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Interviews: Asking the Right Questions

December 15, 2013

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have (messed) with? That’s me.” -Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.

To look at him, you’d think this easygoing man washed cars or bagged groceries for a living.  Geanny Hernandez doesn’t stand an inch above five and a half feet tall and walks around with a perpetual smile, yet he’s the last man you’d want to mess with.

Nothing about his appearance reveals the national titles he holds as a Jujitsu champion in Cuba and the United States.  Even his co-workers were unaware of Geanny’s journey to the U.S. – setting sail in a small boat from Cuba in the middle of Hurricane Katrina, only to be captured by a tribe in Honduras, navigating the Central American jungle with nothing but a knife, held hostage by FARC guerrillas and then by Mexican Federales, and finally arriving at the U.S. border where he now serves as a Jujitsu competitor in military competitions.

The question is: Why had his story gone untold?

It’s a simple answer: No one asked the right questions.

As a war correspondent on the front lines of Iraq, I ran across stories like Geanny’s all the time.  In combat, people did amazing things every day.  To capture the incredible stories of the people and missions, I had to learn how to interview people who didn’t see themselves as heroes but lived heroic lives nonetheless.

Once I found people like Geanny, it was my job to turn their stories into legends.  I did this by asking them the questions that would draw their amazing stories out of them.

As writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction, it’s our job to tell engaging stories.  To do this well, it’s critical we research our characters so we can connect our readers to the human elements inherent in any good story.  The best researchers and interviewers follow a process that connects them to the people who lived the lives of their fictional characters, or are experts in the lives of historic people.

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, finding subject-matter experts is the same.  If the character spent time in a maximum-security prison, find someone who can talk about the details of prison life firsthand.  If your character took part in the signing of the Declaration of Independence, find a historian who specializes in early American history.  It’s not hard to find someone who’s an expert in or has lived the life, in whole or in part, of any character you can imagine.

It’s what happens next that makes or breaks an interview’s success.

After the writer has made the contact, established rapport with the subject, done research on their credentials and experiences, scheduled the interview and traveled to the location or sent the email or called, they often leave without the details or stories that will make tan extraordinary story.


Writers often approach the interview with a preconceived notion of what they need, and miss the untold stories always waiting to be revealed.

It’s the person being interviewed who’s experienced the situation you want to know more about, or dedicated their lives to gaining that knowledge.  Aren’t they a better subject-matter expert than the writer?

By asking the right questions, an interviewer can tap into the goldmine of experiences inside each person they interview.

Here are a few examples that will supercharge the content you gain from interviews:

“What was the most challenging part of that experience?”

This question is like skimming the cream off a pail of fresh milk.  You are asking your subject more than just a Yes/No question, and you’re engaging the part of their brain that stores important moments.  When I asked this question on the battlefield, I was often surprised at the answers I received.

Most people would think fighting house-to-house would be the hardest part of capturing a city, but that often wasn’t the case.  After one particularly brutal mission, I asked the Marines around me this question, and was surprised to learn it had nothing to do with combat.

“The hardest thing about that mission was when we were running from one house to another and someone started humming ‘Ride Of The Valkyries,’ and we busted out laughing.”

That made for a great story; it’s a story I wouldn’t have gotten had I only considered my perspective on the situation.

“Was there a moment when you thought it wasn’t going to happen and then you were able to succeed?”

This is a basic question writers use when framing hero-stories, or capturing internal or external conflict.  For some reason, many writers try to reinvent the wheel by making up the conflict their characters experience.  When writers take the time to interview someone about an experience, this is an essential question to ask.  It will not only inspire the interview subject to reflect on a critical part of their story, it will give you the opportunity to capture the real conflict someone experienced with details that would otherwise go untold.

For writers who interview subjects, it’s imperative that they ask the questions that will allow their interviewees to tell their own story.

Often, what they say will make a story something worth sharing.


Shawn Rhodes is a speaker, writer, coach and consultant in the fields of professional performance and personal development. He is known as an award-winning, internationally-published author, war correspondent and teacher. For decades he has shared the benefits of the martial arts to the public, developed ways to focus under stress, be passionate in a profession, and be confident in everyday life. Shawn will be speaking at the Mid-Winter Conference West and Reading Festival.


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