“Ask Questions Where You Get Short Answers. We Don’t Get Paid to Listen.”

By Jack Limpert

The editor is talking to a young reporter who does good work but isn’t posting enough stories: “You’re taking too long. Get what you need faster. You’re getting paid to keep things moving. Ask more focused questions—try to get yes and no answers.”

Actually, it’s not something heard in a newsroom. I changed the setting—the exchange was between two physicians at a Washington hospital. As it was told to me by one of them, the young doctor was under pressure to see more patients at the hospital’s out-patient clinic and she was being advised on how to ask questions to elicit short answers and not let the patient ramble on about how he or she is feeling.

“We don’t get paid to listen,” the older physician reminded the young doctor.

Is it also happening in journalism?

At the magazine where I worked, we lived for the great story. We figured that readers would renew their subscriptions at $29.95 a year if, along with the usual stuff, they read three or four pieces a year that made them say wow, that let them enter the lives of others, that put them into what is happening out in the world, that let them think about what they would do if I they were in that situation, that made them smile or  brought tears to their eyes.

In editorspeak, these were triumph of the human spirit stories—the kind of narratives that a reader might talk about five years after the story was published. Lots of times I’d be talking with a reader and he or she would say, “I still remember that story about….”

How does a writer get memorable stories? John Pekkanen wrote many of them. He specialized in narratives, often with life and death challenges, and he won two National Magazine Awards. His most recent cover story was about a house fire—here’s how we described it: “The fire broke out without warning, deadly smoke filled the house, and three sleeping kids were trapped upstairs. Here’s the extraordinary story of their rescue.”

How do you do those stories?

One of his National Magazine Award winners was “The Saving of the President,” a 1981 story of what happened to President Ronald Reagan after he was shot in an assassination attempt and taken to George Washington University Hospital. Pekkanen says he interviewed about 50 people for the story, often asking, “What did you see? What did you think? What did you feel?”

He says his reporting approach often was to interview the key players a second time, sometimes a third time—”trying to open doors to their memory.” He was looking for details—”the story tells itself in the details.”

He adds, “I often elicited details from one interview that I then used when I went back to re-interview people. I hoped a new fact might trigger additional memories. Sometimes when I interviewed someone for a second or third time, I’d ask some of the same questions as in the first interview and often learned new details.”

And finally: “Don’t be afraid of long silences.”

What Pekkanen is talking about is listening.

If doctors can’t afford to take the time to listen, how are they going to figure out what’s wrong with the patient?

If journalists can’t afford to take the time to listen, how are they going to do great stories?

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