J-School: Getting the first question right

It is a challenge every journalist faces: getting an interview off on the right foot.

A lot of times, the tone of the interview and the amount of good information a journalist will get depends on that first question.

Get it wrong and it can make for a long, unproductive interview. Get it right and you can strike gold … no matter what the subject matter is.

Here is a good read from the great folks at BBC Academy who focus a lot on the multimedia side of journalism, but there is a lot of value for print journalists here as well:

Getting the first question right: Stephen Sackur

Your first question can be a tough opening gambit or a softly, softly approach to invite your guest to open up. Stephen Sackur presents HARDtalk on BBC World News and the BBC News Channel.

An opening question can be “brutally frank”, as Stephen Sackur puts it, or designed to relax the guest and get their “juices flowing”. Whatever the choice, your first question requires thought and planning – a strategy, he says.

The direct opener that cuts to the chase is designed to establish from the start where the interview is going. It sets the tone of the conversation, flags up what’s important, puts the guest under certain pressure, and may reveal something telling in the opening minute. But it’s not the best approach to every interview.

The angle the presenter takes depends on a number of things: the main purpose of the interview, the type of guest and their personality, and the context in which the interview is taking place.

In longer form interviews, the first question is part of the ‘rhythm’ of the whole. So it can be fairly open, to ease the interviewee into much more specific questioning further in. 

Here Stephen Sackur demonstrates the range of angles he takes to begin HARDtalkinterviews with the former Icelandic prime minister Geir Haarde, Pakistani ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani and London mayor Boris Johnson. In each case, he explains why he chose that particular strategy.

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