Dumb and dumber
Why are so many journalists such bad interviewers? Listen up while Allan Gregg and others explain
Allan Gregg dumps a thick file folder on an oval-shaped coffee table and seats himself in a cushy blue chair. It’s an October Monday and Gregg has taken time away from his money-making market-research business to talk about his “very, very serious hobby” – interviewing authors for “Gregg and Company,” his segment of Studio 2, TVOntario’s flagship culture and public-affairs program. Inside Gregg’s folder are assorted pieces of background information, many of them covered with yellow sticky notes, for an upcoming interview with John Gray, author of the recently released Paul Martin: The Power of Ambition.
The “poop from the publisher,” as Gregg calls it, includes reviews, interviews and suggested questions, which he routinely ignores. “These [writers] get out on the road and do interview after interview after interview, and they give canned responses. It’s like a rock show. They learn what works. If you ask similar, predictable questions, you’re going to get similar, predictable canned answers.” The type of show Gregg hosts is a rarity these days – a long-format broadcast interview, one that commits “double television heresy” because he and his producers invite intelligent people with something to say, and then let them say it – at length. “We’re not afraid of big ideas or big conversation or really smart people, and in that regard it’s probably unusual.” he explains. His ultimate goal: to draw out his subjects, to get them to give fresh, spontaneous answers that no one else – in print or broadcast – would garner.
Gregg, who co-authored The Big Picture: What Canadians Think About Almost Everything, knows through experience just how hostile interviewers can be to thoughtful, extended answers to their questions. “I’ve done enough interviews where the interviewer’s eyes turn upward into his or her skull when you get beyond two and a half minutes,” says Gregg. It’s as if they’re thinking, “‘Enough. You’re boring the shit out of the audience.'” By contrast, crew members at Studio 2 have T-shirts that read, “Death to the sound bite.”
Five nights a week, after his kids are in bed, Gregg goes upstairs to his home office, pours a glass of Italian red wine, lights a Montecristo #4 cigar and starts to read. Some well-known thinkers have appeared on his program – Allen Ginsberg, Jane Goodall and Noam Chomsky among them – and it is Gregg’s job to prepare himself by learning about his subjects and reading their books. “For me, it’s almost recreation rather than work. I would read anyway. This just makes me read more purposefully.” Gregg spends four to five hours preparing; most interviewers, he notes, won’t read beyond the publisher’s two-page press release, either because of time constraints or slacking off. Gregg has observed this firsthand on his own book tours. “I actually had someone tell me, ‘I’ve been so busy, I didn’t get chance to crack the dust jacket,'” he says. “You think: You lazy son of a bitch.”
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What led me to Gregg’s earth-toned, softly lit office was a quest to assess the state of interviewing in Canada. Was it good? Okay? Awful? The general consensus among the experts I interviewed: somewhere between okay and awful. Ian Brown, a respected writer and the host of CBC Radio’s Talking Books, for instance, thinks part of the problem is that most journalists are just too afraid of looking dumb – so they don’t probe deeply enough. “You have to be willing to be an idiot and ask a stupid question,” he says. “It’s a case of, ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.'”
Another perspective comes from Paul McLaughlin, author of How to Interview: The Art of Asking Questions. He points out that none of Canada’s university journalism programs offer credit courses on communication and interviewing skills. “This is not a business that trains people that well,” he says. When McLaughlin set out to write his book, many colleagues told him there wasn’t enough material to fill it. “Imagine being told, in this business, that there isn’t enough to write about,” he adds. “I was stunned. The police get more training [than journalists do overall] on interviewing someone whose child has just been sexually abused and murdered.”
But even when journalists have the skills, says Don Gibb, who teaches journalism at Ryerson University, they often have huge problems getting anything out of subjects who have undergone media training and know how to tiptoe around even the most carefully constructed questions. Overall, concludes Gibb, “we suck” when it comes to getting good stuff out of interviews.
So how can we do better? In these pages you’ll read tips and techniques from McLaughlin as well as from Johanna Schneller, who has written for numerous publications, including GQ and The Globe and Mail, MuchMusic’s Nardwuar the Human Serviette and John Sawatsky, author and an acknowledged interviewing expert. But to get an in-depth look at what it takes to get consistently good interviews, I went to Gregg, one of the few interviewers who works under ideal conditions: lots of time to prepare, a rich variety of guests and lots of time to probe his subjects.
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Gregg’s background is in public opinion and market research, not journalism. Nevertheless, in 1994, then-TVO chairman and CEO Peter Herrndorf approached him: “You’ve made your living asking questions in the intermediary of survey research. You obviously know how to ask questions to get very precise answers. Why don’t you try being a host?'” Gregg, not the biggest fan of TV, was hesitant, but gave Herrndorf a loose commitment, saying, “If I stink the place up, you can fire me and we’ll still be friends. And if I don’t like it, I’ll walk and you won’t resent me.”
