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So you’ve found your perfect interviewee, the world authority on something you’d like to learn about. This may be for a magazine or newspaper feature – with its inevitable deadline and requirement for accuracy. Or this conversation may be the last chance you have to ask your grandfather about his childhood. (He’s the world authority on that, after all.)

Whatever its purpose, the journalist’s tool of ‘the interview’ promises to give you all the material you need. But the human ear is fallible. What if you mishear or misinterpret what is being said? What if, in the excitement of the moment, you miss the main point?

The solution could be to record your conversation.

There are advantages. If, as a freelance writer, for example, you are working on several projects at once, having a clear recording plus a note of name spellings etc is invaluable. And, if you don’t keep your projects separate, there is always the clear and present danger of misremembering and mixing up.

Recording an interview can save you from the embarassment of going back to the interviewee with further questions. And, as a journalist, you don’t want to do this. Given this sort of opportunity, interviewees have been known to change their minds not only about what they want to say but also about whether they want to be interviewed at all. You can imagine the wasted time and effort this represents.

So what sort of recording is best? Digital recordings are much more reliable than the old-fashioned tapes used to be. It used to be the case that one technical hitch and you were scuppered. Now you can also find recorders that filter out background noise – useful if you are obliged to interview Grandad on a hospital ward. And, being a belt and braces sort of journalist, I would never rely solely on recordings. I would always take my own notes as well.

Some digital recording systems provide you with e-formatted transcriptions of the conversation. But make sure you read the tin! Some can only transcribe one voice, having been trained to recognise this. Most involve training of some sort, and some also involve discouraging cost. And remember this is at best only the starting point.

The next step – transcribing the recorded conversation – can seem difficult, time-consuming and hard work. I know it is. When I was a cub reporter, as a matter of course, I had to transcribe my own interviews.

However there are several benefits in doing this.

Firstly, when I had to do it regularly, I could hear the sub-text quite clearly in the tone and inflection of the interviewee. This sub-text may not be obvious from a set of notes – hastily scribbled, probably distracted by traffic, rain and other delights. Secondly, over time, you get quicker – developing your own shorthand.

But, the main advantage of having a digital recording – which, as you must inform your interviewee, is part of the deal – plus your own transcription is the freedom and vitality these gain for you.

Some people swear by the email interview. This, they say, gives the interviewee flexibility. The interviewee can answer as many questions (of, say,10) as s/he wants, when s/he wants. ‘Lots of material, without pressure, and with no follow-up calls or emails necessary.’ A further advantage of this, they say, is that you receive the material in e-text.

But, in my view, for this to succeed without losing that all-precious vitality, the interviewee must be:

vWilling

vAble to write concise, accurate copy.

And your questions must be incisive and based on a broad and deep knowledge of the subject.

Email interviews may on the surface seem an easier route. But you could find yourself doing much more research and reading to arrive at the answers you, your editor and your readers need – questionable savings in time and effort.

And could Grandad, in his hospital bed, be bothered to answer an email? Would he not sooner talk to you? And you to him?

Personally, I commend the belt and braces of notebook and digital recorder.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At the request of innovative Stockport Council, Lisa Rossetti and Lizzie Gates have spent the summer and autumn gathering stories – and training future story-gatherers – to illustrate the quality of life provided by personalisation of the social care budget. These stories are to appear on My Care, My Choice.

 

In an ideal world, written English would be equally easily understood by both the man on the street and/or a professor of jurisprudence. But – as well as transmitting information – people use language to include or to exclude potential members of their own sub-group.

To illustrate: from the lowliest clerk to a High Court judge, legalese tags the brother- and sister-hood of the Law. Doctors use medical language to protect patients from too much information. Academics mark out the territory of their expertise through the words they use. And, whenever you start a new job, you have one hundred days to learn the ‘in-phrases’ that will allow you to join the groups you need to join. Once in, you may be able to change these phrases, but, first, you need to add them to your repertoire and deploy them!

People use written English in the same way. Switching styles can be a challenge. You may, for example, be required to write in academic English for a learned journal or you may choose to use conversational English for a weblog. And in professional communication, the trick as ever lies in choosing the right style for the right audience.

Here, focusing on two styles – academic and conversational – are some useful guidelines:

v Essay structure and the chronological parable You may be asked to write a discussion article in the form of a debate. So – in good Ciceronian Style – you state the topic, set out the arguments for and against and draw your conclusion. But the formula for a blog entry is much simpler. Adopting the commonsensical Aristotelian approach, you ‘tell a story’ – usually with a beginning, a middle and an end.

