The Six Keys to Being a Successful Interviewer

In 2003, while working for a non-profit in the Bronx, I was appointed host and producer of a live half-hour interview program on Bronxnet Television.   It was an award-winning show for the network.

To prepare, I studied those who I considered to be the best interviewers.  Bill O’Reilly would always give his guest the last word.  Tim Russert was always prepared; he knew the subject and he knew his guests.  Johnny Carson would let the guest shine and, on occasion, actually let the guest interview him.  Similarly, Mike Wallace, when not confronting the dregs of society, was interested in his interviews entertaining as well as informing.  And Larry King had one rule:  He never spoke to a guest prior to an interview because he did not want to know how they were going to answer his questions.  Their conversation had to be genuine.

(If you want a free Master Class in interviewing watch these videos.  Watch them twice.  First for the fun of it, and then to learn: Johnny Carson and Bob Uecker on Johnny Carson; Jerry Lewis with Raymond Arroyo – arguably the best interview I have ever seen for reasons that Mr. Lewis himself explains,  and Mike Wallace – pay special attention to the Mel Brooks interview.)

After I left the non-profit, I started my own interview show on BlogTalkRadio, Bruce Hurwitz Presents. (Let me know if you want to be a guest!)  Subsequently, after I joined the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, I became host and producer of The Voice of Manhattan Business, the Chamber’s weekly podcast. If you add together the 28 television interviews I conducted, and those on the two podcasts, I have interviewed over 400 people.  This is what I have learned:

Job Description

Excluding “shock jocks” whose job it is to entertain by embarrassing and humiliating the guest, and for whom I have neither respect nor patience, the job of an interviewer is to make the guest look good.  (Those were actually the instructions I was given when I accepted responsibility for The Voice of Manhattan Business.)

In order to make the guest look good, you have to prepare.  In that way, as I will cover presently, you will be able to either keep the conversation focused or expand it, as the case may be.  You never want to make the guest tense.  You want them to be calm.  There have been a number of times I could have humiliated guests who simply did not know what they were talking about, but to what end?  I would have been making myself look bad, not them.  They would have garnered sympathy while I would have garnered contempt.  It’s easy to humiliate; it’s hard to make someone who is not all that good, look good.

Listen

The key is to listen.  Because it is a podcast, I can’t see the guest.  I only have their tone of voice to go by.  That is how I determine if they are nervous.  But it is also how I am able to turn the interview into a true conversation.  I listen to their answers, I do not anticipate them and I never think about the next question I’ll be asking, even if it is on the paper in front of me.  If I am not genuinely interested in the answers, not to mention the subject, then IBM’s Watson could do the interview.

Prepare

I never know, from week to week, what type of guest I will be interviewing.  They could be well-versed in the topic (which, by the way, they choose) and very well-read.  Those are the best interviews because the discussion can go anywhere.   Once I was interviewing an expert on funding options for small businesses and ended up discussing Theodore Roosevelt.  It was a good show.

Sometimes a guest knows their topic and is scared to death.  I have to find a way to put them at ease.  I’ll do that by asking simple follow-up questions.  From the sound of their voice I know when they are relaxed and only then do I ask a follow-up questions.  If they don’t relax, I just stick to the main questions, the ones they received in advance.

Then there are the guests that think they are experts but really don’t know what they are talking about.  That becomes painfully apparent when they give the wrong answer to a simple follow-up question.  In that case, because of my job description, I simply say, “Well that’s interesting.  I always thought…  Let’s move on” and then I ask the next question.  I provide the correct answer because I do not want my listeners to be misinformed; I do not debate the guest because I do not want them to look foolish.

Bottom line, I always have to be prepared even if the guest isn’t.  That means learning what I can about the guest and their topic, but also expanding my intellectual horizons so, if possible, I can expand the conversation to other areas, like I did with TR, so as to make the interview more interesting and hopefully to expand the audience.  You have to be well-read.

Questions

While the Chamber’s podcast is live, rarely do any listeners ask questions.  I consider that a compliment.  It means (at least I hope it means) that I am asking the questions they want to ask.  I always begin with definitions so there is no doubt about the subject.  Then I proceed in a logical manner to ask questions building to the end result which both the guest and I want.  My follow-up questions build on the guest’s answers.  They are meant to clarify and expand the conversation.

Amusing examples of great questions are when Johnny Carson, interviewing David Letterman just after Jay Leno had been announced as Carson’s replacement, asked, “How pissed off are you?”  It was funny and exactly what everyone wanted to know.  Then there was Leno interviewing the actor Hugh Grant who had been caught with a prostitute.  Leno’s question: “What the hell were you thinking?”  Same thing: funny and what everyone wanted to know.  And then there is the brilliant question that no one would think to ask.  Carson asked Frank Sinatra, “When you want to be romantic with a woman, whose records do you put on?”  The beauty of these questions is, if the guest can handle them, and they all did, the guest looks better than the interviewer.  (Basically the answers were: If you keep using that language you’ll lose your job.  I wasn’t.  And a singer from the 1930s whose name I do not remember.)

Focus on the Guest not Control

Just because I am the host does not mean I am, nor should be, the star.  The best shows are the ones where my presence is not felt.  It should always be all about the guest.  Leave your ego at the door, so to speak.  I once interviewed a woman whose answers were so intriguing, she was so knowledgeable, I let her speak without interruption for a good 15 minutes before asking my next question.  If the audience is learning and enjoying, what does it matter how much I speak?  I’m always the one in control because I can end the interview any time I want.  The guest can’t do that.  It’s their interview, but it’s my show!

What it Takes to be a Good Host

To summarize, the characteristics of a good host are the ability to listen; intellectual curiosity (being genuine; actually caring about the guest and the subject); being well-read; generosity (making the guest look good; no cheap shots); being a good researcher (preparation); and keeping your ego in check.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter, career counselor and business advisor.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador.  Visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about the latest questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies.

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