It was a cold October night in Boston, and it appeared the Red Sox were once again about to fall victim of the Curse of the Bambino. The Yankees held a commanding 3-0 lead in the American League Championship Series, and were up 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Just three outs away.
Most of you know what happened next (hint: the greatest comeback in playoff history). But at that time, no one knew what was about to transpire — especially legendary sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy. In fact, there’s an urban legend that he already had his story written before Yankees closer Mariano Rivera even took the mound. All Shaughnessy had to do was plug in a few quotes.
As it turned out, he had to scrap his pre-written eulogy for the 2004 Red Sox and start again. Now, in all fairness, this may not be true. But seeing as Shaughnessy has made a livelihood documenting — and, some might argue, obsessing over — the curse, it’s not difficult to believe he had already spun out a piece propagating its latest occurrence.
And let’s face it, if he did get a head start on an article that pretty much wrote itself (another failure, who needs to be fired, whose fault is it), I’m willing to bet he wasn’t the only one. Having spent more than a decade as a sportswriter, I know how difficult it is to meet deadlines when you’re covering a night game. Not only do you need to interview the key players and coaches (who are usually in no hurry to accommodate the media, particularly after a loss), but you must tell the story in an interesting, accurate, and cohesive way and double-check your statistics, all while fielding questions as to when you’ll be finished.
So many times, I’ve seen journalists frame questions in a way that ensures the answers fit into a pre-determined context. What they’re doing is extracting quotes; not asking questions. I’ve been guilty of this myself, because it’s a very easy, very tempting trap to fall into.
Fortunately, I’ve had some excellent mentors, one of whom was Steve Stallone, a football beat writer at the Standard-Speaker in Hazleton, Pa. While I was interning with the publication, I shadowed Steve at a few games, and took note of his interview style. Rather than approaching coaches with leading questions (as did one writer, who asked, “did you choose to go for it on fourth-and-inches because…”), Steve asked short, simple questions, and let the coach to the talking.
He listened, asked follow-up questions, and then began constructing the piece. As a result, his articles were not just interesting, but insightful. You weren’t just getting the story of the game, but the moments that defined it.
It’s a simple concept, but one that often gets lost, particularly in the instant gratification-driven world we live in. But it’s one that I highly recommend, whether you’re interviewing a job candidate, meeting to discuss a project, or sitting down with the board. Listen first, then start to frame your questions. Be willing to think on the fly.
Because if you don’t, you could miss out on really good story. And that’s a curse I wouldn’t wish on anyone.