John Sawatsky is highly questionable

For eight years, John Sawatsky has made ESPN his laboratory for deciphering the science of interviewing. A former investigative reporter, he has worked with the network's reporters, producers, anchors and other talent to put his philosophy into practice and make it part of ESPN's culture.

"There are no rules in the interview," he said during a recent visit to his office at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. "But there is a set of principles, and they are universal and they are timeless. If you follow them, you get good results. If you violate them, you pay a price."

Sports is a natural arena for interviews: The best athletes are simultaneously amazing physical specimens and canny strategists, a fascinating combination even without our apparently limitless appetite for sports news and information. Yet athletes can be tough interview subjects, often well-schooled in keeping the media at bay with carefully rehearsed blandness.

A good interviewer must penetrate the fog of sports clichés, getting athletes and coaches to reflect on what they do and how they do it, and be able to hold his or her ground when a story demands more than sports knowledge.

ESPN has long prided itself for its reporting and game coverage. Its history is filled with memorable interview moments, for better (Jeremy Schaap and Bobby Fischer, Brian Kenny and Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and sometimes for worse (Jim Rome and Jim Everett, or Schaap having to fend off an angry Bob Knight). Any week of ESPN programming will include extended interviews as well as hasty exchanges with players rushing on or off the field.

Sawatsky's job is to ensure ESPN's reporters, producers, editors and talent get the most out of interviews, whether extended sit-downs or hurried stand-ups. Sawatsky has several core principles for effective interviewing, a methodology he divides into "micro" techniques, aimed at asking better questions, and "macro" techniques, aimed at getting better stories.

On the micro level, Sawatsky preaches that questions should be open, neutral and lean. Open questions typically ask what, how or why, and yield more than closed questions, which invite yes or no answers. Neutral questions are free of values added by the reporter; Sawatsky sees such values, whether positive or negative, as distracting baggage. And questions should be lean: brief in length, and conceptually simple. (For more about Sawatsky and his techniques, see profiles here and here.)

Combine closed questions and the baggage of values and you get questions that may sound tough, but are easily evaded, returning no information for readers or viewers. (The late Mike Wallace was a favorite target of Sawatsky's on this front.) And even friendly interviews can fail, Sawatsky warns, because reporters treat them as common discourse instead of hunts for information.

"The interview is not a conversation," Sawatsky says, adding that the goal "is to get, not to give. What's the goal of conversation? It's to exchange -- it's as much about giving as it is about getting. I tell people, 'When you're giving, you should be giving to our audience.' "

Sawatsky won renown as one of Canada's best investigative reporters, which led to teaching journalism at Carleton University. In the late 1980s, he enlisted students to help research a biography of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, using standardized questions he had developed. The results opened Sawatsky's eyes: Some questions worked and some didn't, regardless of who was asking them.

The experience taught Sawatsky to see interviewing as a science, one with principles that could be discovered through experimentation and with techniques that could be taught. He soon developed a new career, becoming the interview coach at CBC and conducting workshops across the world in which he would teach his methodology. (The Poynter Institute has been an occasional host for such workshops.)

But Sawatsky was frustrated: He wanted "to change the culture of the journalism interview," but couldn't do that parachuting into organizations for brief visits. That led him to ESPN, which hired him full-time in 2004. With ESPN, Sawatsky thought, he would have senior management on his side. And by sticking around, he would able to reinforce his lessons over time.

At ESPN, Sawatsky found challenges and opportunities, especially when teaching his methods to numerous former athletes now acting as analysts. Most, he found, thought like athletes, not journalists. As interviewers, Sawatsky says, ex-jocks are inclined "to go soft and not to challenge things, particularly if they're very recent athletes. They still have friends in the game." Moreover, he says, "they think about promoting the sport. I have to keep telling them, 'What's the mission statement of ESPN? To serve sports fans.' "

At the same time, there are upsides to teaching former players -- knowledge of their sports, the confidence natural to gifted athletes, and the fact that they are more coachable. "These guys have been coached all their lives," Sawatsky said. "If they weren't coachable, they wouldn't have gotten to where they are athletically."

Sawatsky still remembers seeing raw footage of former Dallas Cowboys wideout and ESPN analyst Michael Irvin conducting an interview. Before asking each question, Irvin would talk to himself, repeating "open, neutral, lean."

"Michael did some really good interviews," Sawatsky says, sounding both amused and appreciative.

Sawatsky taught his principles to all of ESPN's anchors, producers and talent, and now holds workshops periodically, addressing new hires and those who want or need to improve their interviewing skills. A key teaching tool is reviewing tapes of interviews. Sawatsky asks the interviewer to tell him the goal of the interview, after which they go through the tape. Sawatsky writes down the questions, allowing the interviewer to assess their effectiveness.

"I let the results do the talking," Sawatsky says. Asked how the culture of interviewing has changed at ESPN, Sawatsky says that while there's still work to be done, "the mantra has changed" in terms of how to ask questions -- the "micro" part of his teachings.

"People are really conscious on the micro -- they don't always follow it, but they're aware of it, and it's become a guiding mantra for them," he says. " 'Open, neutral, lean' -- all the reporters in the company know that, and most of them I think sincerely try to follow it. "

The easiest place to see his teachings in action, Sawatsky says, is during sideline interviews. He's written a manual for ESPN that offers techniques for such encounters. He advises ESPN's sideline reporters to stick to a single topic, narrow that focus to a single aspect of the game at hand, and make the question about something extremely tangible. (Sawatsky praises Holly Rowe as a particularly good sideline reporter.)

Sawatsky says he hasn't been as successful at teaching "macro" lessons -- how to structure interviews as more than just a series of individual questions.

To address that, he has begun teaching a new workshop at ESPN, one he calls "story magic." In it, he examines what structural elements make stories work, using commercials as a teaching tool. Commercials, he says, can tell wonderful stories while having to ruthlessly economize on time. Why, for instance, was Mean Joe Greene's Coke ad magical, while Joe Namath's famous pantyhose ad wasn't?

Whether the principles are micro or macro, Sawatsky's laboratory is still conducting experiments.

"The methodology isn't finished, and it will never be finished," Sawatsky says. "The basic principles -- the micro and macro principles -- are pretty much in place. But I'm looking for new ways to illustrate them. And of course I'm still learning about stuff, too."

The Poynter Review Project will critique some ESPN interviews along with Sawatsky, and will write about them in upcoming posts.