The Anatomy of The Question; The Wisdom of John Sawatsky

Don't ask yes-or-no questions, keep questions short and avoid charged words, which can distract people.

There is a skill to interviewing well and it begins with the questions that are asked.

For more than three decades, John Sawatsky has been a premier interview coach for news organizations like CBC and ESPN. Below are a number of links to interviews with Sawatsky conducted over the last 15 years. The Sawatsky method continues to evolve but the fundamentals reman the same.

Here are some take-aways from an interview conducted with Sawatsky by Susan Paterno, AJR senior contributing editor.

Ask neutral, open-ended questions.

Start questions with what, how and why; they demand the most from sources, requiring them to describe causes (what happened?), processes (how did it happen?) and motivation (why did you do it?). Fill in the blanks with questions beginning with who, where and when.

Probe tough issues, don't ask tough-sounding questions.
Asking a subject "Are you a racist?" is an easy question that sounds tough. The answer most certainly will be no. Instead, ask focused, open-ended questions about evidence that suggests the source is a racist.

Keep in mind: Less is more.
The more information journalists put into questions, the more information sources leave out. Short questions produce succinct, dramatic, focused responses. Long rambling questions get long rambling answers or curt, confused replies.

Strategy becomes especially important when the issue is difficult. A reporter came to Sawatsky with a statistic she wanted to humanize: One third of the school children in Edmonton, Canada, were going without breakfast. Asking the children directly: "Did you eat breakfast this morning?" would likely produce less than truthful responses, since even children are loath to admit they're poor or hungry. Instead ask the child: "What's the first thing you did when you got up this morning? Then what? Then what?" Until the child arrives in school. If the child makes no mention of breakfast, ask: "What about breakfast? Why didn't you eat anything?"

Establish agreement.
Without agreement on basic facts, reporters spend most of the interview trying to force the source to accept their version of events, usually resorting to coercion and leading questions. If Dan Rather, for example, has facts that Serbia committed ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, then he should question Serbian officials about that evidence, not about generalities such as genocide.

Build the interview on answers, not questions.
People find it easier to volunteer than to admit. When the source makes an original assertion, follow up with a question asking for evidence to support it.

Put the burden of proof on the source.
If a source insists, "There was no crime," ask, "How do you know that?" If a source says, "I can't remember" ask, "Why can't you remember?"

To focus questions, pick a key phrase the source mentioned and repeat it in an open-ended question. If, in describing his marriage, Ted Kennedy says, "We've had difficult times," respond: "What do you mean by difficult times?"

Here are some things Sawatsky advises avoiding while conducting interviews:

Avoid closed-ended questions.
The reporter asks a politician about evidence of his unfaithfulness. "Did you sleep with Ms. Smith?" If he never literally slept with her, he answers truthfully, "No."

Don't make a statement instead of asking a question.
Instead of asking: "It must have been tough in the early years," ask: "What were the early years like?"

Don't ask double-barreled questions or two questions at once.
Example: "Whom did you like interviewing most and what's your most impressive interviewing coup?" Sources will gravitate toward answering questions that make them look best and avoid those whose answers might be less than flattering.

Don't overload questions.
The reporter asks Bill Clinton: "Was Gennifer Flowers your lover for 12 years?" He answers: "That allegation is false." Which allegation is false? That they were lovers, or that the relationship lasted 12 years?

Don't put comments into questions.
Statements limit the journalist's ability to get precise answers. Example: A reporter asks former hostage Terry Anderson about his captivity with others in Lebanon: "What would go through your mind in the quiet times? Because there must have been times when you didn't talk to each other." Anderson answers the comment: "Oh sure there were times when we didn't talk to each other," instead of the tougher question: "What went through your mind?"

Don't use trigger or loaded words in questions.
The reporter begins a question to a member of Congress about a bill she is sponsoring: "Your scheme would allow for a huge windfall to oil companies..." "This is not a scheme," she answers, responding to the loaded word "scheme" instead of the question.

Don't use hyperbole in questions.
Sources nearly always make up for a lack of neutrality by counteracting overblown questions with modest responses. Say the reporter asks: "How does it feel to be Janet Reno, superstar?" "We can predict she'll be very modest," says Sawatsky. Social conditioning "compels [the source] to give arguments for the other side."