Chapter 3: The art of interviewing (feat. Brett Kurland)

The art of interviewing

Nearly every story you write is informed by the questions you ask and the answers you receive. From game stories to features, from columns to analytical trend pieces, sportswriters are tasked with asking the right questions of the right people to help our audience understand the five Ws.

As you’ll learn in this course, there are several different types of stories you can write. You wouldn’t ask the same questions of a starting quarterback for your game story that you would for a story about the quarterback’s relationship with the offensive coordinator, but you should approach each interview and each individual question with the same mission.

Your goal in an interview is to get your subject to open up and share key details that will ultimately help provide valuable perspective in your story.

If you’re writing a game story, seek to get inside the mind of an athlete or a coach. What went into a particular decision to sub in a player in crunch time? What allowed a batter to snap out of a cold streak with a historic performance at the plate? Why did a coach opt to run out the clock at the end of the first half instead of trying to add to the lead?

If you’re writing a feature story, find interview subjects who add the type of perspective you can’t find inside a locker room or clubhouse. If you’re writing about what makes a particular prospect a “can’t-miss” talent, talk to his or her high school coaches, youth coaches, old teammates or even a teacher. 

The most important interview in this Mina Kimes story on Pelicans No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson was Williamson’s high school English teacher. It turned out to be a remarkable story.

Figure out what no one else knows

One of the best ways to approach a sports story --regardless of what type of story you’re writing-- is to seek answers no one else has yet. 

This can be simple to the point where you’re asking a coach about the severity of a player’s injury or why a player’s playing time has been reduced. 

It can also be complex, particularly when you’re covering professional athletes who have had dozens of feature stories written about them and had nearly every element of their lives publicized. 

This 2017 story about former Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi, written by Andy McCullough when he wrote for the LA Times, is a textbook example of presenting information no one knew about Zaidi.

The biographical details are endless. The perspectives shared by Zaidi’s colleagues and family members are vivid and descriptive. And at the end of the story, the reader doesn’t come away asking questions, but rather thinking about how much they now know about Zaidi.

Before diving into a feature story, I like to read as much as about my subject as possible. What’s already been written about them? What makes this person interesting? Are there any angles worth exploring that other writers overlooked? Have there been significant changes in a subject’s life that should lead you to revisit questions they’ve answered before?

With every story you write, look to break new ground. Treat game stories as an opportunity to take readers behind the scenes through questions and answers with key subjects and treat features as an opportunity to take readers where they’ve never been before.

Open, neutral and lean

The "open, neutral and lean" technique is taught inside the halls of ESPN by veteran investigative journalist John Sawatsky.

It's a relatively easy technique to follow and can serve as a great way to self-edit a list of questions if you're prepping before a big interview.

Open questions are open-ended and less likely to yield yes or no answers. During an interview, your goal should be to elicit responses that compel subjects to share as much information with you as possible, so questions that begin with a "How" or a "Why" are much better than questions that can easily be answered in one word or a short sentence.

Neutral questions are questions that avoid charged language or lead a subject toward a conclusion. Questions, particularly in challenging interviews, don't need to be accusatory. Ask for details, but do so in a neutral way.

Lean questions get to the point. Don't ramble, don't ask multi-part questions that often confuse the person you're interviewing and don't use valuable time you have with a subject to show off how much you know. As our podcast guest in this chapter will tell you, "There's only one star of the interview and it's not you."

This exchange between ESPN's Tom Rinaldi and Tiger Woods is a good example of an interview which features open, neutral and lean questions.

Three basic interviewing principles

  • What would a reader want to know?
  • Make the extra call
  • Be willing to ask for help

What would a reader want to know: The first principle is pretty straightforward, but it goes along with a lesson I was taught early in my sportswriting career. Don’t waste questions. Cut to the chase and ask interview subjects questions that are going to help answer the basics of the Five Ws. Ask them questions that will add value to a story, and think about how their answers will help readers gain a better understanding of whatever it is you’re writing about.

Making the extra call: Making the extra call is a journalism cliche, but it’s worth repeating here because no one has ever regretted having additional perspective before they sit down to write. Whether you’re calling the husband or wife of an athlete or coach you’re covering or the college coach of a pro athlete you’re writing about, the odds are good that the “extra call” is someone who will end up providing more valuable information than the people you initially thought were more important interview subjects.

Asking for help: What I mean by asking for help is asking a subject to connect you with someone else who you’re looking to interview for a story. Asking for help can be daunting, but the worst thing someone can say to you as no. 

A real-life example of asking for help led me to one of my favorite stories from my career. During the Giants’ offseason, my bosses asked me to pitch in with NFL coverage and write features on 49ers players during the postseason. My first assignment was to write this feature on George Kittle, a star tight end who has dozens of stories written about him every week.

I wanted to write something different, but I knew the only way to do that was to talk to George’s wife, father and high school and college coaches about how much has changed in George’s life in the past five years. From the interviews I conducted, I not only learned what has changed, but what’s stayed the same and what’s enabled George to keep his boyish spirit in a physically brutal sport.

How did this story become possible? I had never met George before a two-question interview in the 49ers’ locker room one day. I then told him what I wanted to write, who I wanted to talk to and if he could write down some phone numbers for me. Within 60 seconds, I had contact info for his wife, dad and high school coach. 

George could have said no. I was expecting him to say no. Asking for help made the story possible. 

Technology you might need

If you're first starting out in sportswriting, you'll quickly realize phone interviews are critical if you want to get ahold of hard-to-reach subjects.

This presents a problem for journalists like me who use their iPhone for nearly every interview.

What's the solution?

A lot of reporters are smooth with technology and can get their computer in front of them, call a subject from a Google phone number and then record the audio from the call with their smartphone.

My preferred method?

I bought a $40 Sony digital voice recorder and do all my phone interviews on speaker phone so I can record with the Sony device. If you Google "voice recorder for under $50," you'll find plenty of different options and you can make a choice based on reviews, your price range, etc.

A lot of reporters I know have tried (and subsequently failed) to use apps on your phone that will theoretically record your phone interviews, but I know way too many people --including myself-- that have found the technology to be inconsistent.

Our next guest

One of the primary reasons I wanted to author this course is to share lessons you won't learn in journalism school. With that being said, there are some incredibly valuable skills I picked up in college thanks to fantastic professors who had experience at the highest levels of the field.

Our guest for this chapter is one of the great sports journalism professors in this country and someone who’s been a mentor for me for a long time and that’s Arizona State professor of practice, Brett Kurland.

Brett is the director of the Cronkite School’s Phoenix Sports Bureau and a master at teaching the art of interviewing, so I figured there’s no one better to assist with this section.

Brett has worked in major markets, filmed documentary interviews for ESPN and now heads up one of the best sports journalism programs in the country. His approach to interviewing is as easy to practice as it is to understand and that's why I'm excited to share this podcast with you.

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