Gregg feels he’s gotten better at interviewing by virtue of doing it over and over again. “In the early stages I was trying too hard to show I was smart,” he explains. “The questions were too long, almost as if I was trying to state people’s cases for them.” He points out that some of the great interviewers, like Barbara Frum, have no qualms about asking a question when they already know the answer, even if it means risking appearing stupid. Another early Gregg mistake: he was afraid to interrupt interviewees who blathered on. CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, he notes, tells his interviewees he will drop his pen when it’s time for them to shut up. Now, Gregg says, he has no fear of saying things like: “Stop one second there.” He does feel that taking a practical course would be beneficial for journalists. He mentions “John’s course,” a reference to the seminar Sawatsky gives to journalists from all over the globe.
“An interview is not a package that comes from FedEx,” Sawatsky says on the phone from Ottawa. “It’s a resource.” A big part of his course is “the granddaddy of all principles”: the concept of output versus input, or what interviewers put into the interview versus what they get out of it. Many journalists, he says, are too heavy on the output, asking overloaded or close-ended questions or making remarks instead of questions.
Schneller can certainly speak to over-reliance on close-ended questions. One of the few times she gets to observe how other celebrity interviewers ask questions is at the Toronto International Film Festival during the “round-table” discussions. What she hears consistently shocks her. “I watch them and I just can’t believe it,” she says. “I see them over and over again – the yes or no questions and the ‘I am so smart. I want to show you how smart I am’ questions. It’s like, are you not listening? Do you not realize you’re asking yes or no questions? To me that’s just such a huge waste of time.” Schneller feels that too many celebrity interviewers are content asking fawning, sycophantic questions like: “How did you make such a great movie?” and “Why are you so brilliant?”
The easy question is anathema to Nardwuar the Human Serviette, who interviews bands for MuchMusic’s Going Coastal and has his own radio show in Vancouver. He spends hours preparing for an interview, surfing the Internet, reading music magazines and listening to music. “I’m lucky enough that I have the time, whereas other people could probably create the time but they’re too lazy or too busy doing other things,” Nardwuar says. “I won’t take on an interview unless I think I can do enough research for it.”
These are sins Gregg seldom commits. In terms of structuring questions, he says, “The more pointed the question, the better the answer. You can really get into trouble when the question is too vague.” As a result, he avoids, say, asking authors to explain their major thesis. The rambling result that usually follows, he says, “is an invitation for disaster.”
Gregg may be a good interviewer, but he doesn’t do it without help. Once a guest is booked for the show, it is the job of his associate producer, Vittoria Iozzo, to quickly turn around a research package. Since the show is not just about the book, she digs up broader conversation topics (breaking news in the writer’s area of expertise, for example), which she constantly updates until the day of the show. “Allan will read anything you send him,” says Iozzo. “He devours info. He really makes the job rewarding. Sometimes I’m surprised by his knowledge of the subject – a lot of hosts just skim through it.”
Gregg feels an obligation to ask the tough questions that are on his viewers’ minds. That is why he seldom misses the chance to ask a question that begins with: “Your critics say” or “You say this, but others say.” During an interview with Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, he asked her if it was harder to be taken seriously because she was attractive. The feminist was outraged, he recalls, though most subjects are prepared to handle views that counter their own.
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Three months after I first meet Gregg, I listen in on a conference call between him, his producer Nancy Hawkins and Iozzo as they discuss tomorrow’s interview with astronaut Chris Hadfield. They do this for every interview, and it gives the three a chance to go over the topics Gregg will cover. For Hadfield, they want to focus on missions to Mars and Canada’s role in future space exploration.
“Keep in mind Chris Hadfield is not political,” says Hawkins. “We don’t want to touch the politics of it. Keep it very circumspect in terms of logistics, the benefits to us on Earth.”
“It’s worthwhile going through fundamental questions. You’ve got the issue of space travel…” says Gregg. “Another aspect that’s central is the manned mission. Why do we need a much more expensive and dangerous mission? Since he went up there, he can explain it to us.”
Nancy agrees. “He can give us perspective on how daunting a challenge that is – what it’s like to be up there.”
“There are all kinds of issues,” Gregg adds. “Radiation, the psychological issue…”
“Looking at the same face for six months,” Iozzo pipes in.
“We can ask how they poop and pee,” volunteers Gregg. “And whether they might turn gay and would that be a good thing or not.”
