!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: 21st-Century Journalism IX: Can You Teach Curiosity?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

21st-Century Journalism IX: Can You Teach Curiosity?

According to CNN's Larry King, the answer to "Can you teach curiosity?" is No. Therefore, in King's view, it isn't really possible to teach newspeople how to conduct better interviews because curiosity is what equips an interviewer to ask good questions.1

Meanwhile, over at ESPN, veteran investigative reporter John Sawatsky, now ESPN's director of talent development, takes the view that "If an interview goes well ... [i]t happens for an understandable reason. It's rational. It's a skill. It's easy to teach someone skills."2

As an interested observer who has developed consultative sales training for a number of years, and who has written the occasional interview-based feature for our local newspaper, I have no doubt that Sawatsky is right and King is wrong.

I became interested in what Sawatsky has to say about skilled interviewing when I heard an August 14 David Folkenflik report on NPR concerning the training Sawatsky is doing at ESPN.

From Folkenflik's conversation with Sawatsky, it was apparent that a skilled consultative salesperson and a skilled reporter have a lot in common when it comes to the techniques they use to gather information from people who are not always inclined to be forthcoming and frank. For instance:
  • It is essential to prepare meticulously in advance of meeting with a source of information. (Larry King prides himself on doing zero preparation for his interviews.)

  • Yes-or-no questions are to be avoided except when confirming a specific piece of information. Open-ended questions are much more likely to produce a quantity of useful information, especially when followed up intelligently.
There are also differences. For instance:
  • Sawatsky urges reporters to keep questions short. A salesperson may want to be schmoozier in how he poses questions. For both reporter and salesperson, it's important that questions be clear.

  • Sawatsky cautions reporters to avoid charged words. A salesperson has more flexibility in deciding when to push buttons and when to be neutral in his choice of words.

  • Leading questions are almost always a bad choice for a reporter. For a salesperson, so long as they don't undercut the authenticity of the consultative approach, leading questions can be a real help in advancing toward a completed sale.
The key point for me is that effective information gathering is indeed a skill that can be taught. The specifics of best practice will vary according to the purpose for which the information is being gathered (e.g. for a news report vs. for learning what a prospective customer values), but that just means that the skill training must be customized accordingly.

1 David Folkenflik, "The Art of the Interview, ESPN-Style," All Things Considered, NPR, August 14, 2006.

2 Susan Paterno, "The Question Man," American Journalism Review, October 2000. An article well worth reading if you want more detailed information concerning John Sawatsky's views on how to interview well.


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