Interviewing: In Praise of Dumb Questions
Last week, I was on a shoot for a project in North Dakota and Ohio. At both locations, I conducted interviews with subject matter experts. Those interviews reminded me of this excellent post by Kate Becker written for Content Systems Academy. Kate is a science writer in Brookline, Massachusetts. She studied physics and astronomy and was previously senior researcher for the science documentary series NOVA. That’s where we met years ago. Since then, Kate has been involved in a few of our projects, including SciTrends and Stairway to STEM. You can learn more about Kate at http://www.spacecrafty.com/.
One of the great things about my job as a science writer is that I get to interview really smart people about really big questions: string theory, supermassive black holes, the big bang—that kind of thing. It’s a blast.
When I started out, I really wanted to impress these smart people. (Well, I still do, but alas.) I would prepare dozens of scholarly questions for my interviews. I wanted my subjects to know that I’d done my homework; I wanted them to think I was a smart cookie. The problem? When I gave detailed, esoteric questions, I got detailed, esoteric answers.
For instance, here are some quotes from my interview notes:
“For years, what you learned in a quantum mechanics textbook is that measurements are represented by self-adjoint operators”
“If non-contextuality fails, we’ve got a problem. The result: incompatible with non-contextuality. This may suggest some kind of retrocausality”
Evidently, I’d given my interview subjects the impression that I would understand all of this on the spot, without further explanation. So, here is what I have learned: To get better answers, ask worse questions.
Maybe “worse” isn’t quite the right word. But a naive question is likelier than a really knowledgeable one to yield a useful answer. The trick here is to forget about trying to impress the person you’re interviewing. Give your subject the impression that you’re curious and teachable, but maybe you skipped class a lot in high school. You need things explained all the way from the beginning, and then explained again but in different words, and then you need to repeat it all back so that your interviewee can point out exactly how you’ve bungled it. Then, finally, you may have what you need to explain things clearly to your readers.
In a sense, asking “dumb” questions should be easy: we’re full of them. Of course, by dumb, I don’t mean outrageous. I mean honest inquiries about things that are genuinely confusing. If you’ve ever tried to explain to a three-year-old why birds can fly but he can’t, or what the internet is, you know that our understanding of basically everything is riddled with holes. The only difference between grown-ups and toddlers is that grown-ups have learned to skim over them. (Well, maybe that’s not the only difference, but you get the point.)
Yet we’re delighted and relieved when someone else steps in to fill the gaps. After all, how many times have you been silently grateful to the person in class, or at the meeting, or at your conference, who raised her hand to ask the question everyone else was embarrassed to ask? As the interviewer, this is your job and your opportunity: You get to ask what everyone else is wondering about. You can’t wait for someone else to raise her hand. You’re it.
The hard part is silencing that voice that tells you not to ask, that presses you to cover up what you don’t know. No one wants to look stupid—especially in front of someone who’s on the shortlist for the next physics Nobel. But, if you interview a variety of people on a variety of subjects, as you’re likely to, the cumulative effort of trying not to sound stupid about every one of those subjects will do you in. No one can know everything about everything. Goodness knows, I’ve tried. It’s exhausting.
Still, while I was writing this post, I started to wonder: Do other writers share this philosophy? Am I alone out here asking dumb questions, while all the other reporters show up practically ready to defend a dissertation? So I was relieved to read this [https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/07/elicitation] from John McPhee, in an essay on interviewing:
You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit. Evidently, you need help. Who is there to help you but the person who is answering your questions?
He goes on:
Who is going to care if you seem dumber than a cardboard box? Reporters call that creative bumbling.
McPhee has been writing for the New Yorker since well before I was born, and teaches writing, too, with lots of big-name luminaries among his former students. I’m making it up as I go along, but he’s Official. Dumb questions: affirmed.
So, get out there and look stupid. Ask a naive question, and ask it boldly. I won’t think less of you. And your readers will be grateful.