At my first job out of college, I was our paper’s music writer. As such, I would get to interview the artists who were coming to play gigs at nearby St. Bonaventure University.
One year, Lisa Loeb was opening for the Goo Goo Dolls. I had scheduled a phone interview with her and had asked her record label to send me a copy of her new CD (this being the early 2000s, before streaming was a thing). The day of the interview came, and I still had not received the album yet. So I was interviewing her without listening to the album she was touring in support of.
One of my fist questions was what she liked about her new album.
What do you like about it? she asked back.
What I should have said was “To be honest, I haven’t heard it it. I’m still waiting for my copy, but I’m really interested in what you like about it …” or something like that.
What I did do, because I was young and prideful and didn’t want to embarrass myself and did want to look cool in the eyes of Lisa Loeb, was awkwardly stammer something about how I liked the songwriting. She said she liked that too, and we had a pleasant chat.
I’m told a few days later, she made fun of me on stage for that answer. I didn’t hear this, so it may be apocryphal, but I really hope it’s true.
Because it points out a really important lesson for interviewing people.
Don’t afraid to be honest. Don’t try to look cool in front of them. Admit what you don’t know.
The worst thing you can do in an interview with a source is to fake it. To pretend you know what they are talking about when you don’t. Because in the end, you are hurting your work and your readers. If you don’t know what something is but pretend to because you don’t want to look foolish in front of another person, you won’t be able to inform your readers to the best of your ability.
One of my tools as a reporter, post-Lisa Loeb, was to be honest with the people I was interviewing. If I didn’t know something, I owned it. I asked them about it. If a pitcher was talking about his release point, I would say, “I’m sorry, this is probably the dumbest question you’ll get all day, but what do you mean by release point?” Same thing if a basketball player talked about shooting in rhythm, or what a matchup zone defense was.
Framing the question like that worked on two levels. For one, it disarmed the person I was interviewing. It made me a little more sympathetic in their eyes. I wasn’t this journalist who assumed he knew everything and was trying to make the player look bad. I was a guy asking a silly question. It brought them to my side.
On a second level, athletes and players LOVE talking about what they do. To be professionals or D-1 college athletes, they’ve spent years working on their games. It’s their lives. It’s their craft. To have someone genuinely interested in what they do made them want to talk to me, and talk more.
On a recent episode of The Other 51, Joe Posnanski talked at length about this:
So in an interview, don’t be afraid to look or sound dumb with your question. If you don’t know what something means, don’t be afraid to ask.
As I’ve often said, I’d rather look stupid in front of one person (my source) rather than sound stupid in front of 50,000 people the next day in the paper.
It’s the lesson Lisa Loeb taught me.