The Magic Boost, a summer-long experience for 16 aspiring track & field storytellers representing all platforms of new media, is underway.
Over the course of eight sessions, the Magic Boost Class of `21 will be exposed to the wisdom and experience of numerous in-the-field experts to refine their skillset as the next generation of track and field storytelling.
For our third session of the summer, the group got to hear from Ali Feller (Ali On The Run), Lewis Johnson (NBC Sports) and Chris Bennett (Nike Running Global Head Coach) on their best interview practices and how they go about telling stories in short and long-form conversations to the masses.
Dominique Smith is a sports journalist from central Florida whose goal is to impact lives through the art of track & field storytelling. Matt Wisner is the editor of New Generation Track and Field Magazine and has one more season of cross-country eligibility at the University of Oregon. They shared the following takeaways and lessons from the session…
To be a good interviewer, you have to be a good listener.
Whether you’re a podcaster, a news reporter or a broadcast journalist, it’s important to listen carefully to the subject you’re interviewing and allow them to define the direction of your conversation. Be flexible. Ask follow-up questions if you hear something compelling. Dispensing questions—reading pre-written questions from a list, one by one—may squash the potential of discovering something fresh about the subject.
A good interview is conversational. “Shitty conversations are usually one person talking and the other person just waiting their turn to talk,” Chris Bennett says. “A great conversation is someone listening and someone else talking, and then when it’s time for you to talk, the other person’s listening. There’s engagement. It’s back and forth.”
Lewis Johnson emphasizes the importance of flexibility and warns journalists to never be rigidly committed to their questions. He points to his interview with Sha’Carri Richardson after she won the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials on June 19. In the moment, Richardson mentioned that her biological mother had just died and because Johnson was listening to her closely, he abandoned the rest of his prepared questions, offered his condolences and then asked the appropriate follow-up questions.
Understand the audience.
The kind of questions you ask depends on the medium through which you’re telling a story. The Ali On The Run podcast audience would probably be unsatisfied if she only asked the questions that Johnson asks athletes after their races. Conversely, Johnson doesn’t often have the luxury of asking an Ali On The Run-type question because he’s only granted time to ask one or two. Different mediums require different approaches to an interview.
Bennett says that the audience should be respected. Certainly, there’s a requirement of understanding some niche information to follow track and field at a high level, but beneath the technicality is something fundamentally human: struggle, the desire to overcome difficulty, and a longing to be great. Even if they aren’t athletes themselves, the audience understands those experiences, and we should tell their stories with that understanding.
Bennett also reminds us that the audience is more similar to the extraordinary athletes than they are different, and that’s part of what can make a story engaging.
“We have people that literally jump over a bar eight feet in the air,” he says. “And they still wake up in the middle of the night to take a leak and stub their toe.”
Ask the right questions.
Our stories are shaped by the information we receive from the subject and the subject offers information based on our questions. Our questions define the shape of the story. Track and field can be repetitive and only through sharp detail can we eliminate the potential for cliche.
Feller says, “If there’s a big story, ask about it, but also think about what nobody is asking them.”
Her rule of thumb is to chase her own curiosity. She asks, “What am I dying to know?”
Bennett says to include the details that everybody will be blown away by. He points to a seldom-told story about Joan Benoit Samuelson’s 20 seconds in the dark tunnel at the end of her Olympic marathon victory as an example of a heavy-hitter.
Bring enthusiasm to your storytelling.
Be excited about your subject and the stories you share. Your interest or disinterest will show in the finished product. If you’re not fully invested in the interview or in the person whose story you’re sharing, you risk cheating the subject and yourself
Bennett mentioned that when you’re interviewing someone, you’re giving them attention. It’s important to make sure that you’re making proper eye contact and being respectful of the time that you’re given. Also, never be afraid to ask for clarification. Ali gave a fantastic example of this when she told us about how she asked one of her guests who was a triple jumper to explain the nuances of the event. This allowed the audience to learn from the perspective of an expert, which allowed everyone—, including Feller— to learn about what makes the event unique, together. Feller’s final advice: follow your curiosity because your audience is probably curious too.
There will always be haters and you don’t have to listen to them.
Johnson reminded us that not every opinion should be taken seriously. He said that opinions that lift you up should be taken to heart and opinions that tear you down can be disregarded. Constructive criticism is necessary for growth, but attacks that mask themselves as criticism aren’t productive.
Johnson mentioned that he was thankful that in his early days that someone he respected was kind enough to offer him meaningful criticism. It was honest and direct, and it helped him out a great deal.
Lewis ultimately broadens this advice to be applied to how we choose stories. He says: “For every negative story, there are 100 great stories that never get told.”