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How do I get "good" at asking questions?

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by smsu_scribe, Dec 1, 2008.

  1. smsu_scribe

    smsu_scribe Guest

    Hi, all. I'm a college freshman and I'm starting to develop a system and style to my writing. At this point in my journalism career, I think the aspect I'm in most need of improvement in is reporting. When I'm trying to formulate good interview questions (for gamers, features, anything) I often have trouble getting beyond the "feel" questions: How did you feel about your defense...about Johnny's performance...about their opponent's strategy.

    I hate asking questions like that. It worries me that good, pulling quotes will be tough to come by if my questions become bland. So I just want input on how I can improve my interview questions. If I'm not being specific enough, let me know. Appreciate it.
  2. Stitch

    Stitch Active Member

    Talk about your ....

    Write down a few questions in advance and get in the habit of not asking how do you feel questions.
  3. GBNF

    GBNF Active Member

    1) Make an observation, and essentially have a coach agree/disagree...
    You: "In the third quarter, coach, they had three blocked punts. You were stuck in awful field position. How did that affect your gameplan?"

    2) Have a series of questions and answers ready depending on a coach's response. Don't write them down. Just have them im your head.
    Coach: "Didn't really affect the gameplan at all. We were going to pass anyway."
    You: "Even when they dropped an extra two back into coverage?"
    Coach: "They did what they were going to do, and we did what we were going to do. Am I happy with how we responded to that? Yeah. Do I wish we blocked the damn end on those punt blocks? Of course."

    3) Avoid using "feel" questions by using alternative words. Basically use a thesaurus.
    You, in a feature about a blind kid, perhaps: "I've heard that those with seeing difficulties use their hands or their ears to 'see' what seeing people use their eyes for. How do you use those extra senses. (INSTEAD OF HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL).

    Essentially, the best quotes come about from conversations. Not interviews. Talk football with a guy, or talk hoops or talk life. Bring yourself into the story whenever possible. Establish a rapport. And, for g-d's sake, have fun. Your enthusiasm will likely rub off.
  4. Wenders

    Wenders Well-Known Member

    Ask open-ended questions and other questions that open up follow-up questions. Avoid yes or no questions unless you're just looking for a confirmation of something.

    Also, see if your college has a class on interview and reporting techniques. I know mine did and it really helped me out a lot.
  5. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    Most important aspect to reporting and asking "good" questions is: prepare, prepare, prepare.

    If you're covering a game tonight, do some research and find out how both teams did in their most recent games, or the last time they played each other, or any other storylines that you might be able to use in your gamer (for example, does Team A have a major height advantage over Team B? Ask both teams how it affected their gameplans.) Look for trends (for example, has the team been missing a lot of free throws in the last couple games? Did the team do anything differently to change that in practice this week?) During the game, write down possible questions if something strikes your fancy (for example, did the coach make a substitution that changed the tempo of the game? Why did he choose to make that substitution?)

    Your preparation can also help with being able to ask intelligent follow-up questions. You want to be able to listen to an answer and build off that in the course of an interview. Have some prepared questions but follow tangents, because you never know where they might lead. If the interview gets off course and you're not getting the material you need, bring it back to one of your prepared questions and see where that leads.
  6. Double J

    Double J Active Member

    Ask simple questions and try not to lead.

    I find that if you try to put yourself in the shoes of a reader, and ask questions that a knowledgeable reader might have, you'll generally be okay.

    I also like GBNF's suggestion about putting yourself into the story. It helps you and your subject relate to each other, plus it lets them know you were paying attention to what was going on: "From what I could tell, you guys seemed to blah blah blah.....how did that come about?"
  7. HejiraHenry

    HejiraHenry Well-Known Member

    The same way you get good at writing.

    Ask a lot of bad questions ... and learn from them.
  8. zebracoy

    zebracoy Guest

    It may be a little arrogant, but when I write, I assume that I know (or need to know) more about the subject than 60 percent of my readers.

    There will be the basketball die-hards who can quickly explain why a team would play a zone defense against an athletic team or what the responsibilities are in a box-and-one. Then there are others who wouldn't know the baseline from the foul line but still hold an interest.

    Thus, I assume that if I don't know why something takes place, many others don't either. In that scenario, ask the individual just that: why. Ask him/her to explain the thinking behind what happened, what would happen the other way, etc.

    When covering football, to this day I still will pull players aside and ask them, privately, to demonstrate for me what certain players do in certain schemes, etc.

    People ask questions to obtain knowledge. If you don't know the first thing you're writing about, though, nobody else will, either. Don't be afraid to break stuff down into easily-manageable concepts.
  9. Bucknutty

    Bucknutty Member


    The more you ask, the better you'll get. Remember, your readers aren't going to know that you asked a bad question. They're just going to read the quotes you get.

    Get used to your voice and don't be afraid to sound like an idiot. We all do.
  10. The Granny

    The Granny Guest

    Do what I do: Wrap yourself in a towel like you're in a locker room, stand in front of the mirror and interview yourself. It works!!!
  11. old_tony

    old_tony Well-Known Member

    Do not ask "yes" or "no" questions. Those usually start with "Did ...?" or "Is ...?"

    Ask questions that start with "How" or "Why" or "What." Maybe even "Who."
  12. DavidPoole

    DavidPoole Member

    The first thing you should do is ignore everybody who tells you that every "feel" question is a bad question. There are times when it is exactly appropriate to ask that type of question. About 97 percent of the people you interview unless you have a beat that involves professional or big-time college athletes don't get that question 60 times a day. I once did a story in which I called high school coaches of football players from my state who'd made the Super Bowl that year. "What's it like for a coach to see somebody he worked with at your level go all the way to the sport's pinnacle?" is really a "feel" question and it's entirely appropriate. Too many people get hung up on whether that word is in the question or not.

    That having been said, the best advice was already given. You get infinitely more out of a conversation than an interview. But be very careful, especially when dealing with people who aren't interviewed all of the time. Make it clear that they're talking to a reporter who's writing a story. Even if they see a tape recorder or you taking notes, sometimes people believe that the only thing "on the record" is what they say in answer to a specific question. You might talk to people all of the time, but some people you talk to do it once or twice a week or maybe not that often (for instance, you run across the happy uncle of a kid who just scored the game-winning touchdown in a championship game -- he may never be interviewed again). There is nothing wrong with saying "Do you mind if I use that?"

    Another good piece of advice was research. Never, ever, go into a personality profile and ask for basic bio information on somebody about whom that information is readily available. Use the interview to check things you might not be clear on, but use the background to find a door that opens to something your subject might be interested in. An example: Once I was one of about four reporters each promised five minutes one-on-one with Willie Nelson (he was appearing at some local charity event). The first questions of each of the other three were things like "How did you get started in the music business?" I'd read that Nelson can't stand locked doors. If he can't get through a door, it drives him nuts and he has been known to kick it down. So my first question was, "I've read you have little patience with locked doors and I wondered if that's not a fairly accurate representation of the career of a guy who left the Nashville establishment, helped create the 'Outlaw' genre, recorded a best-selling album of classics like 'Stardust' and 'Moonlight in Vermont' and did duets with everyone from Merle Haggard to Julio Iglesias. You've made a habit of kicking down locked musical doors, too, haven't you?" We talked for 20 minutes.
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