The Art of the Open-Ended Question

Interviewing someone for a story can be nerve-wracking. When reporters start, they have a million questions about how to behave, what to wear, how to record the interview (digital recorder or notes).

The truth that I have discovered during interviews I’ve done is that getting an accurate record should be a reporter’s primary concern. Then, no matter how wonderful or terrible you realize your questions were afterward, at least you will be able to use the interview and write your story.

With that caveat in mind, there is one way to (nearly) guarantee a good interview, whether you’re talking with a city garbage collector or a famous movie director: ask open-ended questions.

The worst interview I ever had was the time I sat down with a photographer for TIME to ask him about working in Iraq. In my nervousness, I had obsessively written a list of questions that made sense on paper when I was the only person in the room. Unfortunately, I was also compulsively recording the interview out of fear that I wouldn’t get everything down correctly.

The recorder sat ominously on the table between us in the loud pub in Soho where we conducted the interview. I tried to work my way through the list, persisting even after realizing, “Hmm…. this is awkward, and these answers are terrible.” At one point, the photographer asked about the list and the questions, wondering where I was going with the interview. Not a good sign.

Conducting a good interview is like watching good acting: your interview subject should forget that they are watching a reporter at work. If they are aware they are being interviewed because the questions are stiff and closed-ended (meaning they have mostly yes or no answers), you will finish your job and find you have failed. However, if an interview subject forgets you are a reporter and just has a chat with you, the things they say will often be interesting, illuminating, and lead you to ask questions you didn’t think of in advance.

When I realized I was failing to get my job done as a reporter and was making the photographer wary and uncomfortable, I stopped. I put the list down and turned off my digital recorder and put it away. There was nothing sitting between us except some paper, a pen, the table, and the sodas we were drinking. Then we really started talking–or rather, he did.

That is the purpose of an interview, after all, to get the person you are interviewing to open up to you and talk. You wouldn’t call your best friend on the phone after she had broken up with her boyfriend of 2 years and have a conversation like the following:

“So, you and your boyfriend broke up?”

“Yes.”

“When did it happen?”

“Yesterday.”

“That must have been a shock. Are you sad?”

“Yes.”

Not only would a conversation like this come across as disconnected and mechanical, you would never really know what happened. The same principle applies when you are interviewing someone. You are asking them to spend their time answering your questions, so before you start firing inquiries at them, take time to make that human connection that people need to trust who they are talking to. Don’t worry about running out of time. People love to talk to other people about themselves, their work, their life, and their struggles and joys. An interview is essentially a conversation. But remember the friend who you drilled with closed-ended questions (mostly yes/no or one-word answers)? Imagine a conversation that was more sensitive and human to what she is going through, and observe the difference.

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m doing okay, I guess. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. I just called because I heard the news about what happened with your boyfriend, and wanted to see if you’re alright.”

“I’m okay, it’s just been really difficult. It was a shock to me that [boyfriend] wanted to break up after two years. I thought we were so happy.”

“Was he angry about something, or…”

“No, he just said he wanted to move on, focus on himself, that kind of thing. To tell you the truth, he was always a bit self-absorbed and I didn’t think it was going to last. But I’m still sad about what happened.”

Compare the difference between those two conversations, and there is the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. If you care about someone, you want the entire story about what happened to them, whether it’s good or bad. The same goes for interviews. For whatever reason, you care enough about that person’s work, position in society, or expertise to ask them about it. Let them tell you their story, and you will get an interview that will help you write a wonderful piece.

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