- 2 years ago
31 January 2022
Sometimes when a third party sets up an interview, they ask for the questions to be provided in advance. To me, this is a redundant and outdated practice in an age when most communications professionals either have (or should have) direct relationships with journalists, leading to a level of trust that means such practices are not necessary.
I rarely (if ever) approach an interview with a list of questions. I may have a list of subjects I’d like to canvass, but mostly I want the interviewee to steer the interview in an authentic way.
So, for someone preparing to be interviewed, what does this look like?
Over the summer break, one of the books I read was Trent Dalton’s ‘Love Stories‘. Dalton sat on the side of a Brisbane city street and asked people to tell him a story. None of these people needed media training or asked to see the story before it went to print. Instead, they just told their stories. It was their truth, their vulnerability, their fears and their love that shone through. It was authentic storytelling.
Like Dalton, I’m a collector and a teller of stories. Whether it’s sitting in the pub over a beer or interviewing someone over the phone or on Zoom, I want to hear a story. What brought the person to where they are? When they came to a fork in the road, which path did they take? Was it the right path? If not, what lessons did they learn to help others make a better choice?
I’m not sitting on a Brisbane Street footpath with an old Olivetti typewriter as Dalton did, but we practice the same craft. We are both journalists, both collectors of stories.
When I interview a person, I’m not interested in their company’s key messages, values, corporate mission statement, or how the person can demonstrate their ‘effective leadership’ in a couple of carefully rehearsed sentences. Instead, I want to hear real-life examples of what they know – and often for the interviewee, this means being prepared to admit when they failed as well as when they succeeded.
People in large matrix organisations are often afraid to show vulnerability. Few want to admit they made a mistake, or that the job they are in isn’t perfect, that they work too many hours and feel guilty about not doing anything well – either as a parent, a worker, a leader. Yet it is these vulnerabilities that make us human, that demonstrate we are learning and getting wiser.
This is what I am looking for. Not contrived faults, like confessing weakness in a job interview while secretly hoping it comes across as a strength, but real-life examples of when you made the best decision you could with the information at hand but it didn’t work out as you expected.
Journalism is like fishing. Asking questions is a journalist throwing a line into a very large sea of information and hoping to pull in a fish. You get a tug, reel in the line … oh, just a little fish. Toss it back and cast again. Another question, another answer.
If it is clearly rehearsed and sounds like the person is on auto-pilot, you persist, hoping they will relax and finally present you with a reasonable-sized fish. Often they do (after all, that is the skill of a good journalist), but sometimes they don’t. Then I have to be Rumpelstiltskin and spin straw into gold.
I’ve been fishing and spinning in some form or other for decades now after commencing my journalism career in the country town of Dubbo in Western NSW sometime last century. The stories in the bush were as fantastic as the people. Buy me a beer and I will rattle on for hours about covering the police and council rounds in Dubbo, or my move to News Ltd headquarters in Surry Hills back in the days when it was peopled by hard-drinking, chain-smoking newsmen who remain the best journalists I ever had the privilege to work with.
I have a tonne of stories to tell, but when I’m interviewing, I want to hear someone else’s story – warts and all. Give me good times and bad, villains and superheroes, amazing coincidences and everyday realities, surprising outcomes and small hiccups.
Tell me a story because, in the end, we all want to hear a good story. What’s yours?
PS. If you have a story to tell, email me at email@example.com.