As our new film ‘Carousel’ premieres across the county, I had to prepare to dive into a new experience in my role as Heritage Intern: chairing a couple of Q&A sessions at some of the early screenings of ‘Carousel’, where we get the chance to chat to people involved with the making of the film. This is a job normally adeptly performed by Marsha our Oral Historian or Julia the Project Manager, who have both prepared me for my turn on the mic. Because of this exciting and slightly frightening new challenge; I thought now was the perfect time to reflect on the art of asking questions.
Did you ever think of the act of question asking as a skill? Actually, I never did until my time with Catcher Media. How can something so basic be so fraught with possibilities - both good and bad? Over the last several months, I have learned that a good question can open up wells of emotion, anecdotes, unwritten histories and genuine human connection - whereas a bad one could create an awkward or even antagonistic atmosphere, shutting down conversation and distancing you from your interviewee.
A lot of what I have learned has come via osmosis, from watching Marsha and Julia conduct oral history interviews, but a lot of it has also come from direct experience and some very good advice. So, what are the key lessons I have learned so far?…
You should always have some idea of who it is you are talking to, and what it is they want to talk about. Going in completely unprepared might seem like a good way to keep it ‘fresh’, but you don’t want to insult the person you are talking to by asking completely inappropriate questions. Knowing a few, sage details about the person you are talking to will help you quickly land on a topic you both want to discuss.
Conversely - don’t overcomplicate things. As much as it is good to be prepared, having a lever-arch file of information on your interviewee or panel-guest won’t really help you engage with them as a human being. In fact, as Marsha told me, knowing too much can stunt your genuine curiosity - and nothing works better for question-asking fuel as genuine curiosity.
Keep things light and positive - you’re not on Newsnight. Luckily, this project is a very positive experience. The aim is to collect an oral history from people with a connection to Herefordshire and/or the work of local photographer Derek Evans, and our project aims to be as humane and socially aware as Derek’s repertoire. From his photographs, it is clear to see he had a way with people: he had a knack for putting them at ease. However, putting others at ease usually means being at ease yourself first. People do say, though, that if you smile you start to feel happier and that smiling is contagious. Try to be the positive atmosphere you want to feel in the room.
It might seem obvious, or you might feel silly for asking, but often the most basic question yields the richest results. It’s OK not to know everything (that is what you are asking questions!) and even if you think you might know the answer - getting someone who really knows to speak from their experience is exactly what this project is all about.
Don’t try to channel someone else - that dashing TV host you’ve watched over and over again or even a colleague you admire. If you are softly spoken - be softly spoken, if you are goofy - be goofy! Other people can sense your effort to be ‘other’ from a mile away, and showing them you are comfortable in your own skin will hopefully help them feel the same way.
Ok, so this one sounds like a given, but it is amazing how difficult truly listening can be, especially when there is a lot going on or you are nervous. It is very easy to start thinking about what’s coming next, or to become distracted by something else going on in the room and not actually take in what your interviewee has been telling you. Of course, that is the last thing you want to do when someone has given up their valuable time to contribute to your project, and because a real conversation (where the topic moves on organically) is more enjoyable and fruitful for everyone than doggedly following only the questions you prepared ahead of time (which later come across as non-sequiturs). Really listening is about being present in the moment and letting go of thoughts about yourself - how you are doing, if you seem competent or knowledgable enough, if you’ve left your hair straighteners on, etc. - and focussing instead on the words of the other person.
When I really think about it, the art of asking questions is really at the core of the Herefordshire Life Through a Lens project: from the beginning of the process, when we are researching and interviewing; to the end, with our Q&As at screenings all over the county. The Q&As are a really great addition to our screenings and I’d highly recommend you stick around for them if you are coming to any of our upcoming screenings.