The-Word-Factory-how-to-interview-Mike-WallaceSince I heard veteran newsman Mike Wallace had passed, I've been thinking about him interviewing people. The news clips mostly focused on his gotcha journalism. But the majority of his interviews weren't like that. They were thoughtful and thought-provoking, tough but respectful. We could learn some things from that Mike Wallace.

Sometimes I think we forget that journalists and freelance writers aren't the only people who make a living interviewing others. Fact is, everybody's an interviewer.

Pretty much all of us do it at some point: interviewing job candidates or contractors, etc. A lot of us, though, do conduct interviews with the purpose of using the material in content of some kind.

Inquiring minds want to know

I've been told I'm a good interviewer. I don't remember a class in journalism school at UNC (Go Heels!) that focused exclusively on that. But I do remember my dad, a former Mad Man at both JWalter and Y&R, and his golfing buddy and my reporting prof Jim Shumaker hammering home that the best questions are the ones the audience will have.

I have to say that good advice has served me well. I've parlayed it into an almost-30-year career as a corporate communications professional and freelance journalist.

What questions to ask

It's not rocket science, this questions thing:

  1. Audience questions: Think about the person consuming your content and jot down the questions they might have. You'll have at least 5 questions, I bet, right there. This has the added bonus of making your content more relevant to your audience. Hello, engagement!
  2. Higher-up questions: Somewhere along the way, I added a second category of questions related to a secondary audience: those my boss, client or editor might ask. If your boss/client/editor is smart, these will be great questions. If not, you at least will have the answer to that annoying question, "Did you ask about ....?" and have that information handy if s/he insists on your including. I find that's far better than having to go back to a source with a lame question or two. Less noticeable if you toss it in with all your good ones!
  3. Your questions: Finally you can add the questions you have. This includes all the questions you have as the professional content creator in the room -- the ones that further serve your audience and help you get the ideas and details you need to make whatever you're making. But don't forget the questions of the unprofessional you -- you the person. What do you want to know? What doesn't make sense to you? These are often the most authentic questions (because they're actually yours) and can elicit really great answers.

Learn more about how to craft good questions here.

A final tip

If you're nervous about asking a question, don't drop it like a hot potato. Instead, check your intent. Are you asking it because it truly serves your purpose, or are you playing gotcha? If it's the former, you can even tell your subject you're a little nervous -- it often disarms them, actually. And just putting it out there may help you feel better.

If it's the latter, despite the success gotchas got Mike Wallace, may he rest in peace, it's not a workable practice for most of us. If your true intent is to show someone as a fraud or a fool, I promise you that if you ask good questions, they'll have so much rope they won't be able to avoid hanging themselves.

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