Globe and Mail Columnist Tom Hawthorn and the Art of the Interview

The first time I met today’s guest, Tom Hawthorn, was a memorable one.  It was production night at the student newspaper where I worked, and it was going to be a long one. Articles half-written, beer almost gone, and only a few pages laid out: We were doomed to see the light of dawn yet again.  And then, Tom appeared at the office door, those who knew him already made a squeal of glee, and within minutes he was at work laying out a page.  Lines of Tasmanian Devil activity whirled around him.  A flash of line tape here, a few clicks of the Exacto knife, a photo cropped here and there, and voila, a page was laid out, and then another. And another.

Today, Tom is a columnist for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and still making it look easy.  No matter what he’s writing about, Tom has an ability to zero in on the story. No matter who he’s writing about, he has an ability to show their humanity. I’ve often wondered how he does it.  How does he get all these details, all these stories from people?  I’m happy to have Tom here today giving us the inside scoop on how it’s done. Take notes!

What’s the secret to a good interview?

Ask neutral, open-ended questions. Start almost all your questions with How, What, or Why.

Use the source’s words in framing a follow-up question: “You said the president is a disappointment. In what way?” That forces the source to expound on their statement.

A turnaround in my working life happened while attending a seminar by the investigative journalist John Sawatsky, who has made a study of the art of the interview. Sawatsky reminds reporters that during an interview they should be in “in-put mode,” which is to say they are gathering information. (The writing, or posting, or broadcasting of a story is the out-put mode.) So, don’t be argumentative; don’t make a statement (Not: “The divorce must have been tough,” but “How did your divorce proceed?”); don’t ask close-ended questions, which elicit a Yes or No response; don’t ask multi-barreled questions; avoid loaded, or provocative words that allow the source to challenge the word instead of answering the question.

The American Journalism Review profiled The Question Man a decade ago. You can read the article here: www.ajr.org/article.asp?id=676 Sawatsky can also be seen in action on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/7726310

How do you prepare for an interview?

Research, research, research. Almost all my interviews are for non-fiction stories to be published in newspapers or magazines. I learned early on that what strikes you as newsworthy is not the case if the same person said the same thing to some other reporter months earlier. You should know what they’ve said in the past.

Google and online databases are good places to check in on the statements of those who appear often in the media. My favourite interviews, though, are with people who have never been interviewed before.

Do you know mostly what you’re going to ask ahead of time, or do you wing it?

Let’s put this question through the Sawatsky filter. “How do you prepare your questions?” Much better. I write out several neutral, open-ended questions touching on the main themes I want to explore in the interview. At the end of the list I put such reminders as: Age? Spell name? Title? I always end an interview by asking, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” You’d be surprised how often this gets a good, quotable response. Sometimes, people are dying to say things. A good interviewer gives them that opportunity.

Even when scrambling, start a question with How, What, or Why and you are on the right track.

What about logistics? Do you write it all down? Record it? (btw, do you still type with two fingers?)

Most of the time, I take notes while recording. The tape allows me to double check the accuracy of the quotes in my notebook. If the story involves a politician or a legal matter, it is always advisable to have a recording. Check your state laws about the use of recording equipment, especially on the telephone. Say, “I’d like to record our conversation to ensure the accuracy of the quotations.” Who’s going to object to that?

btw I remain a two-finger keyboard puncher.

Do you try to put the person at ease? If so, any tricks there?

You mean, “How do you put the source at ease?” “What are your methods?” (I might deny I’d use anything so crass as tricks.) I find being professional puts people at ease. An interview is an artificial social interaction. It’s not two friends in conversation. It is me getting information. I ask, I listen, I ask again. Listen to radio hosts on NPR in the United States and the CBC in Canada. They ask a polite, “How are you doing?” and then get down to it.

I’m shy around strangers and not one to ask so-called “tough” questions. But posing neutral, open-ended questions makes it easy to walk through the minefields of interviews. I’m not passing judgment (certainly not during the interview. Plenty of opportunity for that in the article). I truly want to hear their version of events.

Any embarrassing experiences you want to share?

Telephone interview with the lead singer of a band from Washington, DC. On their hit song, he shouts to the band, “Take it to the bridge!” I asked which bridge, thinking it maybe crossed the Potomac. Of course he was referring to a musical bridge. D’oh.

Don’t be afraid to ask what might seem to be a stupid question. A friend once asked a hereditary Indian chief how they became chief, which is like asking a king how he came to be king. But the answer was fascinating, as the chief hailed from a distinguished lineage and had been honoured with a tribal name that had been passed on for many generations.

By the way, don’t rush in to fill an awkward silence during an interview. Let your source do that. You want them to keep talking.

Any interview you wish you could do over?

All the ones where I neglected to ask neutral, open-ended questions.

What’s the biggest mistake interviewers make?

Talking when they should be listening. Another common mistake is to anticipate the answer, which gets in the way of flushing out actual information. You see this all the time on local television news: “You must feel devastated at being laid off.” It’s hard to do much with the direct quote, “Yes.” Even harder in print. Ask a neutral, open-ended question: “How do you feel about being laid off?” “What will you do now?”

What makes for a great interview?

The Seattle journalist Eric Nalder has a technique he described as hypnotism. This is particularly effective in stories pivoting on an eyewitness account to a central event — a crime, a traffic accident, a championship play. As a prelude to the recounting of the big moment, ask scene-setting questions: What was the time of day? What were you wearing? What was the weather like? Then let the source guide you through their experience of the event. Prod their chronological description by asking, “And then what happened?”

If you’re doing it right, they’ll begin describing the event in the present tense instead of past tense. They’ll be reliving the moment. That is interview gold.

You make it sound easy.

It is easy. Start most of your questions with How, What, Why: How did it feel? What was the outcome? Why did you do it?

Ask your source to expound by asking, In what way?

Have your source recreate a moment by asking, And then what happened?


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2 Responses to Globe and Mail Columnist Tom Hawthorn and the Art of the Interview

  1. Thank you for those great tips. I am bookmarking this post!

  2. Pingback: The Art of the Interview | Sports Writing 2.0

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