Accents, and listening

Last night, a friend of mine posted a BBC Radio link on Facebook, called “A Tour of the British Isles in Accents.” We both found it interesting because of our  background as language students – plus, it’s less than a minute and a half, an added incentive for me to check it out.

I think I learned to listen – really listen – to the way people talk, when I was studying French as an undergraduate. Part of our “ear” training involved transcribing tapes of diverse speakers. Brigitte Bardot was one, and I believe there was also an elderly, toothless man from the south of France, as well as a hippodrome announcer.

The focus I honed in that classroom helped me years later as a reporter, when I interviewed people and covered events.

In the last couple of years, I’ve become a fan of Downton Abbey, and part of the appeal is just listening to the English accents. This morning, I found an interesting blog post about the accents in the show.

The BBC Radio link also brought to mind a scene from “Lucy Meets the Queen” – an episode of I Love Lucy – when Ethel explains to a British character that she and Lucy don’t understand English, because they’re American. I looked for the episode online, but couldn’t find one that would play in Canada. Sigh.



What makes a good interviewee?

After I blogged last Thursday about interviewing and the things I enjoyed about it, I started to think about the people I interviewed as a reporter.

What makes a good interviewee? Bottom line, for me, is someone who is articulate and has something to say that is worth hearing.

Sometimes people underestimate their ability to express themselves well. Some think, wrongly, that what they have to say won’t be interesting or relevant to readers. Others, um, err in the opposite direction.

Interviewees who love their work or hobby (if that’s what they’re being interviewed about), and who are good at what they do, bring something special to an interview. I’ve been surprised more than once that a subject I thought might be boring turned out to be unexpectedly interesting.

It’s also good when interviewees use regular language instead of jargon, especially those whose fields of expertise are specialized. It’s not just that jargon is esoteric, understood by a select few; it’s that sometimes jargon serves as a generic catch-all, masking a more specific meaning. Easy example: “best practices.”

Some interviewees write things down that they want to remember to include in an interview. Reflecting, and clarifying one’s thoughts beforehand often makes for a better and more coherent conversation. But reading complete answers doesn’t work. As a rule, people don’t talk the way they write, and sometimes those written answers end up sounding like “fake” quotes. They’re also likely to disrupt the flow of a good interview.

People often asked me before an interview how long the interview would take. If I’d never met the person, it was hard to predict, because some people are talkers, and some aren’t. But I found, in the end, that whether or not a person is a talker doesn’t predict how interesting an interview will be, or how easy or difficult it will be to write up.

That’s all for today… but definitely not all there is to say about interviewing.

Do I miss interviewing?

A friend asked me the other day if I miss interviewing. Sometimes I do, but not as much as I thought I would. I’m happy to be writing my blog and my book, neither of which calls for interviews at this point.

There wasn’t much I didn’t enjoy about interviewing, though. My job was never boring. Over the 22 years that I worked at The Canadian Jewish News, I interviewed a wide range of people including celebrities, architects, rabbis, students, professors, schoolteachers, authors, artists, centenarians, and community leaders. Many were from Israel or other countries. I learned a little about a lot of things, and in many cases more than a little.

I liked preparing for interviews. The process, for me, was basically what my Grade 6 teacher expected as our first step when we worked on school projects. She had us make two lists: “What I Know,” and “What I Want to Find Out.” I always enjoyed the challenge of coming up with questions that I thought other interviewers might not have asked.

I liked the actual interviews, and the interview process too. A good interview is like a conversation in many ways, but it also has structure and a logical end. I would begin by asking how much time the person had, and try to pace the interview accordingly.

And while I usually had a list of questions, there were many others that weren’t on my list – follow-up questions seeking clarification or more information. It helped that I was genuinely interested in what people had to say. My husband used to hope that I would get a sports-related interview, to pique my interest in that area too!

When I wrote up my interviews – unlike my blog posts – I worked from notes, and sometimes from an audio recording as well, especially if the subject of discussion was controversial, or if the interviewee spoke quickly. For me, it was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, taking the most relevant and interesting pieces of the interview and fitting them together in a way that made sense.

