Thursday, January 17, 2013

Six Good Questions: Meta Edition

We're launching a new interview feature today. We're calling it Six Good Questions, and we'll posing them to   leaders and badasses we're dying to talk to- whose values we share, whose work we admire and want to know more about- to share with our readers.

To start things off, we're featuring an interview about the art of the interview.

Dada playing music in San Francisco, credit Wilfred Galila
Dada Nabhaniilananda is a yogic monk and musician. A yoga and meditation teacher, author, comedy writer, and all-around awesome guy, he's currently escaped to Puerto Rico to focus on his first science fiction novel, which features dragons and spirituality. He spent six months conducting interviews with 34 progressive leaders in spirituality, economy, and ecology. 

1. What's your goal within your work doing interviews?

Well, this is the first time I've been interviewed about interviewing people! My online interview series, Imaginal World - Creating a World Inspired by Love, is really an excuse for me to talk to people whose values I share, whom I find personally inspiring and whose work I admire. Since I'm really passionate about the meeting point between spirituality, creativity and social activism, I like to speak to people who are active in all three of those dimensions. I want to speak to these people because I want their vision of creating a better world based on spiritual values to become real and I think one way to bring that closer is by presenting their ideas to the public.
There are multiple benefits from doing a show like this. Some are very personal. I learned a huge amount. I had to develop several new skills - I've never done anything like this before in my life. I'm naturally a little shy (believe it or not!) and I've never found it easy to approach people I don't know, especially celebrities. So what did I do but take on the challenge of interviewing 34 people I don't know in six months! Nothing like jumping off a cliff to overcome your fear of heights.
In addition to pushing myself beyond my self imposed limits, my own reputation certainly did not suffer through my association with the likes of Dr Bruce Lipton and Marianne Williamson! Through this program I've met many amazing people; well known spiritual teachers like Dr Gabriel Cousens and Anodea Judith, film makers like Velcro Ripper, musicians like Gary Malkin, peace activists like Michael Lerner. I've formed some wonderful friendships that promise to be lasting and fruitful and perhaps even collaborative.
But the real point is to get good ideas out into the world. To spread a message of hope and empowerment to help everyone break free of their self-imposed prisons and realize that we are all Imaginals. When, like a billion brilliant cells inspired by love, we all awaken to our own potential, I believe we will finally emerge from our chrysalis and build a beautiful civilization on our beloved Earth.

2. How does this goal/these goals inform your selection of guests and your preparation for talking with them?

First I have to like them. On my kind of show, my job as an interviewer is to make my speaker look good, and I can't do that with someone I don't respect and like. I have five more criteria for interview candidates:

  • Spiritual but not overly religious - ideally practicing some kind of meditation
  • Doing something original and creative, whether or not it is in a field traditionally labelled 'creative'
  • Passionate about changing the world
  • Well known enough to attract an audience
  • Have products to offer to listeners - my show generates income through promoting the speaker's products and programs

I structure each show to bring out the three subject areas. I have an hour, so it is not hard to cover the personal, creative and work areas. Once I'd done a couple of shows I created a question template which made it a lot easier. I prepare 9 - 12 questions and make sure that all three subjects are covered. I sometimes ask some of the same questions to different guests, but it is always good to have a few that go deeper into their special topic.
If you want to be guaranteed an interesting interview, do your homework. Speakers appreciate it when you know something about their work. When I'm being interviewed myself I find it quite irritating when it is obvious that the interviewer has not even spent thirty minutes reading up on me and my work. While I usually don't have the time to read entire books (unless I've already read them) I at least skim through their book, watch some youtube talks, read their Wikipedia if they have one, and try to form a picture of the speaker and their work. In some cases, like Bruce Lipton, I already knew their work - that made it a lot easier. Others were speaking on subjects within my own field of expertise, such as Chakras or Mantra or meditation or music. In those cases I could come up with questions most people would not think of.
Some great writers are not great speakers and are actually very hard to interview. That's one reason I always try to see them being interviewed on Youtube before I invite them.
When you're starting out, securing the right speakers is not easy. I had a lot of help from my friend Abe Heisler who was well connected through his media work for the Occupy Movement. But even then it is a struggle when no-one has heard of you or your show. Now I've done it once, next season should be a doddle.

