Because there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in
all human beings, even just a little nurturing of this impulse
can bring about astonishing and delightful results.

—Nancy Mellon, Storytelling and the Art of Imagination

In Part 1 of “How to get great answers” we talked about doing research before asking your questions to draw out the best answers. This month we’ll talk about how you ask your questions. Here are five tips for getting a great interview.

Tip 1: Ask essay questions, not multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank. Better than asking, “Did you like school?” or “Were you a good student?”, ask:

• What was elementary school like for you?
• What stories do you remember from high school?
• What sort of student were you?
• What did you do after school?
• How did you and your family spend your summers?

Tip 2: Like a good investigative reporter, ask follow-up questions if you sense there might be more – more detail, more emotion, more complexity. The trick is to keep the follow-up question in your head while you wait for your subject to finish answering. Don’t jump in too soon or you’ll step on their answer!

Tip 3:
Don’t be afraid of pauses. If you have asked a question and your subject does not respond right away, don’t assume you need to jump in with a reworded question or additional explanation. Sometimes the best answers will come after a long pause. We all need time to think and compose our thoughts. And there’s nothing more dramatic than a pause, followed by a moving answer.

Tip 4: Take your time. If you look at your watch a few times, your subject will notice and perhaps be distracted – or worse, annoyed, or anxious that they’re not going fast enough. And if you look more than that, you may lose them entirely – not only for this time but for anytime in the future. If circumstances demand that you have little time, plan to cover less ground and give them your full attention. And if you need to keep track of the time, position a watch or small clock where you can see it without having to move your gaze too much. (Make sure you can’t hear ticking, though!)

Tip 5:
Like a new school teacher needs to prep more than enough material for one period because he’s not sure how fast or slow the material will play out, make sure you have more than enough questions to fill the time available. We’d scheduled 20 minutes to talk to a town senior about a local flood and hurricane, but all of her recollections were captured in about 10 minutes, so we moved on to other topics. “What was elementary school like when you went to school in the town 75 years ago? How did your courtship start? What was it like being a young parent?” Just make sure you prioritize your questions so you get to the ones you’re most interested in if you do run out of time.

And beyond that, remember, it’s not rocket science. There’s no right or wrong way to conduct an interview. Just be a good listener in a quiet place and let them talk!