Seven Secrets of World-Class Interviewers

Here’s what you’ll discover: How to make the most of great publicity opportunities by understanding the techniques interviewers use to bring out your best.

If you are a Facebook friend of mine, you have asked yourself at least once: “Doesn’t she sleep?”  Reason:  I’m routinely up at 3 am, weighing in on one thing or another. Reason:  I got into the habit of getting up at 3 am when I was in my early 30s.  Reason:  I discovered Charlie Rose one wee-hours morning (or night), when I couldn’t sleep at my Dad’s house. So I went downstairs, snuggled into his La-Z-Boy, pointed the remote at the tv in search of maybe an old James Bond movie. Instead, I found and fell in love with Charlie Rose. It became a nightly thing. The idea of sleeping through Charlie Rose gave me an intense case of FOMO. And so, BING! the 3 am wake-up habit was born. Darn it.

I didn’t know it at the time (who ever really knows anything “at the time?”), but I had just launched myself on a several decades long study of how really great interviewers do their thing. Charlie Rose, Larry King, Bill Moyers. We’re talking long form interviews here, not between-the-cereal-commercials guest chats on network morning tv. As I grew in my own work as a journalist, and then executive ghostwriter, I pulled from their techniques and example daily. You learn from the best, right?

So what’s a world-class interviewer?

A world-class interviewer helps the interviewee expand beyond the pre-designed list of talking points and ventures into a broad, original, exploratory conversation where there’s fresh discovery for both parties.

That’s it. But it takes some doing to get there. Interviewees sometimes get impatient, threatened, even huffy when they don’t get what the interviewer is doing.  So I thought I’d clue you in. This is a peek into my own secret bag of interview tricks I’ve built up since that night.

Secret 1: We play dumb on purpose.
We know more about your topic than you think we do. But it’s not our job to tell you what we know. It’s your job to tell us what you know. It’s our job to ask you really smart questions. And sometimes the smartest questions are the really stupid questions. Why? See Secret 2.

Secret 2: We are your target market by proxy.
One night while I was watching Larry King interview Olivia Newton-John about her recent breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, he asked her if having only one breast affected her sex life. Olivia and I were equally slack-jawed with shock at the question. And months later I heard her complain on another talk show about the uncouth question (although she didn’t name names, of course). Only, by that time I knew something she didn’t know:  Larry was doing her a favor.  She was on Larry’s show with the goal of spreading awareness around breast cancer. And here was a question that she couldn’t really bring up herself. But certainly the audience wanted to know the general details. But they would never in a million years ask the question in person. Larry had set the stage for her to safely venture into a sensitive topic.  And he was taking one for the team.

Secret 3:  We’re really glad you came prepared with notes. Now put them away.
World-class interviewers want an original conversation. We get that you have points that you want to hit. And we respect that. In fact, we know that those points are important, and we want to make sure we don’t overlook them. Still, a pre-fab conversation isn’t the best use of a world-class interviewer’s talent and time. Try to relax and trust the driver.

Secret 4:  We know when you’re drunk.
Just take my word for it.

Secret 5: We’ll sometimes ask you a question based on a false premise. On purpose.
If you’re feeling reluctant for some reason. Or super self-conscious. Or pissy. Or you’re having trouble pulling your thoughts together, we’ll ask you a question that is so far off the wall, you will feel compelled to correct us. And then we’re off and running.

I discovered this trick while interviewing Jann Wenner, when he was still the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. He was acting all high and mighty with me, basically treating me like dried chewing gum under his desk. Strike that: A boring piece of dried chewing gum. So I asked him a question based on a false premise around a current advertising campaign he had just launched — which he was actually trying to promote via this interview (so we were actually on the same team in this scenario). I engineered the question in such a way that it was guaranteed to disarm him. And then I took notes like a speed-writing fiend. (I’m not the chic-est person in the world. And, well into our adulthood, my brother’s friends still thought of me as Rick’s baby sister. But I’m the one in the family who can say, “I made Jann Wenner lose his cool.” So I’ve got that going for me.)

Just to be clear:  This isn’t a “gotcha” interview technique. Gotcha interviews are adversarial and inauthentic at the get go. I’m a friendly interviewer, always with the goal in mind to make the interviewee look his or her best. I’m on the interviewee’s side. But sometimes the interviewee needs just a little, well, nudge, to open up.

Secret 6: There is a moment in a world-class interview that’s better than sex.
That’s when you say, “Wow, what a great question. I never thought of it that way.”  Oh, it’s a sweet, golden moment. If you and I are in a conventional interviewer/interviewee situation, we know that we’ve just tapped a vein of originality. If you are a client (say, when I’m your ghostwriter), I know that I’ve just opened up a whole new box of idea toys for you to sift through and discover. And I think to myself, “Oh yeah, that’s why I’m here.”

Secret 7:  Sometimes we’ll talk about ourselves.
My interviewees and clients are often taken aback when I insert an anecdote from my own personal files. It’s not hard to read their minds:  “What a minute, aren’t you being paid to listen to me?”  Well, yes.  But again…sometimes we need a little nudge in the direction of where I want you to go in your commentary. And a story from my own life helps show you the way. Or perhaps one of my stories will spark an idea in your mind, “oh! That reminds me….” And we’re off and running again.

World-class interviewers know that a really fantastic interview is very much a conversation between two people who are passionately interested in the topic.  The chemistry and rapport pull out surprising and electric insights that produce material that will ultimately fascinate our audiences.  But we never forget who is the one standing in the spotlight.  That would be you.

So. That’s how we do what we do.


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