Walking up to Strangers and Asking Them Questions

Two weeks ago, I was sitting at the desk in my tiny dorm room, staring at my cell phone as it rang. I was surrounded by several recording devices (because you can never be too careful) and the feeling that my heart was going to beat through my chest. I was waiting for Nate Ruess — singer, songwriter, and lead singer of the band fun. — to pick up the phone.

I had never done a Q & A with a musician before — let alone one who has won Grammys and collaborated with artists such as Brian Wilson. Since this was my biggest interview to date, it was the most nervous I had ever been, even though it was just over the phone. Fortunately, the interview went really well— meaning that I didn’t completely embarrass myself — and now I have a really cool memory of interviewing a celebrity. I know that if it weren’t for my job as a reporter for The Daily Illini, I would have never been able to interview such a prominent person.

In my journalism classes, I’ve often been told that being a journalist gives me the right to walk up to strangers and ask them questions. Throughout the three years that I’ve been reporting  —  and the nine-ish months that I’ve had some sort of clue about what I’m doing  —  I’ve been able to talk to people from a mix of backgrounds and professions.

Ever since I’ve grown more interested in writing about science and technology, I’ve interviewed a lot of brilliant professors, engineers, researchers, and innovators who give me time out of their day to tell me about what they’re doing and what they’re thinking. To get a glimpse of what’s going through their minds is not only extremely interesting, but inspiring as well. Most of the time, these are people who have worked their whole lives towards one goal. Though they have stacks of awards on their office desks, they’re talking about the next thing that they’re working on, the next step of their research, the next goal that they want to reach.

When I interview people from startups or students, it’s a different kind of vibe completely. They have a lot of potential, but they’re just starting out their careers  —  they have no idea what their future holds. Yet they’re usually pretty excited about it. After all, I could be hearing about them twenty years from now when they’re the CEO of a company or making ground-breaking discoveries in their research.

Whether I’m interviewing a professor, a student, or a musician, I can always find a way to relate. Usually, I get inspired by the things people say just off the top of their heads.

When Andrew Kerr, a University of Illinois engineering alumni who I interviewed before he graduated, told me that “experiences are only as valuable as the people who you do them with,” I thought about how that applied to my own life and my college experience so far.

When Nate Ruess told me that one of the things he’d tell his 19-year-old self is to “let the bad moments happen and learn from them,” I immediately identified with that.

Eli Lazar, co-founder of a startup company called SNOOZ, told me the story about the time he was so close to quitting work on his idea that he packed everything up in a box and was driving away, only to be encouraged by a friend. He drove back, unpacked his things, and eventually successfully created his product after much trial and error.

He later went on to describe how he felt he was “in the phase where you get to dream about how big you can become.” You could also describe my life this way.

Even if you think you’re polar opposites from somebody, even if you’re at completely different stages in your life, even if you feel like you can’t find a single thing in common with them — you can learn something powerful if you just talk to them. I’m grateful that my journalism career so far has allowed me to do this. By identifying myself as a reporter, I can (most of the time) walk up to strangers and ask them questions.

Nate Ruess also told me that while he was singing with Brian Wilson, he learned to have gratitude for what he does.

“To see [Brian Wilson] light up as soon as the music starts, that kind of just taught me to appreciate what it is that I’m doing,” he said. “Because I should be so happy to get to make music for a living.”

Likewise, I am grateful for what I‘m getting a chance to do, and I should be so happy that I get to talk to new people every week, write about it, and learn something new.

Learning by Listening: The Art of the Interview

When I was fifteen, I decided that I wanted to explore a career in print journalism. My mom encouraged me to respond to a job advertisement in my local newspaper. The job was to be a stringer at that newspaper, a small weekly publication. With zero experience, I applied for and got the job.

What happened next was an almost three year-long crash course in journalism for which I will forever be grateful. It was scary to me, to think that my articles were going to be published when I had never formally learned how to structure one. And I’ll be the first to admit that my early articles were pretty awful. But what scared me the most was the interviews. I’ve always been a pretty shy person, so the thought of walking up to someone and asking them questions in a formal setting at that time was generally terrifying.

One of the first articles I wrote was a memorial to my kindergarten teacher who had recently passed away. Needless to say, it was an emotional article for me to start out with. I interviewed several people about how my teacher had touched their lives.

I vividly remember interviewing one of her family members over the phone. As the interview progressed, I grew more and more comfortable. Here was one person who had been affected by a much larger story; one more life that had been affected by cancer. At one point, I could tell that the person I was interviewing was crying on the other end of the phone. I started to tear up as well, and told them how she was my kindergarten teacher and about all the fond memories I had of her. In that moment, I felt connected to this person.

The point is that if you listen — just listen — you’re going to find the emotional side of the story. You’re going to find how people feel about things. How things have affected them personally. And once you have that, you have a story.

Listening is the easy part, and the part I love most about any interview. You sit back, you don’t talk about yourself at all, you don’t give your input. You make it all about them. Right then, they are the most important person in the world to you, and their story is all that matters. If you listen, if you let the pauses linger, then people will often open up to you and give you the heart of the story.

If you’ve never interviewed someone one-on-one, I encourage you to do so. It’s not very often that we have a conversation with someone that is so one-sided, where your own thoughts and opinions don’t matter. And to me, that’s humbling. In any social setting, I’d always rather sit back and observe rather than put myself in the center of attention. When I’m interviewing people, it’s my job to do just that.

I haven’t perfected the art of the interview by any means. I still cringe when I go back to my recordings and listen to how I worded questions or stumbled over my sentences. But with each interview, I learn something new. When someone rambles on about something that doesn’t relate to my article, I learn patience. When someone gives me insufficient responses, I learn how to craft follow-up questions on the spot. When someone skirts around my question, I learn to be assertive.

I’ve met so many incredible people and learned so many interesting things that I would have never known if it weren’t for my reporting assignments. And no matter how many mistakes I make, I know I want to pursue a career in journalism because it allows me to learn every day, whether I realize it or not.

In the words of Henry Luce: “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”

With every interview, I’m getting closer.

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