3. What practices do you find take an interview to the next level of engagement or deeper into the content?

Meditate before the interview. Seriously - it is very important to be in the zone, and be totally focused, especially when you're on the phone and no-one can see you. Remove all possible distractions. Turn off the ringer on your phone. Close your email program etc.
Then immerse yourself in the work of your speaker and prepare the questions the day before, or maximum two days before - so it is all fresh in your mind. If you are fully attentive, you will see opportunities in the conversation to follow an interesting path into your speakers ideas.
You have to control the conversation. Some speakers talk to much. Quite a few of them actually. You have to be ready to interrupt them if they are taking too much time in an area you don't want to focus on. Try to get them to tell stories. Ask them to tell about their personal experiences. This always makes it more personal and involving. If you know of a couple of key incidents in their lives, make sure they tell those stories. Most speakers will do this anyway, but if they miss something fascinating, remind them.
Of course great questions will draw out the in-depth content.

4. What's been your favorite moment throughout the process?

Very hard to name one moment - there were many. But two beautiful stories spring to mind. Both from less well known people amongst my speakers.
David Baum is a conflict resolution expert holding two Phds - in theology and systems management. He is an amazing story teller, and has some amazing stories to tell. One was about his work with the government in Rwanda after the terrible genocide there. He explained why the capital city of Rwanda is now one of the cleanest cities in the world, and is full of flowers. This was the result of a deliberate effort to cleanse their souls after so many murders.
Kim Rosen talks about, and reads, poetry. Beautifully. Her story of how a poem helped her to communicate with a group of teenage girls in north Africa who'd been through experiences you can hardly imagine, move me to tears.
Many of these interviews were special. A few were extraordinary, leaving me breathless and moved way more than I'd anticipated. Those are the moments that make all the effort seem worthwhile.

Dada meditating on the Cliffs of Moire, credit Hitendra Snell

5. What makes a good question?

Here's what I do to get to the good questions.
First you have to know something about the speakers life and work. The more the better. Especially if their subject is not so familiar to you. Listen to their other interviews. Pick a few of the best questions from those that cover the necessary basic stuff your listeners need to know. Those are the FAQs - and they're pretty obvious but necessary.
But the more interesting material usually comes out of the SAQs. 'Should Ask Questions'. These are the questions they would ask themselves. They come out of a familiarity with the subject beyond that of the layperson. For example, when interviewing Shamash Alidina about Mindfullness, I asked him "Everyone these days talks about being in the now, in the present. But is that all there is to it? What is the difference in terms of state of mind, between a Formula One driver approaching the next curve at 200 miles an hour, to ally in the moment, and a Zen monk writing a Haiku on a leaf?"
He said "that is a very good question". And provided an answer that gave me, and I'm sure our listeners, some fascinating new insights.
Really try to come up with at least 2 or 3 questions that you think they have not been asked before, that take the conversation below the surface, so you can go where their minds have taken them through years of focusing their subject. Your speaker will love you for it. They love talking about their lives passion, but they may be a bit tired of answering the same old questions. Make it fresh.

6. What mistakes have you made in setting up and conducting these interviews, and what did you learn from them?

Firstly I underestimated how much work this would be. Figure out how much time you need to research speakers, contact them, talk to them, confirm them, book them, create your webpages, prepare each interview, learn how to give interviews, talk to them about their products, deal with last minute cancellations, equipment problems, and all of the dozens of other things you need to do to make a show like this happen, and double it.
Then you might not miss your deadlines.
Secondly, I should have placed the celebrity speakers later in the series so that I would be more experienced as an interviewer when I got to them. No-one is unimportant, but there are some people you cannot afford to mess up with.
Thirdly, triple check your equipment. I lost an entire interview because it was not recorded properly.
Lastly, try to be free of expectations. My listening audience was not as big as I'd hoped it would be. It was still worthwhile, and there are many intangible benefits, and it takes time for something like this to grow. Remember Krishna's advice from the Bhagavad Gita -you have the right to your actions, but not to their fruits. Act with detachment, and enjoy the opportunity to connect with some of the great spirits visiting our world.

We want to thank Dada (which is sanskrit for 'brother'- a term of address used for monks) for sharing his experiences with his interview series with us and our readers. 

We're looking forward to continuing this feature - and putting his advice to good work- to chat with farmers, foodies, and organizers.

 If you'd like to nominate yourself or someone you know for an interview, hit us up...

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