The Secret to How Great Interviews are the Stuff of Legends

It was the worst it was the best

Over the years, I've done a lot of interviews with business leaders and teams to help them build strong brands, connect with customers, create amazing experiences, and transform their company. When we make the time to do them well, interviews are a powerful learning tool.

Here at Conversation Agent we call them conversations. When we had a full community in the early days, we also had a series that was about readers. I'll write more about that tomorrow, because the community is still very much here, and here

Good interviews are rich with data from stories. Great interviews are experiences, where we ave the opportunity to come out from behind ourselves and join in real time. This is where the magic of intimacy and connection happen, where we witness the blossoming of the person behind the story. These kinds of interviews embody the true meaning of being heard,” as we give each other permission to be, well, us.

A 33-year veteran of the Smithsonian Institution, Marc Pachter has conducted live interviews with some of the most intriguing characters in recent American history. He was the driving force behind a remarkable series created for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. As the live component for the series, Pachter interviewed extraordinary people like Steve Martin, Clare Booth Luce and more in front of an audience.

What is the secret to a great interview?

Before we get to that, it's useful to understand the purpose for Pachter's live interview format. The goal was to deliver the lives of amazing American contributors to future generations. About the idea, he says:

The National Portrait Gallery is the place dedicated to presenting great American lives, amazing people. And that's what it's about. We use portraiture as a way to deliver those lives, but that's it. And so I'm not going to talk about the painted portrait today. I'm going to talk about a program I started there, which, from my point of view, is the proudest thing I did.

I started to worry about the fact that a lot of people don't get their portraits painted anymore, and they're amazing people, and we want to deliver them to future generations. So, how do we do that? And so I came up with the idea of the living self-portrait series. And the living self-portrait series was the idea of basically my being a brush in the hand of amazing people who would come and I would interview.

And so what I'm going to do is, not so much give you the great hits of that program, as to give you this whole notion of how you encounter people in that kind of situation, what you try to find out about them, and when people deliver and when they don't and why.

There were two preconditions ―that the subjects be American, the nature of the National Portrait Gallery, and that they be a certain age. People in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties. In a youth-obsessed culture, Pachter felt we needed an elders program to just sit at the feet of amazing people and hear them talk.” But he had a secondary reason, and that was to help people connect some dots:

It's amazing what people will say when they know how the story turned out. That's the one advantage that older people have. Well, they have other, little bit of advantage, but they also have some disadvantages, but the one thing they or we have is that we've reached the point in life where we know how the story turned out.

So, we can then go back in our lives, if we've got an interviewer who gets that, and begin to reflect on how we got there. All of those accidents that wound up creating the life narrative that we inherited.

The goal then was to invite these amazing people who could look back at their work and lives to create this new conversation on stage, in front of a live audience, and witness their stories. While conversations are not a promotional opportunity, the vision was to hold this space between host and amazing American to learn together. What kind of interview format would do that?

Journalist style, asking reality to explain itself? Celebrity format, where the interviewer is as important as the subject? For example, Frost-Nixon. What Pachter wanted was a different feel for it. He says:

I wanted interviews that were different. I wanted to be, as I later thought of it, empathic, which is to say, to feel what they wanted to say and to be an agent of their self-revelation.

By the way, this was always done in public. This was not an oral history program. This was all about 300 people sitting at the feet of this individual, and having me be the brush in their self-portrait.

Which is how he discovered he was pretty good at it. This according to feedback:

The only reason I really know that is because of one interview I did with Senator William Fulbright, and that was six months after he'd had a stroke. And he had never appeared in public since that point. This was not a devastating stroke, but it did affect his speaking and so forth. And I thought it was worth a chance, he thought it was worth a chance, and so we got up on the stage, and we had an hour conversation about his life, and after that a woman rushed up to me, essentially did, and she said, “Where did you train as a doctor?”

And I said, “I have no training as a doctor. I never claimed that.”

And she said, “Well, something very weird was happening. When he started a sentence, particularly in the early parts of the interview, and paused, you gave him the word, the bridge to get to the end of the sentence, and by the end of it, he was speaking complete sentences on his own.” I didn't know what was going on, but I was so part of the process of getting that out.

That's what happens with conversational fluency, we are present to the other person in real time, and are able to help them show up as well. Ideally, this is the kind of conversation we have with customers, with partners, with colleagues and peers ―we owe it to ourselves to be better than just asking if they'd recommend us. Because we stand to gain so much from the insights of having that kind of conversation.

Is empathy the secret?

