ESPN, Sawatsky and the art of interviewing

May, 23, 2012
5/23/12
7:14
PM ET
Recently we sat down with ESPN interviewing guru John Sawatsky at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to watch a number of interviews conducted by ESPN reporters and anchors. Here is the Poynter Review Project's brief critique of the three we chose, paired with Sawatsky’s more extensive notes. (We asked the interviewers if they wanted to respond; see below for Adam Schefter's thoughts.) The questions asked by the interviewers are included for reference.

(To review the basics of what Sawatsky teaches about the best ways to phrase questions and structure interviews, go here.)

1. Bubba Watson, interviewed by Tom Rinaldi, April 8.

Background: Watson had just beaten Louis Oosthuizen in a sudden-death playoff at the Masters, the highlight of which was Watson’s amazing hook shot out of the trees onto the 10th green.

Questions:
• What did you see in your head from the trees on the second playoff hole?
• What did you most overcome today?
• What did that hug contain?
• You have emotion on your face as you say that, Bubba. Why?

I thought this was good work. Rinaldi’s first question offered a revealing look into the mind of a golfer who knew both the green and his swing, and had used that knowledge to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge. I was particularly impressed when Rinaldi let an awkward moment drag on, allowing Watson’s emotions to speak for themselves. I objected only to the second question, thinking its superlative felt forced.

Sawatsky preaches that a TV interviewer’s job is to get the subject to let us into his or her mind at the critical moment, giving us an insider’s view of what we saw as outsiders. Rinaldi’s first question was perfect, according to Sawatsky: It got Watson to replay the event, describing the situation from his perspective and how he overcame the obstacle.

Sawatsky wasn’t bothered by the superlative that tripped me up. That’s a focusing element, he said -- it kept Watson from giving a general answer and was useful given how little time Rinaldi had. But Sawatsky had a different objection to that second question: Rinaldi jumped ahead prematurely to the conclusion, instead of keeping Watson in the moment. Sawatsky suggested Rinaldi might have asked, “What was the biggest barrier that you saw?” and then followed that up by asking how Watson overcame it. Sawatsky noted that in his answer, Watson talked about the barriers, but didn’t tell us a lot about overcoming them. That process -- that overcoming -- is where we get our story.

“That’s one of the problems a lot of interviewers have; they get a little impatient and they want to speed things up,” Sawatsky said. "The irony is the more you try to speed things up, the more problems you create.”

Rinaldi then moved to Watson’s hug with his mother.

“That’s a tough question,” Sawatsky said, adding that people who have been through an intense event often can’t really talk about their feelings, because they’re still in the moment. And indeed, he noted, you can see Watson pull back at first in response. But he did answer Rinaldi’s question, and began to grow emotional -- which is where the interview really succeeded.

“The expression on the human face reveals everything,” Sawatsky said. “The New York Times can’t capture that the way TV can.”

After Watson answered, Rinaldi then asked his final question, ending with that simple “Why?” That prompted an uncomfortable pause as Watson choked up in reviewing his travails.

“The beauty of that is it made him relive the moment, and that’s where he got really emotional,” Sawatsky said, praising Rinaldi for letting the silence linger.

When an exchange becomes awkward, our instincts are to jump in and smooth things over. But, Sawatsky says, “journalistically, it’s exactly the opposite" -- an interviewer’s job is to get information, not to have a conversation. By letting the emotional moment go on, even as it took up valuable TV time, Rinaldi got Watson to talk about himself and where he’d come from, leading to the interview’s most indelible moment.

2. Kim Mulkey and Brittney Griner, interviewed by Trey Wingo, Carolyn Peck and Kara Lawson, April 3.

Background: Conducted after Baylor capped an undefeated season by beating Notre Dame for the women’s basketball national championship.

Questions:
• Wingo: What does 40-0 mean to you guys?
• Wingo: What does that mean to you, Brittney?
• Lawson: Coach, what makes this team so special?
• Wingo: It seemed as if in the second half, you just decided, "No matter what they throw at me, I’m going to go to the hole and I’m going to score."
• Peck: What is it that [point guard Odyssey Sims] did for you throughout this tournament to allow you to be national champions?
• Wingo: How were they able to manage the weight of last year’s lost championship and turn it into a title this year?
• Wingo: Makenzie [Robertson], your daughter, came out and wore the braids tonight. Did you know that was coming?

I thought this interview was bland. Griner offered very little, and Mulkey’s most interesting comments came late, when she talked about changing Sims’ habits and not being able to protect her players from how good they were.

Sawatsky heard questions that were a bit off the mark, but thought the bigger problem was that multiple people were interviewing two people at once -- an issue compounded by the fact that one was a coach and the other a player.

Sawatsky noted that Wingo’s first question focused on the undefeated season, not the title. But Mulkey was more focused on the title -- and so the coach spent most of her first answer knocking down the presumption of his question.

Wingo then asked Griner the same question, and the star player simply offered a blander version of her coach’s answer. To Sawatsky, that’s another symptom of the interview’s structure.

“The coach influences the player,” he said, adding that “if the coach hadn’t been there, you would almost certainly have gotten a completely different answer.”