They all share a chuckle. And after bouncing a few more ideas off one another, they say goodbye and hang up.
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The Acrobat Lounge at Yonge and Eglinton, one subway stop north of Gregg’s office, leads a double life. By night, the upstairs space – with its intricate chandeliers, large gold-framed mirrors and velvety chairs – is a swanky bar. Today, as on many Fridays, the empty venue is the scene for the taping of a Gregg interview. On tap: Hadfield. The pressure is now on Gregg, after all that preparation, to pull off a successful interview.
At precisely 3:30 p.m., Hadfield strides in, wearing a dark blue astronaut jumpsuit. “I just came from a public school,” he explains. “I’m still dressed for entertaining a bunch of elementary school students.”
“Lookin’ good,” Gregg says with a grin.
Gregg tries to keep everything casual, so the guest feels relaxed. That’s the main reason why they tape the show in a bar. “We did the first two shows in the studio,” he says, “and realized, ‘This isn’t working.'” The environment enables guests to feel more comfortable and relaxed enough to converse in hushed tones with Gregg while the makeup artist powders his face and fusses with his hair, while the camera crew sets up, and while Hawkins flits around making sure everyone is on track. On this afternoon, Gregg gives the astronaut some background on the show, and assures him that if he screws up, they can stop taping and start over.
Hadfield is a far from hostile interviewee. For every one of his type, there are hundreds of subjects who hate being interviewed and who try to avoid getting caught by journalists. In the past, a journalist often spent days with a subject, making it easier to earn the subject’s trust and get him or her to open up. Nowadays, an interviewer is lucky to get an hour over lunch. “It’s almost impossible to get past the initial ‘Getting to know you’ questions and ‘You can trust me’ questions and the ‘I’m not out to get you’ questions,” says Schneller.
Being prepared is especially important nowadays, notes Nardwuar, when a typical interview might be done over the phone or over the span of eight minutes. “The good ol’ Cameron Crowes of yesterday could get on a plane and hang out with the band. It was easier to get the information. When you have only eight minutes, you know exactly what you want to ask. You don’t have time to go with the flow.” He even resorts to what he calls “Norman Schwarzkopf-style” interviewing, a reference to one of the military leaders of Operation Desert Storm, who stressed the importance of knowing what you need, getting it and getting out of there.
Another problem for interviewers is that publicists now wield more control than ever before. If an interviewer offends a celebrity, the publicity firm might cut off access to all of its clients. As a result, timid journalists, too afraid to ask the questions that will get the important answers, often resort to softball questions.
“Many journalists don’t let the interview get to what I call ‘Level two of an answer,'” says McLaughlin. When a subject is giving a pat answer given to them by their PR firm, journalists tend to get angry. To get a better response, he explains: “I just wait and look at them, nod and smile, which says, ‘Go on.’ Now they’re going into Level Two of their answer, which is less packaged, less rehearsed and often way more revealing.” Gregg, because of his research and the relaxed atmosphere he provides, can often get those Level Two answers the first time out.
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Okay, are we all set? Because we want to use the time,” Hawkins says momentarily. The cameras start rolling. Gregg begins with, “Why all the big emphasis on space right now?”
“It’s a matter of technology,” Hadfield replies. “We couldn’t have done this 40 years ago.”
Gregg then demonstrates the depth of his research with bits of historical information when he asks: “In 1960, when J.F.K. announced the Apollo probe, it was a different time. Today there is a very pragmatic population. What’s your argument for the incredible risk to investing in space?”
Hadfield sidesteps the question: “During the first 10 days after the Spirit [rover vehicle] landed on Mars, a billion people went to the website to get information. So when you say there’s a more pragmatic society, I have to disagree with you.”
Unfazed, Gregg steers the conversation back to his original question, the one geared toward a more thoughtful answer. “To the less romantic among our audience, what are the practical benefits?” “Well, let’s see…” says Hadfield.
Later in the interview, Gregg takes on the role of devil’s advocate. “What’s your response to cynics who say, ‘This is great, but what about health care?'” Hadfield responds by pointing out that “for every $1,000 of government money spent, $140 of that is spent on health care, and only $1.30 is spent on the space program.” The proportion, he thinks, “is probably right.”
Hawkins, dressed in a smart black suit, wields a fat black marker. In front of her is a small stack of letter-sized paper. These are the tools that will help her communicate with Gregg during the interview. At one point, when Gregg is questioning Hadfield about the psychological dangers of space travel, she scrawls “Scariest time on shuttle?” on a piece of paper and holds it up. This prompts Gregg to ask, “Any scary times on the shuttle?” Hadfield goes on to describe the time a meteorite nearly hit his shuttle.
