Frequently Asked Questions is a series by me, Jane Hutcheon, a person who ... frequently asks questions.
As I approach a landmark 35 years in journalism, I’m keen to share my knowledge of the craft of asking questions.
Along the way I’ve also picked up plenty of tips about how to answer questions too.
Whether you’re a journalist, student, performer, teacher, speech-writer, MC, you work in corporate life, books and publishing, public-speaking, public-relations, marketing, advertising, law, or if you have patients or clients, any public-facing job really, you can learn tips from one of the best in the game (my Dad would say, ‘that’s a bit narcissistic, isn’t it?’ But, hey, I’m trying to grab your attention here).
Here’s how the series works:
I’ve already collected 20+ questions from talks I’ve given over the years and I'm adding to that list all the time.
I'll answer questions about my interview show One Plus One, but I’m also keen to take questions relating to my skills more broadly. I'm doing this to challenge myself. These areas could include storytelling, creativity, confidence, ambition and disappointment/failure.
I can’t do this alone! I want your questions. So if there’s anything you’ve wanted to ask, this is your chance.
I’ll post up to three times a week and if you follow my newsletter, FB or Twitter, I’ll alert you when a new post is up.
Here’s what you can do to help me, help you:
Sign up to my new bi-monthly newsletter. I'll post ideas relating to storytelling, life, books, motivation and cake!
This question came up during a panel at the Wheeler Centre a few years ago and I messed up! Enthusiastically, and thinking of my own style of biographical interview, I exclaimed, Yes! it is a privilege to interview people.
Then up spoke fellow panellist investigate journalist, Gold Walkley winner and Monash University Professor Phil Chubb (who sadly died last year). Without glancing at me he replied that interviewing was a right and part of the process of accountability that we undertake as journalists.
“I think we have a right to ask questions of people who set themselves up as public figures. We have a right to anticipate that they'll give us answers which are truthful,” he said.
I felt foolish and small as I listened to him wax passionately about the valuable programs he’d made (ie Labor in Power) and the politicians and kingmakers he’d held to account. I realised that our interviews were the polar opposite. Thankfully the third panellist, Ramona Koval weighed in.
“I think when you're interviewing public figures it's a right. It's a privilege when you're interviewing people who aren't necessarily public figures, people whose lives have come to public attention…they just might be opening their hearts and minds and lives to you. That is a privilege, I think.”
I've been thinking about the right/privilege question since Sarah Ferguson's recent Steve Bannon interview. I didn't find the interview particularly satisfying (I don't imagine it was much fun either), but Bannon is absolutely newsworthy and there's no question that 4C's should have pursued and put to air that interview.
We need hard-hitting investigative interviews; those which hold individuals to account (when they choose to be interviewed). And, according to Ramona Koval:
There are a whole range of interviews which make us ponder what’s meaningful in life and how people navigate fortune or misfortune or hold a light to the shadows.
Unearthing gems like this is certainly a privilege. But next time, I'll opt to go last on the panel :)
The interview set-up, which can be anywhere (in someone's home, on a stage, in the centre of a crowd) needs to be a coccoon where you first set the mood by some light but focused conversation.
Sometimes you may just need to make the guest laugh. Breathing is always good.
These days unless I'm at festivals or special events, it's rare for me to have an audience during my interviews.
On One Plus One the cameras are automated so there's actually no-one else in the studio except for the guest and me, atlhough there are people in a control-room nearby. This is about as intimate a setting as you can get.
I have a few minutes to break the ice. I do this by chatting about the guest's new work or clearing up any missing holes in the research: What happened in those years when...Did you stop being a sex-worker? How would you feel if we spoke about the time when....
That's all. I try to keep it light. I look at people to try to read their mood. Sometimes they'll tell me things like, "I'm really jet-lagged. I got off the plane from LA last night." Every now and then a guest tells me they find these sorts of interviews challenging.
I hope I manage to change that by the end.
And then as soon as the director informs that we are recording, I begin like a toboggan setting off down a snow-covered hill, peeling away the layers at a pace which seems comfortable and achievable for the guest.
This is the most frequently-asked FAQ. The answer is ... our editorial team chooses the guests.
FB follower, Alec Valcanis, adds: "is it by availability or by invite?"
It's by invitation, Alec. In a calender year we record approximately 45 interviews. When we record depends on the guest's availability and my research schedule (I'll talk about research in a separate post). The editorial team also decides the appropriate transmission dates.
Here's where we find potential guests:
I see an advert on the back of a disappearing bus.
Through news and feature articles.
Recommendations from colleagues.
Recommendations from guests.
Schedules of upcoming shows, books, conferences, events, speeches, festivals.
People write and offer themselves as interviewees.
Viewers offer suggestions via FB, Twitter and email.
Professional publicists representing authors, performers, academics, lawyers, and scientists (as a sample) pitch people or ideas to us.
Does everyone you approach say 'yes'?
Occassionally it's a no. We move on.
What do you base your decision on?
It boils down to two questions:
* Why is the audience likely to be interested in this person?
* Is the guest likely to deliver a fascinating, half-hour conversation on camera?
This was quite a long question, but it's worth seeing it in full:
So my question is about your professional experience as a woman: do you find that it has been different for you as a woman than if you were a man? Have you found that you've had to work harder to "prove" yourself, or faced more obstacles? Have you experienced sexism, and if so, how did you manage to overcome it?
I’ve been fortunate that when my career started in the 1980’s, there were no barriers to a woman being a general reporter, a business journalist, a TV newsreader. I remember my first TV newsreading job in Hong Kong, the male presenter had been an English teacher at my high school and there was a 40 year age difference between us!
The first time we worked together, I walked onto the news set and said, “Hi Mr Clark!” He replied, “call me Leslie now, Jane.”
In one job interview, I was made to sit on a (high) barstool while the news director sat in a regular chair (so he was looking up at me). He apologised and explained that there was nowhere else to sit, and there certainly wasn’t in that room, so I took the bar stool as he suggested.
I got the job, but then the director insisted we go out for dinner so we could talk more about the role. This was annoying as I was visiting family at the time and wanted to spend time with them, but it gave me an excuse to leave the job-explaining dinner early. Nothing happened, but really, did I have to go through that? I badly wanted that job so I didn't dare say no.
Fast forward to 2018 and there is always a bit of casual sexism around, but my workplace is probably less sexist than society. To the question, have I had to work harder to prove myself or have I faced more obstacles in my career because I’m a woman, the answer would be, not that I’m aware of.
Here’s what I know now:
I’ve always been poor at asking for pay increases. I’ve also realised, probably too late, that I should have been much more forward about asking for jobs/projects that I wanted. In my early days at the ABC one of the senior managers told that I was an investment. I really clung to that lovely thought. I just expected (naively) that if I was the right person for the job, I would get it.
I now realise that I should have been much more proactive.
Be as proactive as possible.
If you don’t enjoy your work, move on.
If you want a role or project, speak up. Continue to speak up for the job you want.
If you don’t have the skills, get them. Don’t be limited by barriers you imagine are there.
Ask for feedback. Act on it, don’t take it personally.
Find mentors, at every stage of your career.
Take as many professional development courses as you can.
Is he chatting to the boss again? Don’t underestimate what your male colleague asks for.
Don't let you fear of sexism hold you back. There are better boundaries and processes to guard against this now than there ever have been. There is help out there.