Lawson’s question was derailed because she appended her own opinion, one of Sawatsky’s deadly sins. But he also noted that where Wingo focused on the game, Lawson asked about the season, changing the focus.

“Different interviewers generally have different goals and will step on each other,” he said, “even when trying to work together.”

Wingo then asked Griner a question that wasn’t actually a question, but Sawatsky’s larger objection was that “the interviewer is picking his moment and deciding to make it about that -- he wasn’t in the game.” Presented with Wingo’s view of the game, Griner wasn’t free to address what she saw as the turning point.

Next came Peck, who asked about the tournament -- changing the focus yet again. Sawatsky said the question was well-constructed, but thought focusing on the tournament instead of the game was a misstep. Few journalists, he noted, had the chance to immediately interview Baylor’s coach and star about the just-concluded title game, while the experience was still fresh. Given that opportunity, he argued, it’s best to focus on the game.

3. Roger Goodell, interviewed by Adam Schefter, March 21

Background: Schefter was trying to get the NFL commissioner to address questions about the severity of the penalties handed down to the New Orleans Saints for their bounty program targeting opposing players.

Questions:
• Why did you see the need to hand down the most severe penalties in NFL history?
• How much of a factor in his ultimate punishment was [New Orleans coach Sean Payton’s] lying? And was the cover-up worse than the crime?
• When you gave the message to Saints owner Tom Benson, what was his response to you?
• What was the one piece of evidence that made you say, “I have to take the action that I’m about to take?”
• What made the Saints’ case different from what’s gone on around the league and what other people say is routine?
• Why not announce the punishment for the players along with the punishment for the rest of the Saints organization?
• So do you have any idea when we might hear from you on the players?
• What do you say to the fans of New Orleans about this?
• Roger, what do you say to the people who say your penalties here in this case are too harsh? Have you thought about the fact that you’re literally taking $7.5 million away from the table from Sean Payton? How confident are you that we will never [again] see anything like what you have said the Saints are guilty of doing?

I thought this was a solid interview. For me, a minor discordant note was that Schefter’s intensity and rapid-fire questions -- some of them a bit loaded -- made the interview come across as almost prosecutorial.

Sawatsky focused on something that hadn’t registered with me. On a micro level, he said, Schefter’s questions were good, but the sequence of seemingly disparate questions prevented the interview from being more comprehensive.

Sawatsky notes that Schefter had six and a half minutes with Goodell, a long TV interview.

“If you have that kind of time, you’re better off asking questions in their natural sequence,” he said.

For instance, Schefter begins with a “why” question, which Sawatsky said is a good inquiry, but not the ideal tactic for starting an interview.

“You’re asking for an explanation, and you can’t give an explanation without something to explain,” he said.

Goodell might have revealed more, Sawatsky said, if the reporter had led him through the investigation as it unfolded: What did you expect? What did you encounter? So how did you react to that?

In Sawatsky’s view, Schefter’s well-honed instincts to break news limited the yield in the interview.

Schefter, Sawatsky said, “asked fundamentally good questions for the most part, but limited his quest to the domain of hard information when he had an opportunity to go deeper. In fairness to Adam, he wanted to cover as much territory as possible, but I don’t think he understood the trade-off.”

Sawatsky divides information into “hard” and “soft.” Facts are hard information, while soft information captures people’s thoughts, reactions, emotions, values, intentions, inclinations, level of commitment and degree of determination. Hard information tends to be stated, while soft information is most effective when it’s shown.

To maximize the value of an interview, Sawatsky says, you need both, but soft information “conveys a lot more meaning.” Interviews heavy on hard information can lack richness and depth, which is fine if the goal is to break news, but a missed opportunity if the goal is to explain. Many of the most memorable interviews fall into that category; rather than breaking news, they give us a deeper understanding of people involved in that news.

Soft information, Sawatsky says, can reveal “more than the actual act and give a truer picture of the real state of affairs. Is Roger Goodell personally ticked off, or merely acting in a prudent manner in his capacity as the NFL’s CEO, or is it something in between? That’s a revealing insight that does not emerge from hard information.”

In an email response to this critique, Schefter called Sawatsky's points "spot on," but notes that the opportunity for the interview came on an already frantic day -- mere minutes separated word of the Saints' penalties and the news that Tim Tebow had been traded to the Jets. Schefter was told he could have five minutes with Goodell and rushed to New York City.

Amid such harried circumstances, Schefter said, "if I had gotten Goodell to go into the background explanations and soft information, I don't know that I would have had time to get him to respond to the significant news questions after what were historic suspensions on one of the biggest offseason NFL stories in a long time. ... I would have loved to have had time to try Sawatsky's approach, and I intend to do that in a future interview, when time is not an obstacle."

Next time you watch an ESPN interview, listen to the questions asked and the order in which they’re asked.

Are they “closed” yes/no questions, or “open” ones that encourage the subject to explore something? Has the interviewer weighed down the question with his or her own values? Is the question so convoluted that it confuses the subject, or offers an escape route? Does the order of the questions make the subject reveal more, or less?

As our critique demonstrates, if you watch interviews with Sawatsky’s lessons in mind, you’ll see how he’s helped ESPN with the art of interview -- and you’ll detect some shortcomings he’s still working to address.

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