In life as in journalism - open-ended questions yield the most interesting answers

Curiosity is an essential and endearing asset, and the number of questions and the type of questions you ask of others can define who you are.

People are flattered by questions. When I embarked on my first - and hugely unsuccessful - round of dating as a teenager, a wise male friend advised me to stop trying to impress by endlessly talking about myself. "Ask them questions" he said. "Then ask a a follow-up, then another." 

But what type of questions to ask?


On the way home from school recently, I asked my son "How was your day?". The answer was perfunctory and predictable: "Good" - which hardly makes a great quote or headline. So I had to think harder.  My next was an improvement: "what was the best thing that happened today?" That solicited a long response about the soccer match at recess, which enabled me to ask follow-ups.

Questions which invite a short response, usually informational questions, are mostly easy to answer, but the answer is limited and doesn't encourage conversation. These are known as "closed questions".

"Leading questions" can be used to solicit a particular response, often the one the inquisitor desires. "Rhetorical questions" urge the interviewee to agree with the point the questioner is making (usually in speech-writing or in advocacy). The website explains these definitions in more detail.


Open-ended questions are almost always the best strategy for journalists. They are more likely to yield a longer and more personal answer, providing you a with a human perspective for your story.

"How?" or "What happened?""how did you do that....?"

or "what did you think of....?" or simply

"what happened when you.......?

Even in an adversarial interview (for instance, with a politician or a business leader trying to avoid bad publicity) open-ended questions are better.

Don't ask: "Are you going to resign?"

Do ask:- "Many people have called for your resignation. What's your reaction?"

You are inviting an answer which tells a story, which makes for a better headline, quote, sound-bite, or narrative for your feature. There is more chance this type of question will solicit honesty, or intent, background anecdotes, interesting new angles, and emotion from the interviewee.  Try it for your next reporting assignment. Then try it socially with your friends - it works there too. The goal is to get people talking, and to open up to you.

The Irish author James Stephens wrote: "We get wise asking questions, and even if these questions are not answered, we get wise, for a well-;packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell."


The job interview is more than the questions

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I've interviewed hundreds of candidates for media jobs, so the advice here is born of experience. It won't be in the job description, or the advertisements, but all recruiters are secretly thinking:

“How will we get along with this person?

"Will they fit in? What will it be like to spend the working week with this person? Will they make a positive contribution to the office atmosphere, as well as the work?"

Here are seven tips for winning the job which are not commonly discussed in the process:


Do your research. When I led a newsroom in New York, I once ended a job interview after six minutes because it was clear the candidate had no clue what the organization was about, what we did, or what the job he’d applied for would demand. Interviewers want to know you have an understanding of their organization and what it does. If you’re applying to a website, a TV station, or whatever it may be, read it daily, print and re-read interesting blogs and stories, watch videos. Call anyone you know who works, or worked, at the organization and ask them for information and advice.

Be able to talk about their product at the interview but KEEP IT POSITIVE. Don’t use phrases such as “I don’t like xxx page” or “there is too much.....”. Everything should be positive:-

“This web page could benefit from more illustrations”.

Come with THREE IDEAS for how to improve things. Make sure you understand where the organization is headed and what they’re trying to achieve.


How you dress speaks volumes about you. My mother always used to say “dressing up will impress, dressing down might offend.” Always dress Business-Smart for a job or internship interview and add a touch of personality – a piece of jewellery or a flower, for instance, for a job which requires creative thought. Smart dress demonstrates you are serious, and have self-respect, ambition, respect for the people you are meeting, and self-awareness.

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They also want to know that you can dress like a good ambassador for the organization outside the office.


FROM THE MOMENT YOU ARRIVE AT THE LOCATION, YOU ARE “ON”. You don’t know who you might meet in reception – someone you know, the “big” boss, or an influential person in the hiring process – you simply don’t know. When you walk through the door, turn your phone off and put it away. Wait patiently, and review your research materials.


There is always that awkward walk between reception and the interview location. Seize the opportunity – don’t fiddle with your phone. Ask small-talk questions about the organization. If someone is escorting you, “how long have you worked here? Where were you before? People are flattered by your interest, and by non-intrusive questions. If you’re being escorted by the person who is conducting the interview, say something flattering about the organization which might prompt a response. Using "curious small-talk" demonstrates you have great social skills and can show you'd be interesting, interested, and dynamic to work with.

