How To Ask So People Will Talk

How To Ask So People Will Talk

All of us are interviewers. We also can’t escape being interviewed, either formally or informally. Good questions and answers are some of the building blocks of God-honoring conversation. Marvin Olasky is a career interviewer. As a writer and cultural advisor he has also sat on the other side of the table. Marvin was kind enough to take some time to answer some of my questions about interviewing.

How did you become an interviewer? You do much more than that, but why has interviewing stuck?

As I’ve become older and, I hope, more biblically-oriented, I hope I’ve become less self-centered and more curious about the paths others have taken and why they say some of the things they say. I used to interview others to get information or to fill a particular hole in a story I was writing. Now, I’m more interested in their story. 


So is that the point of an interviewer, to better see the unique life of the person you are interviewing? Big picture, what are you hoping to accomplish with an interview?

Sometimes it’s to confirm information and sometimes to obtain new data, but for reporters the main goal should be to get stories, anecdotes, personal experiences – not just a succession of sound bites. Gain some understanding of the interviewee’s career and beliefs. When possible, ask short questions that point to our need for God, without hammering the interviewee.


Why ask multiple questions, perhaps changing them on the fly (if the interview is in person) compared with simply asking a single question: “Tell us what you want to say”?

We all like to do public relations for ourselves. Sometimes, confronted with hard truths, we'll respond by telling the truth. But we should ask multiple questions sequentially, not just one question that has multiple warheads: Skilled interviewees can then pick the one they want to answer and ignore the others. 


How do you know if someone is genuinely trying to understand what their interlocutor is saying, versus trying to prop them up or tear them down?


Part of it is body language, but it’s also worth noticing whether the interviewer is following up answers with requests for specific detail, or just going through a checklist of predetermined questions. It’s probably a checklist interview if you say, “Jesus utterly transformed my life,” and a reporter says, “That’s great. What’s your favorite basketball team?” It might be a tear-down interview if you say that about Jesus and the next question is, “Why don’t you support the Green New Deal?” 


Does your degree of affinity with the person you are interviewing affect the kinds of questions you ask? For example, would the tone and depth of your questions differ if you were interviewing a current abortion provider compared with a pro-life crusader?

The interview might start off the same way: what did you do since childhood to get where you are? But then I would expose my general wonder as to how a person can kill babies and still look in the mirror.


How can you tell when the right question is being asked?

That’s hard at times, but I once asked a liberal pastor who headed a big organization and was a cool communicator, “What do you think of Christ?” He started sweating like crazy.


How can you discern whether or not a question is being answered or evaded?


The more words, the more likely it’s evasion. The higher up the ladder of abstraction, the more likely it’s evasion. If a person is asked about aborting an unborn child and talks about the right to choose, it’s evasion. Using the passive – “mistakes were made” – is also a sign of evasion.


Do you have a routine for preparing to give an interview?


Read a lot of Internet material about the person, if it's there, and a book or books the person (if an author) has produced. Try to find a nugget of information that the interviewee will be surprised to find I know. (This often leads to an amusing reaction, and also warns a person who might prevaricate that I might see through the distortion.) Pray.   


In an in-person conversation is there anything a host can do to make the interviewee more comfortable at the start of the interview?

When I did many of these at noontine at Patrick Henry College from 2011 through early of this year, I'd like to have an early lunch with the interviewee so we had some preliminary chatting.


On a personal level, name some of your favorite interviewers? What makes them good at what they do?


Brian Lamb, now retired from C-Span, which he started. He was a minimalist interview, probing for specific detail but not talking much. Chris Fabry on the Moody Network: He's done some prep and asks good questions. 


Do you have a favorite interview you have conducted? What made it special?


Maybe Joni Eareckson Tada, because she would burst out into song in the midst of answering a question. Maybe Tim Keller, because I respect so much his preaching ability. (In baseball lingo, he has the highest WAR -- wins above replacement -- of anyone I've ever interviewed.) Thinking of WAR, my least favorite interview was with Michael Jordan, when he took a year off from basketball in 1994 to try to be a baseball player. I felt like a little kid and my voice went up an octave. Embarrassing.  


If you could interview any living person, who would it be and what would you ask them?

High-minded answer: I'd like to gain more theological understanding from lots of people. Low answer: I'd like to ask Bill Clinton if he knew of Newt Gingrich's adultery during the 1990s and used that knowledge for political advantage.


Switching seats, could you name some of your most memorable interviews in which you were the one in the hot seat? Did you prepare for these? Did you anticipate certain questions?

I did a few hundred in 1995-1996 and again in 1999-2000, when I was involved in welfare reform and the quick rise and fall of compassionate conservatism. My preparation was visiting and guiding reporters to lots of Christian ministries so I could talk about street-level examples of what I had seen, not suite-level abstractions. Memorable ones: NBC's Dateline because the reporter came with me to the Washington Gospel Mission and filmed there. Or a BBC interview on election night 2000 at the Austin outdoors party of Bush supporters: the interviewer was joyful because Bush had apparently lost, but in the middle of the interview the crowd gave a big cheer because the results were shifting. 


I anticipated suspicious questions from CNN and 60 Minutes, and saw the difference a thoughtful Christian associate producer could make. CNN had one and the profile was positive. 60 Minutes did not and the segment was negative. 


If I’m going to be interviewed should I come prepared with a script? Should I know what I want to say regardless of which questions are asked? Or should I strictly answer the questions asked.

Probably not a script but a focus. Yes, answer the questions, but try to take a gospel turn. 


What would you suggest someone do who is asked a question to which they don’t have a great answer?

Say "I don't have a great answer. Here's how I try to think it through..."


Is there a right way to reply to combative questions?

Sensational facts, understated prose, in other words, with a firm position but a gentle tone that can turn away wrath. 


Is there a way to tell if, when being interviewed, you are answering with either too short or too long of answers? Is there a sweet spot?

Texas saying about giving a speech: "If you don't strike oil in 20 minutes, stop boring." One minute—say, 100 words— is probably the maximum for an answer in an interview. Sweet spot might be 30 words, but it depends on the question and the context.


William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.