The interview flows fluidly. Gregg asks open-ended questions and always gives his questions context. In response, Hadfield gets into the spirit, and gives viewers a compelling perspective on the importance of space exploration.
After the filming is over, Hadfield, who is pressed for time, shakes hands with Gregg and rushes off. It’s one of 700 interviews Gregg’s done for Studio 2.
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A few weeks later, back at his office, Gregg tells me he “thought Hadfield spoke very well, presented himself well.” As for his own performance, Gregg remembers it as at least “competent.”
His comment reminded me of something he mentioned in our first meeting in October. He was saying that one of the reasons why many journalists are poor interviewers is that they don’t know they’re poor interviewers. “A lot of journalists don’t get feedback,” he says. He then went on to mention that in market research they employ a tool that measures people’s reactions to a variety of things: product, message, politician.
But failing a rheostat machine in every media outlet, what can interviewers do to improve?
He pauses. “Listen.”
Paul McLaughlin is passionate about interviewing. You can sense it in the way he talks. “One of the goals of interviewing is to be 100 per cent alert,” he says. When interviewing, he uses a tape recorder and takes few notes because he wants to be able to make eye contact with the person and deeply relate to them. “It’s supposed to be a conversation. You’re supposed to connect with the person as a person.” When his students come to him and say a subject was boring, his response is always: “Were you fascinating? Maybe you bored them. Maybe you asked them questions they’d heard over and over again, you asked them in a dull way, you put out no energy. You put up nothing, you expected them to perform for you and when they didn’t, you didn’t like them.” One thing he teaches his students is to note their subject’s body language, because he is a firm believer that “the body will not lie.” A subject may say that he or she is not bothered by a certain question, suggests McLaughlin, but their folded arms and legs might speak otherwise.
The infamous “Sawatsky method” was developed when John Sawatsky started teaching investigative reporting at Carleton University in 1982. Now, his in-demand workshops focus on the “seven deadly sins” of interviewing, which include the “big enchilada” – closed queries. He
also talks a lot about input and output, and asking the kind of questions that get the most output possible.
Sawatsky shows a lot of video clips illustrating common gaffes made by broadcast journalists – even seasoned ones like Larry King. Most people see the clips as the key to the course’s success, but Sawatsky calls them “icing on the cake.” He used to do the workshops without any clips, then moved on to videotapes. He now has a laptop with all of his clips stored on it, and a PowerPoint presentation. “It’s clearly become more slick over the years,” he says. “I’m not slick, though, I’m still the same stumbling old guy.”
To get the most out of interviews, Sawatsky advises journalists to keep their questions open, neutral and lean. “Keep the question physically short,” he says. “Longer questions lead to more screw-ups. It’s like Newton’s law in science.”
When the Globe’s “The Moviegoer” columnist and freelance writer Johanna Schneller was a judge in the profile category at the National Magazine Awards, she noticed a disturbing trend, one in which the journalist would write something like, “I couldn’t bring myself to ask so and so about his crumbling marriage.” Says Schneller: “To me those are the questions you’re there to ask, not exclusively, but eventually. For me that was instant grounds for rejection.” Schneller has perfected the art of relaxing her subjects and, eventually, gaining their trust. When she has to ask a difficult question, as is often the case when interviewing celebrities, she’ll say something like, “You don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to, but I have to ask you some questions.” She also breaks the Sawatskian taboo of talking about herself too much, but she finds it can be a helpful technique. “If I’m going to ask someone about their parents’ divorce, I’ll say, ‘My parents got divorced when I was a kid and I felt like this.'”
Nardwuar the Human Serviette
Throughout his career as an interviewer for both CiTR and MuchMusic’s Going Coastal, the Vancouverite has amassed a goldmine of interviews, and his doggedness has played a part in many of them. For instance, in November 1997, Nardwuar traded in his trademark plaid tam for more conservative attire and talked his way into a post-APEC press conference. It was here that he elicited the famous sound bite from Jean Chrétien: “For me, pepper, I put it on my plate.” It’s one thing to get an interview, but Nardwuar has a way of getting good stuff once he’s there. He impressed James Brown with the knowledge that the singer played drums and owned a restaurant. “He lives, breathes, sleeps and eats research,” says Bryce Dunn, programming coordinator for CiTR. That’s the beauty of a Nardwuar interview – something so prepared can come out sounding so conversational. Part of that is because of the questions he asks – researched, engaging and, sometimes, just weird. The most famous example is probably the time in 1993 when he asked former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Of all the political figures Dr. Gorbachev has encountered, who has the largest pants?”
Amanda Factor was the Head of Research for the Summer 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.