The Q&A style interview is a much maligned and misunderstood form, yet it can be an editorial brightener, whether in long or short form. One increasingly popular format is the quick-hit ‘Twenty Questions,’ or ‘Five Minutes With…’ Because of their brevity, these appear easy to do. You just call or put a recorder in front of the subject, throw out a few questions, transcribe and print the results, right?
Wrong. A good Q&A will likely require as much work in the research and the writing as a narrative piece based upon interviews. It may even be more grueling to do—and more thankless in the end because so little of the work is evident to the reader.
When the Q&A Doesn’t Work
Yes, there are times when the Q&A doesn’t work. If a subject proves boring and colorless in responding to questions, that drabness is heightened by the Q&A approach. Likewise, someone who gives terse replies will seem abrupt in a Q&A; and when replies are shorter than the questions, it looks as though the interview has not claimed the full attention of the subject.
When this happens, cancel the Q&A format, toss out all of the Qs and polish your best As. Then write a brief introduction on the subject’s background, noting that ‘We talked with the chairman in her office recently, and she provided us with the following insights and information:’.
Then set up each quote with a subhead that categorizes the nature of the observation:
ON WIDGETS: ‘I have always had a fondness in my heart for widgets. The first time I saw one was in 1968, when I was just starting out…’
When the Q&A Works
Don’t give up on the Q&A format, however. There are many times when it is the perfect tool to handle an editorial situation:
• To clarify a topic that is confusing or controversial. It is particularly effective when there are strong camps of thought on the issue. Sit down with the chairman of the board, or the company expert, and air the topic out. Under these circumstances, the Q&A is a clear window the reader can look through—without wondering too much what was involved in the questioning or editing process.
• If you have a subject who is live ammo in front of a microphone. Certain interviewees can take a question and run with it. They say things colorfully; know how to regale an audience with anecdotes, witty observations, and candor. This ideal subject is highly knowledgeable, but also understands and relates to your audience. Often the subject appears to be having a good time on the job and in life at large, and can really shine in the The Q&A format.
• To draw together a variety of opinions on a multi-dimensional topic. In creating the questions, the writer can second-guess the questions a typical reader would have. The Q&A poses those questions for the readers, and then provides answers. Time now invites questions from readers and asks them of prominent newsmakers.
• As a sidebar to a longer piece on a complex topic. If your main article is on widgets as money-saving devices today, you can talk to the inventor of the widget and ask him a few questions about that first one and how it came to be. Formatted as a Q&A, it would make a bright sidebar feature, offering some background information and color for readers, and a nice visual breakup on a page of gray type, too.
If you have doubts about the how effective your subject might be, prepare your discussion topics and give him a copy in advance. (Don’t phrase them as questions, however; just as items you want to discuss.)
Often maligned, often abused, the Q&A remains a valuable tool for interviewers and for editors. It should not be tossed aside without serious examination. For handling some editorial Q’s, it may be the perfect A.
John Brady is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy in New York, Fort Lauderdale and Newburyport, that specializes in redesigns, and conducts workshops for professionals. For information on his consulting services, and to order his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his Web site is www.johnbrady.info.