 

v Word choice in academic English

Writing academic English, you’ll probably favour:

  • formal over informal words, choosing Latinate terms (such as ‘select’) over more easily absorbed common terms (such as ‘pick’).  
  • impersonal over a personal tone. Academics adopt  an impersonal subject rather than personal pronouns such as the Narrative ‘I’. It sounds more erudite. But your statements will be more tentative as a result (eg.‘It is considered that . . .’ as opposed to ‘I think . . . ‘)
  • the use of the passive over the active voice. This is another device for distancing the writer and/or the reader from the activity – such as ‘Housing was demolished by bombs’ instead of ‘Bombs destroyed the houses.’
  • the use of technical terms. These assume a level of knowledge, making members of the audience/readership ‘insiders’.

 

To achieve a conversational tone, you would do well to adopt the alternatives:

  • informal words
  • personal pronouns
  • active voice

And avoid technical terms at all costs!

 

v Sentence Structure

Academic English favours complex Latinate structures, – including subordinate clauses and phrase. This ensures  optimal amounts of information are included in a sentence. As a result, an academic sentence may run to over 25 words.  High quality journalism deploys sentences of up to about 18 words and advertising favours sentences of about 14 words long. But dialogue, naturally, may use 1-word structures. And the conversational English used in blogs represents the sentence patterns and structures of speech.

 

v References vs. anecdote

Academic writing – in putting forward arguments to support a thesis – cites references as evidence. Conversational English adds ‘flavour’ by offering stories and anecdotes to support the point being made. Journalism comes anywhere in between depending on the audience.

As demonstrated here, switching styles is a form of translation. And practice makes perfect. Look at your own work and familiarise yourself with the patterns of each style you need. You’ll then be able to highlight the words and phrases where your chosen style falters.


Once upon a time, in Ancient Phrygia there was a king. His name was Midas and even today few people have not heard of him. Now Midas’s joy in life rested on the amassing of wealth – in particular, the collection of gold. And this was – almost – his un-doing.

One day, when he was pruning the beautiful roses in his world-renowned garden, he was thinking about his money – and how to make more. Brooding over this, he was totally unaware of the sixty lovely blooms that each rose bush offered but, all at once, he caught sight of an old man asleep under a tree. The old man’s name was Silenus and he had come from the court of the god of wine and ritual madness, Dionysus.

‘Could there be a profit in this?’ Midas wondered and instantly thought of a cunning plan.

For the next ten days, he treated Silenus like a king. Then he took him back to Dionysus, knowing how grateful Dionysus would be for the care lavished on his old servant.

‘Midas, I will grant you any wish!’ said the god – who had his own cunning plan.

‘Lord, may anything I touch be turned to gold?’ came Midas’s immediate reply.

‘Such greed could be dangerous,’ warned Dionysus, but, true to his word, he granted the wish.

With delight, Midas touched a tree and it turned to gold. With growing excitement, he touched the walls of his palace and they turned to gold. But then, he touched his horse, then his servant, then his food and finally his much-loved daughter. And all turned to cold, hard, gold.

Midas began to starve. His cold bed was hard and he could not sleep. But most of all, he missed his daughter. He missed her love and he missed her chatter and he missed the way she put her arms around him and hugged him. At last – in extreme suffering and running mad with loneliness – Midas went back to Dionysus.

‘Please, lord, un-grant my wish!’ he pleaded.

Dionysus laughed but decided to take pity on the wretch before him.

‘Go and bathe in the river Pactolus,’ he advised.

King Midas went to the river. But he had now learned caution. ‘What if – when I get into the water, it turns to gold. – it kills me?’ he thought

So, he devised another cunning plan.

First of all, he filled a small jug and washed one small part of himself that he could do without – the tiniest patch on the very tip of his beard. At once, the gold washed away into the River Pactolus – which even to this day is renowned for its golden sands.

But, when King Midas saw this, he was so relieved. And then he carried jug after jug of river water back to his palace. He washed his daughter, his servants, his horse and the whole palace. He did not stop work until everything and everyone was back to normal. And everyone could live happily ever after.

The god, Dionysus, smiled.

Making a story relevant for a group of potential leaders

Here are some questions for discussion in pairs/triads and whole groups (in the same or from different organisations)

Empowerment of the individual

  1. What is the moral of the story?
  2. Can you relate the moral of the story to your own life?
  3. What is your ‘gold’? Can you see the danger and can you see the attraction of it?
  4. Can you think of an incident in your own life illustrating the moral of the Midas Story?
  5. Would you like to change the ending of the Midas story or your own story? Re-write.