Try to remember the FIRST NAMES of people you meet and use them when you say goodbye, or thank you. They're also useful for follow-up later.Asking good questions is CRITICAL. It demonstrates real interest and genuine curiosity. Use a firm hand shake with everyone you meet, and maintain good eye contact throughout the conversation. Show your sense of humor and sincerity, as well as your determination to work there. Ask positive questions and make positive, knowledgeable observations about the organization and its product. Be able to speak about your ambitions for your own future with confidence and conviction. Always save some questions for the end of the interview.


“What’s the pay?” - you can deal with that later

“How long will I have to stay here every day?" - sounds like you'll be clock-watching

"How long do we get for lunch? - sounds like you're more interested in your social life than the work

"I don’t really know what I want to be" - you are vague and indecisive with no clear goals

"I’d like to be in charge of this place" - you are deluded, or selfish, or over-ambitious

"I want to earn a million dollars quickly" - you are driven only by money (but perhaps if it's a job on Wall Street, it's o.k.)

"I want to change the world in three months" - if you want to, you have to do it gradually

Don't fold your arms or look defensive, fidget, or interrupt ANYONE


"Where do you see the organization in two to five years"?

"What are your priorities for growing the business"?

"The staff I’ve spoken with are very positive about the atmosphere here."

"I’d like to move into Video Production management"

"I’d like to learn more about sound editing"

"I want to work in a positive, collaborative environment where I can support my colleagues"


Thank everyone by name, ask about next steps in the process (they're probably seeing more candidates). Tell them you've enjoyed meeting with them.


A nice card, or a hand-written note on nice paper, has a lasting effect these days, because so few people take the time to write them. Remember, a nice card from you is likely to be put on display on someone’s desk and serve as a reminder of you and your job application. Second-best is an email. Whichever you choose, the notes should be sent individually and addressed to the people who gave their time to you BY NAME. It should also briefly restate why you want to work there and what you can contribute.

If you liked this advice, check out our group, online or personalized training courses.

Mark McDonald

Birkdale Media




Five ways to get your foot in the newsroom door

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How do you show you'd make a great journalist when you're still at school? There are ways to demonstrate you have the right stuff.

You've been studying hard for exams. You don't have a large portfolio of cuttings, videos, or news photos. But you can still convince media employers to hire you for your first job or internship, and here's how:

American University student Ford Fischer with "News2Share"

American University student Ford Fischer with "News2Share"


Whatever media you choose - TV, digital, print or radio, (or all four!) you need to show you're a great writer. Writing is at the base of all good journalism. You should be curious about people, organizations, places, and how things work - or don't.  You are personable, comfortable with yourself, determined, an independent thinker, and you like to tell stories. You are not shy with strangers, and you are committed to truth.


Its easy to write about yourself and your friends, but that's not what media employers are looking for. Join the college paper, start a blog, find local stories which peak your interest and talk to the people behind them. Buy a digital stills or video camera and think about the different ways you can present your story in print, on video, a podcast, and on social media.    Poynter. A successful internship is the key to future employment in media, whether you impress them so much they want you back, or simply to gain priceless on-the-job experience you can take elsewhere. Check out Poynter's job site. 

News2Share is one of several student-run organizations which accepts credible and well-produced video and other reports from journalists and aspiring journalists anywhere in the world.


I still have my old weather-beaten contacts book, and I still use it. Buy one - it might seem a bit empty at first, but write down the names, phone numbers, email addresses and social media handles of every new person you talk with. You never know when they might be helpful to you on future stories. Reach out via social media to potential story sources and contacts, and be honest with them about your goals.

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When I was at college, I wrote a letter introducing myself to a reporter I had heard on the air at a station I admired. The station was Radio City in Liverpool, UK. The young reporter was Carolyn Brown, who has subsequently enjoyed a long career with the BBC. I asked her if she would meet with me to discuss journalism careers, and she was kind enough to agree. She also did me another huge favor, introducing me to other reporters and anchors at the station, who all had useful advice. I had nothing to lose, but thanks to Carolyn's kindness I gained a foot in the door there and, eventually, a job. Sure, some people will tell you they're too busy, or ignore your requests. But many journalists I know are thrilled to help talented young journalists get onto the career ladder, and to help them acquire new skills.

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We all know these days resume submissions for jobs and internships can get mangled in company algorithm systems or put in trash cans. Sure, keep on applying the traditional way, but don't just send your credentials into outer space. Face to face contact is a much more effective way to impress. So reach out, get to know people in the business, take a chance, then push that foot in the door. Media managers admire chutzpah - after all, its another of those skills they seek in new journalists. And thirty years on - thank you, Carolyn, for helping me fulfill my dream.