Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How Not To Conduct An Interview, By Mark Grace

On the Bats Blog at the New York Times, Richard Sandomir points out something that never ceases to annoy me about the postgame interviews conducted by network reporters:
Fox needs a question coach for Mark Grace. One of the failings of many sideline/stadium reporters is that they do not jot down good, solid, clear questions to ask the stars of a game.

There usually isn’t much time to prepare, but coming up with three pertinent thoughts to frame as questions, or as leading statements, shouldn’t be as hard as a nervous Grace made it when he interviewed Jimmy Rollins after the Phillies’ 8-6 win against the Yankees in Game 5 of the World Series on Monday.
Sandomir uses Grace as an example and transcribes some example from last night, but you could easily switch his name with Kim Jones, Ken Rosenthal or countless other reporters. (Here's a clip of the Rosenthal & Grace interviews from last night). It seems as though, in the cutthroat world of TV journalism, interviewers are constantly trying use their queries to display how smart they are as opposed to asking questions that lead to good responses.

Since the best baseball players - the ones most likely to be interview after the game - are interviewed so frequently during the season, they answer the questions - or in many cases weak leading statements - with relative ease. The player knows what the interviewer is getting at and usually obliges them with the type of vague and vapid answer they think they are looking for.

ESPN has actually tried to correct this problem by hiring an interview guru named John Sawatsky to conduct seminars on the proper way to interview (sort of like the "question coach" Sandomir suggested). Here is an 8 minute radio segment and accompanying article from NPR from back in 2006 on that very subject.

Sawatsky is a full time employee in Bristol and has his own office, complete with a giant question mark on the door. Max Kellerman used to talk about the "Sawatsky Technique" on his old radio show on 1050AM in New York, but would struggle to take the advice, like he did in his botched interview with Floyd Mayweather after the Juan Manuel Marquez fight.

In the seminars, Sawatsky uses interviewers like Barbara Walters and Larry King as examples of exactly what not to do. Don't ask long-winded questions (or worse, make long-winded statements) or pose inquiries that only demand a "yes" or "no" response. Ask only one question at a time. Try to learn, not validate your own opinion. Don't try to insert yourself into the interview, because the interview isn't about you:
The best questions, argues Sawatsky, are like clean windows. “A clean window gives a perfect view. When we ask a question, we want to get a window into the source. When you put values in your questions, it’s like putting dirt on the window. It obscures the view of the lake beyond. People shouldn’t notice the question in an interview, just like they shouldn’t notice the window. They should be looking at the lake.
Makes sense, doesn't it? No one wants to hear Ken Rosenthal or Kim Jones awkwardly attempt to interject their observations on what just happened. They want to hear what the player was thinking. Typically the athletes don't really have anything interesting to say either, but maybe if the people interviewing them could put some effort into crafting questions that would provoke some thoughtful responses, that wouldn't be the case.


  1. Glad you included Kim Jones. She's the Queen on the non-guestion.

    Jones: I'm down here with Derek Jeter. Derek, what an incredible night you had, going 4 for 4 with two stolen bases and that great diving catch in the 7th inning...

    Jeter: Yeah, it was pretty good. [insert string of cliches]

  2. LOL, that's so Kim & Derek but it's grown on me

  3. Just thinking Ken Singleton would make a great interviewer, IMO. He was a player at one time after all. Instead he's stuck with "MmmKay" (who was never a player - surprise surprise)