Taking a Page from the Great Interviewers

By Susie Adams

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Less Interview, More Conversation

Jack Paar was the first host of The Today Show.  He told another great host, Dick Cavaat, “Interviews are boring. Like ‘What’s your favorite color?’ – that’s dull. Make it a conversation.”

He’s right.  If the cadence is question, question, question, the interviewee never gets comfortable.

Establish Rapport

One of the ways to make an interview a conversation is to connect on a personal level. Great interviewers make the person they are interviewing feel at ease, often by sharing about themselves and finding common ground. It is not about the interviewer, but that limited sharing can build that bond.

Harry Potter, author J.K. Rowling is notoriously introverted.  Oprah spends the first six-plus minutes of their 2010 interview building rapport.  She talks about how J.K. is not her name; it is Joanne.  She talks about Rowling’s Scotland where the interview is taking place and how gorgeous it is.  She talks about how they have so much in common as Rowling has just finished the Harry Potter series, and Winfrey is in the last season of her show.  And then she asks her about the ending of the final Harry Potter book.  And it is (no pun intended) magic.

The rest of the interview is more like a conversation between good friends.  Winfrey calls Rowling “Jo” and Rowling turns the tables at the end and asks Winfrey how it feels to be finishing her show. Winfrey responds; they find more common ground. Magic again.

They Do Their Homework

One of my favorite shows is Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio.”  You know you’ve made it when Saturday Night Live mocks you in a sketch.

They Listen

Attorneys say that you should never ask a witness a question you don’t know the answer to.  That is not true for an interview.

When you have done your research, you have an idea of where the interview will go, but as Katie Couric said, “…you need to use your questions as sort of a template, but you have to be willing to listen and veer off in a totally different direction.”

You have to listen to know when you should zig rather than zag!

Pulling the Thread

They recognize when they need to ask a follow-up question because the interviewee has more to say.

When Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of The New York Times interviewed music mogul, Jay-Z, in September 2017, the best stuff didn’t always come from the first question, but the follow-up question.

On race and the Trump presidency:

Some people think that the election of Donald Trump has revived the debate about race in America. Some people think that, in fact, there’s always been racism in America; that it hasn’t changed and that the debate isn’t any different. It’s just people are paying attention to it. What do you think?

Yeah, there was a great Kanye West line in one of [his] songs: “Racism’s still alive, they just be concealin’ it.” [“Never Let Me Down,” from West’s 2004 album, “The College Dropout.”] Take a step back. I think when Donald Sterling3 got kicked out of the N.B.A., I thought it was a misstep because when you kick someone out, of course, he’s done wrong, right? But you also send everyone else back in hiding. People talk like that. They talk like that. Let’s deal with that.

I wouldn’t just, like, leave him alone. There should have been some sort of penalties. He could have lost some draft picks. But getting rid of him just made everyone else go back into hiding, and now we can’t have the dialogue. The great thing about Donald Trump being president is now we’re forced to have the dialogue. Now we’re having the conversation on the large scale; he’s provided the platform for us to have the conversation. Absolutely. That’s why this is happening.

Do you think the debate over race in America is happening in a healthy way?

Well, an ideal way is to have a president that says, “I’m open to dialogue and fixing this.” That’s ideal.

But it’s still happening in a good way because you can’t have a solution until you start dealing with the problem: What you reveal, you heal.

That’s the nugget, the soundbite, the quotable quote.

On the phases of life; the first response is good, but Baquet keeps mining for gold. And he gets multiple nuggets. Will this get harder over time? Like, you know, as a young man, your music was the way a lot of young rappers are — it’s like, you know, [your music was about] the violent life. If that’s chapter one of the autobiography, chapter two of the autobiography — I’m oversimplifying — is like, “Now I’m really rich. I have a lot of stuff. Let me tell you how cool that is.” And then chapter three of the autobiography is, “Oh my god, I’ve run myself into the ground.” So what’s chapter four?

No, chapter three is: Oh my goodness, oh, the most beautiful things are not these objects. The most beautiful things are inside. The most beautiful things are the friendships I have. I have really golden friendships. The compassion and the person I’ve become — that’s what this chapter is. You know? And the conversation with my mom. Those are the real enriching experiences.

But will you have the same adventures in your life? Will you have the same stuff to write about? Or maybe you don’t know. I think that rap in particular is a young man’s sport, that I’ll move out of that white-hot space. Rap is about the gift of discovery. The white-hot space is when it’s fresh and new, and it’s like, this is the hottest song ever. I mean I pushed the window, like — You still — you think you’re still in that space? I stretched it. Oh, I stood in that window a really long time. But still, no, I don’t think people are looking to me as like, The Thing.

Is that hard to deal with, or did you feel like, I’m O.K. with that because I’ve moved on? ‘Cause I, at the end of the day, we gonna find out it’s not about the white-hot space, but it’s about finding the truth. That white-hot space — people think it’s the biggest thing, but it’s really small. It’s almost like a trend.


Great interviewers are not afraid of silence. They pause. At Interact, we love that!  As Jim Lehrer, longtime host of PBS News Hour said, “If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he’s already said or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.”

“Go to” Questions for Interviewers

Great interviewers ask open-ended questions.  When you ask those questions, you don’t know what you may hear. It is almost always authentic and frequently surprising. You can’t get too far out there or you may face an interviewee like Mike Heck from “The Middle.” Things that will work are questions that are relatable; they make people think and elicit candor.

Questions like:

  • Tell me about….
  • How did it feel when….
  • Give me an example of

This forces your interview subject to get specific, to get personal, and to tell their stories.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah had a column in her magazine entitled — What do you know for sure?  She asked J.K. Rowling the same question.

Some of Oprah’s other questions are:

  • What is your inner voice telling you?
  • What is your intention?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What is your truth?

Howard Stern

Howard Stern is a great interviewer.  He says he doesn’t do much research, but his free-flowing interviews are always entertaining and often enlightening.  And full of language not appropriate for this space!  But he uses some pretty interesting “go-to” questions.

  • “How much are you worth?”
  • “What do you do with your money?”
  • “When you were single, what was your sex life like?”
  • “What drugs did you do?”
  • “Who’s jealous of you?”
  • “Who screwed you over?”

James Lipton

James Lipton uses some of my favorite “go-to” questions at the end of every interview.  He credits French talk show host Bernard Pivot with originating the list.  The answers to these questions can be funny, sad, profound, and deeply enlightening; sometimes all at the same time.

  • What is your favorite word?
  • What is your least favorite word?
  • What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
  • What turns you off?
  • What is your favorite curse word?
  • What sound or noise do you love?
  • What sound or noise do you hate?
  • What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
  • What profession would you not like to do?
  • If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

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