LADEE's Launch to the Moon

To save dull interviews, ask WTF questions

By Emma Marris

Some interviewees exude excitement about what they do, speak in complete sentences, spontaneously produce pithy summaries of complex ideas, and hand you memorable analogies on a plate. Others, not so much. Some people, let's face it, can be dull. They worry too much about coming off as insufficiently serious. Or they are so myopically focused on details that they cannot be coaxed into giving any big-picture perspectives.

Question mark drawing

Quirky questions can spark interest if sources go dull

Use your own reactions during an interview to assess how good the material is. You know you are in trouble when you find your mind wandering. You know you are really in trouble when you have stopped taking notes. And it is time to declare an interview emergency when, during a phone interview, you find yourself actually checking your email.

That's when throwing out some unexpected, tangential, and just plain weird questions can help. Your source may laugh at the question or refuse to answer, but even that exchange will often loosen him or her up. Or, you might surprise a source into letting down his or her guard and acting more human.

Here are a few questions I use, but there are infinitely many unexpected, disarming questions you can lob.

1. What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid? A good one to make the conversation less formal. And often, there will be links between the work they do now and the shows that were supposedly rotting their brains decades ago. "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" had a hand in the development of many a modern ecologist.

2. What is the dumbest question anyone has ever asked you about your work? I asked this of some scientists who were chasing storms in a van and with unmanned aerial vehicles, and one said that a reporter had asked him whether his van had a "tornado detector." His reply: "Uh, that's kind of the ultimate end goal of all this research."

3. What does your garden look like? I asked this of ecologists and conservation biologists when I was writing my book about conservation. Often, there's at least a symbolic link between their work and the way they care for their own little patch of Earth. Some ecologists had let their yards go totally wild and were driving their neighbors crazy.

4. Tell me a story about the day you were most depressed and the day you were most elated having to do with this work. Here, you are explicitly asking for a story. You won't always want to run with the tidy narrative that a source hands you, but humans think in stories with emotional arcs, and it can be very interesting to hear how the story plays out in the head of one of the main characters. Note that asking emotional questions about how people feel about things can often throw scientists, in particular. And that's a good thing.

5. Have you ever been hurt or risked death while doing science? This is a great one for field scientists. Often, they'll have great stories, but won't think to volunteer them since they don't directly have to do with their hypothesis or results. At least they think they don't. Once you've heard about the bear encounter or the blood infection, it is usually possible to work it in the story somehow.

What right-field questions have worked for you when an interview is on the road to Dullsville?

Emma Marris is an environmental writer based in Oregon. Her work appears in National Geographic, Outside, Wired, Nature, and others. She also writes books.

Image credit: Charles Chan via Flickr/Creative Commons

Image credit: NASA

April 25, 2013

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