The door closed behind me as I entered the manager’s office in Kauffman Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. I introduced myself to Terry Francona as we shook hands. It wasn’t uncommon for me to interview accomplished baseball men, so I wasn’t nervous about talking with Francona, the two-time World Series-winning skipper of the Boston Red Sox. However, I was excited; I’d always enjoyed Francona’s interviews over the years and I’d heard he was an outstanding guest. My first question to Francona was a little long-winded. No, it was very long-winded. Something about the Red Sox struggles early in the year, the fact Boston has played a lot better since, but they still have the Yankees to contend with for the division, although they could still win the wild card even if they don’t win the division. It took me about 30 seconds to get all of that out and, while I was talking, my brain was telling my mouth to shut up, but my mouth wasn’t responding.
When I was done with my first question, I pointed my digital recorder toward Francona. He looked at me through his wire-rimmed glasses.
“Well, that was a mouthful!” Francona said.
And my interview was off to a terrible start. I was flustered and neither Francona nor I could get past my opening salvo. The rest of my questions – while shorter – were mediocre, as were Francona’s responses. The Red Sox media relations rep told me I had 3-4 minutes to interview the manager and, when I’d gotten through about 3 ½ minutes of misery, Francona gave me the “wrap it up” sign with his right index finger, which threw me off even further and led to another terrible question and another subpar answer. After we were done, I thanked Francona, who seemed annoyed. I couldn’t blame him; I did a terrible job.
Even though interviewing is an important part of sports broadcasting, very little time is spent on properly teaching and honing necessary interview skills. Very few people in sports broadcasting are hired based on their interview skills; the sound of one’s play-by-play or the strength of one’s sports-talk radio opinions take precedence. I was never asked or quizzed on my interview skills when I got my first broadcasting jobs; those doing the hiring assumed I’d be able to be an effective interviewer. Although you may not get a job because of your ability to interview and ask good questions, not doing both well could make it difficult to keep or establish credibility with the coaches and athletes you cover.
The most important thing I try to remember when conducting interviews for broadcast is people want to hear from my interviewee and not from me. As a result, my questions should be succinct and to the point. One of my pet peeves is media members who ask long questions, like I did in my first question with Francona. Long-winded questions are the result of a questioner trying to show how smart he or she is and/or not having a fully-formed question or idea when he or she starts talking (in the above example with Francona, I was guilty of both).
An interviewer should try not to ask yes-or-no questions, but sometimes that will happen even if you’re trying to prevent it. However, that’s where asking good follow-up questions comes into play. I’ve seen too many media members get a “yes” or a “no” to their question and not follow up; just because you got a “yes” or a “no” doesn’t mean the interviewee has no desire to elaborate. Sometimes, succinct questions lead to succinct answers, but that’s where follow-up questions come into play. It doesn’t mean you have to turn into Jack Bauer interrogating a terrorist, but good follow-up questions are essential for a good interview. And, if you pay attention, the interviewee will let you know how much he or she is willing to say.
That’s another key to a good interview – paying attention. Most media members go into an interview with an idea of questions to ask. Some write those questions down, others don’t – I jot down notes for a few questions for a little more than half of the interviews I conduct. However, the interviewee may bring up something in one of his or her answers that is worthy of exploration and further elaboration. I go into every interview with a plan, but I’m not afraid to deviate from that plan if circumstances indicate I should. Part of my problem in my interview with Francona was I tried too hard to ask him most of what I wanted to ask in the first question, rather than opening with simple, concise questions and letting Francona’s responses guide subsequent questions.
You may be wondering, if I’m aware of these interview rules, how did I mess up my interview with Francona? Even the best interviewers (and I’m far from one of the best) screw up the basics sometimes, which is why it’s important to remind ourselves of those tenets. My debacle with Francona also underscores the need to listen to ourselves, the need to be self-critical and self-correcting. The best broadcasters I’ve dealt with know they’re good, but also know they’re fallible, and they look to correct mistakes or tighten up their performance at every opportunity. One of the reasons I love working with and listening to younger and less experienced broadcasters is it forces me to go back to basics; critiquing their work and reinforcing or introducing elementary concepts to them reminds me of those concepts as well.
More than anything, keep interviewing simple. Or else, Terry Francona will think you’re an idiot.