Free To Take It Anywhere (Issue 1096)

In which we are reminded about the value of preparation and in-the-moment responsiveness.

“What can you learn from this person?”

It’s the lesson I can most readily articulate from one of the first books I read as a consultant – a well-worn copy of Barbara Walters’ book, How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. Regardless of the setting, no matter how flat, awkward, or fascinating the situation, I have asked myself, “What can you learn from this person?” Sometimes their answers have been predictable; sometimes they’ve been a complete surprise.

I admired Barbara’s interviewing skill with the same enthusiasm that soccer fans admire amazing passes and goals. [And, if you’d like to look at one of those, here’s Roberto Carlos’ free kick goal against France in 1997. He bends the ball on a HUGE arc around a line of defenders and into the goal]

Just as the French goal keeper, soccer fans, and players around the world wondered, “How did Roberto Carlos DO that?”, I’ve wondered the same about some of Barbara’s interviews. Her answers, over and over, have been “homework” and “preparation”.

Two of my favorite insights into her process:

From the ABC program, “Our Barbara”, broadcast January 1, 2023, two days after Barbara Walters died:

Barbara: “The first thing I would tell people who are going to do interviews is: Homework…. I do so much homework, I know more about the person than he or she does about himself.”

Phyllis McGrady (ABC News Executive, 1997 – 2012): “The process of doing the questions was unbelievable….”

Rob Wallace (ABC News Senior Producer 1978 – 2014): “We would write fifty questions for an hour-long interview…”

Phyllis McGrady: “She would then begin to create the order of those questions… “

Bill Geddie, Executive Producer and Co-Creator of The View: “The thing that I thought was amazing about that process was that in the end she was free to take the interview anywhere she wanted to because she knew everything.”


And, from a  Television Academy interview, Barbara said:

“On the Today Show … (guests) are told they’ll be on from 7:30 to 8:00 or 8:00 – 8:30 so they figure they have a half hour. They don’t. They have 4 1/2 to 5 minutes so I think you have to very carefully construct your questions so that you do the most important questions at the top. The ones that you HAVE to get through.…

And, you also have to listen to what the person says. I’ve often said, ‘It’s not the first question, it’s the follow up. What did you mean by that? Why do you say that?’ You can’t just read the questions, especially if they’re not prepared by you, and then just go down the line with the questions.

And we’ve heard people do that. You know, someone says, ‘The worst period of my life, somehow, was when I lost my dog and I went to a deep depression.’ [And, then the interviewer’s next question is] ‘And then what’s the next song you wrote?’ You know, you’ve got to listen.”

Nick Miller trains banks and credit unions to attract and expand relationships with business clients through better skills, sales strategies, and execution. He is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.





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