The Leadership Skill of Empathy building  

  1. Can you imagine situations from another person’s point of view? An example of this is a poem by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy entitled Mrs Midas
  2. Whose viewpoint is most important in the story of Midas?
  3. Could you tell the story from another character’s point of view?
  4. Rewrite either ‘Midas’ or your own story from someone else’s point of view.
  5. How do you feel when you think about someone else’s point of view?
  6. How could this skill of imagining how others think and feel be useful for you in your work?

 

 Lizzie Gates, Lonely Furrow Company, 2012

When bees want to tell other bees where they will find a new source of nectar, they do a little dance in front of the hive. Enlightened by this, the other bees then fly off in the direction they’ve been ‘told’ will be useful. And not a word is spoken – or buzzed.This is body language par excellence.But, even as mere humans, we have used body language all our lives to communicate what words alone cannot. We are programmed to use it well, and communication with our parents sets us on the road to achieving that expertise. So how does it work?

In our daily interactions, we are constantly monitoring body language signals – ‘tells’ – while listening to what others are saying. As a result, communication depends on body language more than words. Someone has actually measured this. The percentage is believed to be between 80% and 90%. And, they say, body language does not lie.
But it can be actively manipulated.
In discussions about truth, lies and fiction with my writing and communication clients, I often break the ice by asking the group to play a story-telling game. When the group has divided into pairs, each member of the pair tells the other one element of truth and one element of fiction – without identifying which. Their partner listens attentively, decides which is the true and which is the false of the two pieces of information and introduces his/her partner to the group using this. If they get it wrong, their partner is allowed to correct them and we discuss why. The ice is well and truly broken by then. In this game, the decision about truth (non-fiction) and lies (fiction) is largely based on intuition fed by an unconscious understanding of body language. And upon the ability of the story-teller to manipulate their own body language – otherwise known as Acting.

But body Language is not a trick. It is a fundamental of human communication. As a result, for a variety of business and professional purposes, conscious awareness of body language is a useful tool – for occupations such as law enforcement, recruitment and sales. And this consciousness can be raised by training.
However, sometimes when we are communicating with others, we need to be aware how the body language we have learned and used since birth can work against us. In greeting rituals, for example, usually, we use body language to build relationships. But whereas westerners may appreciate direct eye-to-eye contact and a firm handshake from both men and women, sensitivities may be offended by this in other cultures. Similarly, South Americans like to be physically close to the person they are in conversation with – even in formal situations. And Americans and Brits may prefer a desk between them.
This is why, whatever the situation, the implicit messages of body language merit attention.

I KEEP six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
 And How and Where and Who.

These are journalist’s questions, taken from journalist Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. As a modern journalist, I would usually add a seventh. ‘How much?’ is a question on everyone’s lips, these days.

But it’s worth contrasting these ‘closed’ questions – which elicit information – with a coach’s questions. The open questions used by coaches, followed by a safe silence, allow the coachee to open up their own thinking about a subject.

As a journalist and a coach, I use both kinds of questions in journalism but, when coaching, I use only open questions.  In fact it was a matter of some pride for me when, training as a coach, I managed an hour’s coaching session without a single ‘closed’ question.  It was liberating for the client. And also in that instance, for me.

But coaches who wish to try their hands at freelance journalism – and there are many – should be wary of using the open question too liberally. Too many open questions will keep you in the interviewee’s hair for far too long – to your mutual irritation. Remember the purpose of interviewing is to elicit information. Closed questions achieve this. When acting as a journalist, it is not in your remit to help the interviewee envisage their future!

For those who – possibly reluctantly – have to write or speak as part of their work, in Autumn and Winter 2011, Lonely Furrow Company will offer a rolling Continuing Professional Development programme. These will concentrate on special skills required in communication at work – such as story-telling techniques, interview skills, written communication styles and many more.

Lonely Furrow Company Events 

Current Listings:

(All events will take place at The Conservatory, 28 Park West, Heswall, Wirral CH60 9JF unless otherwise stated.)

October 26th 2011 (1pm – 3.30pm) Written Communication Styles  A CPD/Media Coaching workshop (£25)

November 23rd 2011 (1pm – 3.30pm) Body Language – showing not telling  A CPD/Media Coaching workshop (£25)

November 30th 2011 (1pm – 3.30pm) Organisational Story-telling Techniques A CPD workshop (£25)

December 7th 2011 (1pm – 3.30pm) Written Business Commmunications – emails, letters, press releases, articles. A CPD/Media Coaching Workshop (£25)

January 18th 2012 (1pm-3.30pm) Interview Skills A CPD/media coaching workshop. (£25)

Just contact me if you have further questions.