Grace and Frank Ceruzzi

Grace and Frank Ceruzzi

Interviewing: What questions to ask, Part II

   Once you have the basic questions answered (See Interviewing: What questions to ask, Part I, posted March 25, 2014 at www.jamathews.com/blog, Finding Your Writing Niche), you can get to the heart of the matter by asking probing questions. This is where the topic of the story and/or the person, if it’s a personality profile, comes into play.

One time I interviewed a lady who won a volunteer award. When I depleted my questions and was ready to leave, she said, “Oh, by the way, I just finished chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Do you think it should be in the story?” Of course it should be in the story, but I hadn’t asked any question that related to it, such as:

1)      How did your cancer/treatments affect your ability to volunteer? The answer gives an insight into her character, her mental state and her ability to cope.

2)      Did scheduling your treatments conflict with your time to volunteer?

Let’s say you’ve done your research and you’re ready with your questions. The person greets you in a wheelchair, with a limb missing or with some visible physical impairment. You had no idea the person had a health issue. It is better to ask than to stare, and you can start in several ways.

1)      A lead-in can be from personal experience, as mine is. “After my mother had a heart attack, she was confined to a wheelchair.” This will usually prompt the person/interviewee to explain about the wheelchair.

2)      Our fire chief has a hook for one hand. He was the subject of the story, so I had to find out how a one-handed person can fight fires. “How did you lose your hand?” was my first probing question. He was willing to talk about it. Then, “How does it affect your ability to fight fires?” He was honest and that’s the reason he’s the chief and everyone accepts him and his disability.

3)      Many times the infirmity comes from a recent accident. I was covering a story at a museum and the reception had a splint on her finger. She explained how she had jammed it that day. A woman visitor was walking with a cast on her leg. She explained how she had fallen. Neither of these people were part of the story, but those questions are ice-breakers in case you need further comments.

Probing questions can come from what the interviewee has on his/her desk. Family pictures? Ask about them. Knick knacks? What’s important about them? What is displayed on the walls? I went to interview a dancer and asked about the pictures on the wall. It turned out, they were pictures I had taken the last time I interviewed her and she had won a contest.

Ask about logos, sayings or pins on what the person is wearing. You get an insight into what is important to the person. People will gladly talk about something they are advocating.

Controversial issues can be confrontational, but the best way to handle them is to start with “soft” questions. Thank the person for meeting you in this “harsh weather,” or “broiling heat,” especially with his/her busy schedule. If you know the person always travels with the spouse, ask about him/her. Ask about the person’s family if you have something positive or neutral to say, mention the positive ways the politician or controversial figure has helped people. Then get to the controversy. Have facts handy and don’t blame the person for causing the fall of creation.

If negative headlines have been spread across papers and on television for days, the controversy must be addressed. You can’t pretend that nothing has happened. Depending on the issue, will depend on the questions. Don’t insult the person. Don’t blame. You came to get a story, not to start a war.

If you just have one sticky question to ask, keep it for last. You don’t want the person to leave the interview when it’s starting. Get the story first then ask the question that might get the interviewee upset.

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Article By: Jo Ann Mathews

I’ve been a professional freelance writer for several years and specialize in writing feature stories. I have more than a 1,000 bylines to my credit and have written on countless topics from autism to zoology. My columns on fashion and the Internet appeared in a Chicago area newspaper in the 90s. “Brunswick Buzz,” the column in The Sun News, the Myrtle Beach, S.C. daily, ran for seven years then “Events on the North Strand” took over in October 2013, also in The Sun News.

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