Who, what, and why

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Sheila Coles talks about the art of the interview

Iryn Tushabe
News Writer

There is something unique about being in a room full of journalism and interview enthusiasts. That was the atmosphere in the multipurpose room in the Riddell Centre when CBC’s Sheila Coles graced over 65 attendees with an insightful lecture about conducting an effective interview.

Coles is the host of CBC’s Saskatchewan morning edition, a current affairs program which airs every weekday from 6 to 8:30 a.m.

She emphasized the importance of creativity in an interview.

“One of the things you need be a successful journalist is creativity in all things. You need to be creative in how you view the world because you’re looking for story ideas everywhere you go,” she said. She added this creativity should apply to writing as well.

To usher us into the world of journalism, Coles brought a long a list of interesting journalism clichés, which were met with laughter from the audience.

“‘The controversial leader’ means he did something bad but we’re not sure what. ‘War torn country’ means we can’t find it on a map. ‘Knowledgeable observer’ means the reporter. ‘Knowledgeable observers’ mean a reporter and the person at the next desk. ‘According to published reports’ usually means we got scooped. ‘Couldn’t be reached for comment’ means the reporter probably didn’t call until after 5 p.m. ‘Towing industry expose’ means the editor got a parking ticket.”

If anyone came to the lecture expecting to partake of some sort of magic elixir to make them better interviewers, Coles made sure to mention that there was no such thing. She said all anyone really needed for a good start was to be curious. Her major in psychology as an undergraduate is a testament to her innate curiosity and has probably played a big role in her career as a journalist.

“I was being curious about what makes people tick. I like peeling away the layers and finding out the truth about what makes people tick,” She said. “When I went to my interview and they asked me why I wanted to be a journalist, I said I was a very curious person and I loved the idea of learning something new every day. And now all these years later if someone asked me why I enjoy being a journalist I would give exactly the same answer.”

Of equal significance is listening. While it can be very challenging to do, Coles said that active listening is absolutely vital in order for any interview to be successful. Like most skills in life, one needs some amount of practice before an interviewer can emerge as a good active listener.

One of the practice scenarios she advised is to “listen to the intro of a story and think ‘what would be my first question?’ and then listen to what the host asks and listen to the answer. Stay with it and then quickly ask yourself again ‘what would be my next question?’ That’s active listening where you’re actually engaged in what is happening.         

“The reason why active listening is hard is because there are so many distractions going on. The person you are interviewing might have said three really fascinating things; which one do you pick up on? Which one do you come back to later and which one do you let go? You’re constantly revising as you go and at the same time for me, I’m looking at the clock and you have six or seven minutes to cover something, find a wrap question and leave it.”

To get the information most appropriate to the story out of an interview depends on what area the interviewer focuses on. Coles argued that a host should be able to take listeners into the head of the interviewee in order to elicit the best story.

To do this Coles said, “You have to choose when you are doing an interview when to go with the external narrative, like, ‘what happened next and what happened then?’ and when to stop and say, ‘what was going through your mind at that moment?’ because you want to get inside a person’s head and find out what they were feeling.”

Coles discouraged use of tough-sounding questions because they won’t get you the story. Having done countless interviews herself, Coles knows that interviewers will have people who will not answer the questions.

“How many times is acceptable for the journalist to repeat the same question?” she wondered. She played a clip of an interview where the journalist was interviewing an elusive guest and repeated the same question 12 times, and still got no answer. Coles said the best thing to do in these circumstances would be to rephrase the question, and maybe ask the guest why they won’t answer the question instead.

Coles said while some interviews can be more like conversations, she advises interviewers to stick to asking the questions and leave the narrating to their guests.

“In a conversation you have two people outputting, and two people telling stories whereas in an interview you are asking questions, and the simpler the questions are, the better to the other person who is outputting.”

Another essential tool Coles advised the interviewer should have is research about the topic or issue in discussion. She said that lack of background knowledge on the part of the host could be extremely detrimental to what would have otherwise been a wonderful story.

“You need to have background information – which might mean extensive reading because you can really run into trouble if you know nothing.”

The lecture was followed by a question and answer session, which responded to issues of objectivity, ethics, and integrity in journalism.

At the end of it all, everyone who attended left with their heads held high and full of renewed hope for what their future as journalists could be.

Coles’ lecture is the first of the Carillon’s lecture series leading up to the paper’s 50th anniversary. Kent. E. Peterson, the Carillon’s business manager, said the event was more successful than he thought it would be.

“The audience was asking questions far more than we thought they would. John [Cameron], the editor-in-chief, had pre-written questions in the event that no one asked questions and we didn’t need to use any of them which was fantastic.”

The next event in the  Carillon lecture series entitled “Journalism and Public Scrutiny” will be delivered by the Leader-Post’s Murray Mandryk on Oct. 27, 2010.

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