What allows us to hold the space open for insight to rush through it and us is empathy. So that's part of it. But there's a little more to it to pull off a great interview. Says Pachter:

But then I began to think of other things. Who makes a great interview in this context? It had nothing to do with their intellect, the quality of their intellect. Some of them were very brilliant, some of them were, you know, ordinary people who would never claim to be intellectuals, but it was never about that. It was about their energy. It's energy that creates extraordinary interviews and extraordinary lives. I'm convinced of it. And it had nothing to do with the energy of being young. These were people through their 90s.

In fact, the first person I interviewed was George Abbott, who was 97, and Abbott was filled with the life force I guess that's the way I think about itfilled with it. And so he filled the room, and we had an extraordinary conversation. He was supposed to be the toughest interview that anybody would ever do because he was famous for being silent, for never ever saying anything except maybe a word or two. And, in fact, he did wind up opening up by the way, his energy is evidenced in other ways. He subsequently got married again at 102, so he, you know, he had a lot of the life force in him.

But after the interview, I got a call, very gruff voice, from a woman. I didn't know who she was, and she said, “Did you get George Abbott to talk?” 

And I said, Yeah. Apparently I did.

And she said, I'm his old girlfriend, Maureen Stapleton, and I could never do it. And then she made me go up with the tape of it and prove that George Abbott actually could talk.

Energy. Our life force. That's what gets people out from their shells and into the experience in real time, love is part of it, too. But energy is the conduit, so to speak. When we're “on,” which is the opposite of how we use the term “always on,” when we're “on” we are present to each other ―and that is very attractive.

Our energy reveals us

So there were two take aways for Pachter as he started his series. One was that when we start a conversation and we invite others to it, people will show up.

The second was less obvious at first. These amazing Americans who had done great work are not all or normally vocal about their accomplishments. In some cases, the reverse is nearly almost universally true ―people deserving of praise are modest about their accomplishments. Because their focus is the work. 

Which is why being engaged and giving energy back helps truly remarkable individuals understand their role in sharing a story worth knowing. But it must be a visceral thing, one that penetrates the shields we create with fear, and sometimes shame.

The secret is that energy is harder to fake, especially the sustaining kind. Where we show up time and time over, over time, and for the duration. Enthusiasm is easier to demonstrate, because it's typically temporary, and can be self-directed. To sustain energy directed toward others, we need to pass the bull-meter, and most humans have a fine-tuned BS meter (we may not listen to it, but we do).

A great interview is the process of revealing ourselves to others.

It was the worst and best of times…

We all recognize the construct from Charles Dickens, who's quoted up top. It resonates because it highlights the paradoxes of our age, the things we negotiate every single day. Do we take the red pill, or the blue pill? Do we remain cocooned into our personal world of comfort, doing what's required of us, going through the moves, or do we step into reality beyond the Matrix?

Do we accept to go along to get along, or do we listen to that little voice inside that whispers (or screams) to us to get out? Maybe we're comfortable, but maybe we're also frustrated, we think we're moving forward when we're standing still. We're motion sick from volatility and uncertainty, we're “always on,” but hardly ever “on.”

Pachter found a way to break through that shell or cocoon. But not everyone wants out. Not everyone wants control over their narrative. He says:

 The worst interview I ever did: William L. Shirer. The journalist who did The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This guy had met Hitler and Gandhi within six months, and every time I'd ask him about it, he'd say, Oh, I just happened to be there. Didn't matter.  Whatever. Awful.

I never would ever agree to interview a modest person. They have to think that they did something and that they want to share it with you.

So there is a difference between boasting about our pursuits and record, and being willing to go on record about our achievements. It comes down to how we get through all the barriers we have. Says Pachter:

All of us are public and private beings, and if all you're going to get from the interviewee is their public self, there's no point in it. It's pre-programmed. It's infomercial, and we all have infomercials about our lives. We know the great lines, we know the great moments, we know what we're not going to share, and the point of this was not to embarrass anybody.

This wasn't and some of you will remember Mike Wallace's old interviewstough, aggressive and so forth. They have their place. I was trying to get them to say what they probably wanted to say, to break out of their own cocoon of the public self, and the more public they had been, the more entrenched that person, that outer person was. And let me tell you at once the worse moment and the best moment that happened in this interview series. It all has to do with that shell that most of us have, and particularly certain people. 

The more public, the harder to find the person inside the shell. Because, as Bruce Lee said, we all have a warrior within, and our lives are a long exchange with that force. Conversation is how we draw it out. But not all practice is equal. As Pachter found out, it needs to be deliberate. In other words, we need to, in a sense, let go of ourselves, to meet in the open.

13th Century Sufi poet Rumi said:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field.

I'll meet you there.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about the worst and best kinds of interviews, how we increase our value with networking, and how we can practice using conversation as a tool to take control. 


References for this article (please share if you enjoyed it):

Conversations are not a Promotional Opportunity

Why it's Important to Have Enough Dots to Connect

Barriers are the Universal Experience

The Paradox of our Age


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