Walter Cronkite, Amanda Lang, Tom Brokaw, Woodward & Bernstein, Barbara Walters, Larry King, the entire cast of 60 Minutes;
What do all of these people have in common?
These guys all make a living through establishing rapport (trust), listening, and through their skillful use of questions while interviewing.
Think Like a Reporter
As a business professional, whether you’re in accounting & finance, sales, marketing, or IT, you need good information about your environment. Some of the best information tends to be locked up in the head’s of all the people you work and interact with through the normal course of your day.
Why not try “interviewing” your colleagues?
I’m talking about anything from stuff about business process to procedural and administrative workflows, operations design, and business and financial report requirements. Pick a topic and ask questions on it.
The opportunity exists to understand all the systems operating around you better when you start thinking like a reporter and asking good questions.
Let’s be clear. I’m NOT talking about badgering, browbeating, hectoring, pressing feet to the fire, inquisition style questioning that’s designed to embarrass or belittle your colleagues.
So, what makes a good reporter?
I’ll go into a few pointers and some media, but I would also encourage all of you to watch the CBC’s Amanda Lang interview some people. In my view, she is far and away the best question-asker in media right now. She’s a great example of doing all the right things through the course of an interview to engender trust of both the interviewee and the audience as well as to ask insightful questions that allow for detailed answers.
The Role of a Reporter
Mathew Ingram, formerly a technology reporter with Globe & Mail and now blogger with GigaOM, sums up the job of a traditional reporter beautifully in his recent TEDx Toronto talk, Five Ways New Media Will Save Old Media, as:
“we called people up and asked them irritating questions and then wrote down what they said”
Whoops! Sorry, wrong clip. Do we have the right clip? Do we have a clip?
Ah, okay, what he said was,:
“If you’re writing about a story, somewhere someone out there knows more about that story than you. In fact, a lot of people might know more about that story than you. So, you should allow them to tell you what they know.”
This is the essence of reporting.
Now, when he said this, he was actually talking about having newspapers incorporate comments and input from readers into the process of journalism and not specifically about interview etiquette. But, in the New Media world there’s less and less difference between the audience and the subject. Here’s Mathew’s TED talk where he describes this evolution:
I think Mathew makes a good point as well in recognizing the importance of having a dialogue going. In “traditional” reporting, there may have been the perception of a one-way exchange. The reporter asks, the subject answers. That’s only half the story. It’s a conversation and like any good conversation it’s a two-way street. But, it’s a conversation with purpose. You are the guide.
Broaden your sources
Think about this question: Where do we get our information? Bob Woodward, one of the journalists that brought down Nixon in the Watergate Scandal, tells us in the following clip that we get information 1) from people 2) from documents (or evidence) and 3) from the scene (observation).
He make a great point about talking to people. He says, talk to A BUNCH of people. Not just one person. In a day, he may talk to a dozen people around the same issue in order to gain that broad perspective of views.
Basic journalism tells us to focus on the Five Ws (that isn’t really 5… or just Ws, okay, so don’t use Journo’s for calc’ing your Net Profit):
- Who? Who was involved?
- What? What happened?
- When? When did it take place?
- Where? Where did it take place?
- Why? Why did it happen?
- How? How did it happen?
Of course, all questions are not created equal. Journalism 101 blog lays out some ground rules about the soft skills, but suffice to say I don’t think you want to make people feel stupid.
In general, keep an open mind and ask open-ended questions. Keep that question engine going in your mind so you can delve more deeply as opportunities present themselves. LISTEN, so you can key off of what the subject is telling you.
Remember, you are questioning yourself during this process as well. All of those assumptions you may have embedded in your thinking need to be questioned throughout this process.
Say Thank You!
and, of course,
Here’s some additional resources that should help you build up your skills.
Media Training Basics: Mastering Tough Questions from the Media by Harvard Business Service
How To Ask Better Questions by Judith Ross at Harvard Business Review
Learn To Ask Better Questions by John Baldoni at Harvard Business Review
The Four Principles of Interviewing by Columbia University
From Chapter 13 of Sun Tzu’s famous, Art of War, on the use of spies:
“The means by which enlightened Rulers and sagacious Generals moved and conquered others, that their achievements surpassed the masses, was advance knowledge.”
“Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits, inferred from phenomena, or projected from the measures of heaven. But must be gained from men.”
Sun Tzu’s Five Types of Spies
1. Local Spy
2. Internal Spy
3. Turned Spy
4. Dead Spy
5. The Living Spy