Sometimes I thought about the interviews long after they were over. I still think about some of them. I’ll have to blog about that another time.



Thoughts on interviewing

Among the items I brought home after being downsized was a file folder titled “Questions.”

As a reporter for a weekly newspaper for more than two decades, I asked a lot of questions. In recent years, I usually prepared for interviews by jotting notes on a post-it or a piece of notepaper, but in earlier years – especially for business or celebrity interviews – I often printed out a list of typed questions.

I learned so much by asking questions – not just factual information, but life lessons, and the type of things that make people tick. Often one person’s story can provide insight into larger societal issues.

A good interview isn’t just a series of questions and answers. It has elements of a conversation, give and take, and follow-up questions.

Looking through the interview questions that I kept, I recall the preparation that went into some of them, particularly with high-profile interviewees. Often, I had little previous background knowledge about their areas of expertise – classical music, agriculture, archeology, business.

When I was in Grade 6, my teacher had us prepare for a project by making two lists: “What I know,” and “What I want to find out.” Preparing for an interview wasn’t much different.

One of the things I found out is that, no matter how much I know in advance, there’s always more to find out.

Elmore Leonard’s famous writing rule

Last week, I read the news that novelist Elmore Leonard, probably best known as creator of Get Shorty, had died. He is also remembered for his 10 rules of writing, most notably, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Although I obviously never wrote dialogue – Leonard’s forté – when I was working as a reporter, I was very conscious of using quotes that didn’t sound “like writing.”

Sometimes I used quotes that originated in written form – statements from a press release, or comments made in an email. I also interviewed a few people who brought “scripts” to their interviews and asked if they could read me what they’d written instead of talking off-the-cuff.

But written statements that are used as quotations sometimes end up sounding like “fake” quotes, not the type of thing a person would actually say. Plus, they’re one-dimensional compared to face-to-face dialogue.

Direct quotes are important in reporting – they convey the subject’s exact words and his or her “voice.” They’re more immediate than a paraphrase. Well-chosen quotes can liven up an article. And they don’t sound “like writing.”

But even a “spoken” quote may not be ideal. People don’t always talk in coherent sentences. Or they may begin a thought, and veer off on a tangent instead of finishing.  Sometimes what they say makes sense when you’re hearing it, but it doesn’t “read” well. Or it may be unintentionally funny or ambiguous.

That’s why I never minded spending a bit longer than I might have on an interview, when it was possible. I wanted to ensure that I understood what was meant, not just what was said, and also to increase the odds that there would be good, usable quotes.

Although I hesitate to admit it, one of the trickiest bits of writing and rewriting that I’ve done was a little script I wrote for myself many years ago in preparation for a difficult phone call (personal, not work-related). After I’d reworked it to my satisfaction, I called a friend to run it by her. “That sounds good,” she said, not realizing I had actually read her my script. “Why do you have to write something?”

I didn’t even know that I had followed Elmore Leonard’s famous rule.

Not phone-shy any more

Many years ago, I had a summer job selling advertising for the Italian Yellow Pages. My supervisor couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t having much success. “You’re not phone-shy,” he said.

I’d never heard the term before, but knew immediately what he meant. I was in my teens, and my confidence didn’t quite measure up to his assessment.

I loved talking on the phone with my friends – my mother could never figure out how we had so much to say after spending the day together at school – but I found it intimidating to invite a guy I liked as a date to a party, or even to order pizza.

I like to think I’ve evolved. As a journalist, you can’t be phone-shy. Or in-person shy. At the very least, you can’t let it stop you from doing your job. There may be discomfort on occasion, but there’s also enormous benefit – the more experience you get, the less shy you become. And I can’t imagine a job that’s more interesting.

Being a reporter allows you – forces you, sometimes – to talk to everyone from celebrities to regular people with a wide range in between, and to ask questions you might not ask otherwise.

In my case, I’ve also had occasion to speak publicly, mostly to small groups, about my work.

Mordechai Ben-Dat, my editor for some 19 years when I worked at The Canadian Jewish News, offered me succinct advice, which I’ve never forgotten: Be prepared.

His counsel has stood me in good stead. I’m not (phone-)shy any more – most of the time, anyway.