onto a Post-It note and always stick the note onto the top right-hand corner of your question list so they are forever handy.

It is always a good idea to write out a list of questions based on the pre-interview. Keep in mind the lessons from John Sawatsky, and keep in mind as well the structure of your interview, starting with the "what" and moving to the "why."


  • Know what you want to get from your guest.
  • Have your guests introduce themselves on tape to the audience.
  • Let them tell the listeners why they are being interviewed.
  • Record some ambient sound.
  • Get both of you comfortable.
  • Ask one question at a time.
  • Ask questions that require an emotional response.
  • Ask questions that bring out a story.
  • Have your guests answer in complete sentences.
  • Listen to the answers.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Let your guest finish before you start a question.
  • Avoid verbal nods of agreement. The uh huh’s and mmmmm’s.
  • Be prepared to change directions to follow your guest.
  • Follow the trails of breadcrumbs.
  • Ask questions two or three times if necessary for depth and clarity.
  • Listen. Listen. Listen.
  • Check your recorder before you leave to make sure the interview is recorded.