Say what you will about Tavis Smiley, but I’ve always admired the way he terms talks with his subjects as conversations. It’s an outlook I’ve recently come to adopt as an ink slinger. I mean, if you really want to find the heart of the story, that one juicy nugget that makes it all come together, you must converse.
It’s pretty easy to read from a list of questions, all laid out with bullet points or numbered, but to hold conversation, you have to listen and engage and even interrupt when appropriate, like when you’ve got a burning question that you just know you’ll forget.
After months of attempting to integrate this skill, and it is a skill, I finally had my first conversation with an artist* for an upcoming story. I’d interviewed him twice before and as free spirited as he’s known to be, he just wouldn’t open up to me. I realized it was because I wasn’t engaged and I was satisfied with asking him pat questions that didn’t engage him. The questions merely rendered responses. So during this third interview, we suddenly shifted into conversation when I asked him how he felt about a particular situation. Feeling questions are generally frowned upon in journalism, or at least that’s what I was taught. They don’t tend to elicit great quotes. But it was asking this guy how he felt about a certain situation that broke down the wall. He gave me exactly what I needed to give his story life, and suddenly, I understood what so many people from my editor in Lima to the few New York Times Metro Desk reporters I know have been trying to tell me. It’s that thing. I finally knew what it was.
Just this weekend, I had an hour and a half conversation with the owners of a photography studio* as part of an upcoming assignment. I normally don’t talk that long during an initial interview, mostly because my editors are always so adamant that interviews shouldn’t take that long. No offense to my editors, but I see now that I’ve got to do things my way, and if it takes an hour and a half of conversation or two hours or how ever long to talk to someone and understand what motivates them and where their passions lie, it’s what I’m going to do. I’m lucky enough to work for publications with deadlines that are far off and allow me to do so. And in the scheme of things, by the time I get through with follow up questions, I would’ve talked to a subject for an hour and a half anyway, so why not be unafraid of asking questions as they arise, engaging myself without following my usual script and letting the conversation flow naturally while still capturing the 5W’s & H?
Needless to say, I still go into conversations with certain questions on my mind, but I also make sure that I’m actively listening and talking to that person as a person, not as a journalist with a notebook or a tape recorder. It takes more than just reporting to tell the story; it takes connecting to someone’s humanity in order to understand what the story really means, and I look forward to doing more of that in the future.
*Nope, I’m not naming names as the stories haven’t been published yet. I’ll let you in on the secret in a few…months.