Recently interviewing two theater directors—The Thrillpeddlers’ Russell Blackwood and Tides Theatre’s Jennifer Welch—got me thinking about what I’ve still got to learn about the fine art of asking questions.
For me, the most important, and perhaps the hardest, part is simply shutting up. Chiming in with my own faux-insights rarely helps move the conversation along. It can be awkward, or domineering. If I really can’t repress the urge to interrupt, I should at least phrase my remark as a question. But better still is to bite my tongue and simply say, “Oh, really?” Open-ended, approving questions like this one invite the interviewee to say whatever is on his or her mind, which will probably be more interesting than my own preconceived notion of what we should be talking about. Sometimes I try to mix it up with a “Tell me more” or a “Can you talk a little more about that?” but those sound forced, formal, and maybe even demanding and critical—as though what the interviewee already said weren’t good enough.
When I’ve succeeded thus far, it’s always been due to particular interviewees—forthcoming, expansive types who clearly have a lot of experience chatting with the press. Now I need to figure out how to put the less voluble types in the mood to share. It might be time to reread the interviewing chapter in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. But I’d also love to know your suggestions!