A little while ago I read an article about imposter syndrome, distributed in the excellent monthly newsletter produced by Carole Gillespie of People Buy From People. One of the points it made was that you should never consider any question you might ask to be “stupid”.
I do not, you will be glad to hear, intend to attempt to add anything to the debate on overcoming feelings of inadequacy in your career. Rather, I am going to provide a little homily on how not to talk to journalists.
When I was a senior journalist I used always to advise my less experienced colleagues, “Never be afraid to ask the stupid question.” This serves three purposes.
The first is that, as a journalist, you have to be able to write with plausible authority on a subject that you only heard about five minutes earlier, and will probably forget about again the moment you move on to the next article.
The second is that, with the possible exception of specialist professional magazines, it is dangerous to assume any prior level of knowledge on the part of readers. When writing about a technical subject for a lay audience you need to go back to first principles.
The third, related to the second, is that by asking the “stupid” question the journalist gives the interviewee a chance to explain the basic issues to readers.
If a journalist asks what you consider to be an entry-level question they may not know the answer. Equally, they may be well aware of the answer but be asking so they can quote you – with your professional authority behind it – rather than putting it in their own words.
Both scenarios demand courtesy from the interviewee. I recall an incident some 20 years ago when a middle-aged (inevitably) male financial services “expert” gave a (you guessed it) young female journalist at the very beginning of her career an incredibly hard time for asking him, “What is a pension?”
He took this be a sign she was clueless. She was, however, writing for a personal finance magazine aimed at 20-somethings who, generally, really do need the characteristics of pensions explaining to them from first principles.
That was his chance to be the person who equipped those readers with this vital basic knowledge. Instead he decided to be an @rse.
Within a couple of years she had moved on to a national paper, and is still there almost two decades later. She doubtless remembers him for all the wrong reasons.
There are no stupid questions. The same, sadly, cannot always be said of interviewees.