Ed’s Rules for Interviewing

1. Listen. I can’t stress that enough. It’s amazing how few journalists do this. Watch body language, the face, and especially the eyes. Pay very close attention. This will also tell you when the other person is getting tired and when you need to wrap things up. Keep within the time you have (unless the other person really wants to talk). Choose an interview location where the other person feels comfortable. Try to avoid sterile environments such as recording studios and boardrooms. (Cafes and restaurants work very well.) Be absolutely sure that the interviewee has eaten. Publicists sometimes forget about the human need to eat. So if the other person is famished, be sure get her fed before you talk. Buy the other person a drink if he really needs to loosen up, but don’t drink yourself. Unless the other person is a bit nervous and the conversational environment calls for social solidarity or minor debauchery. Be sure to tie your questions into what the person has already said, particularly on subjects that the other person gets very excited about, so that you can maintain a continuous thread.

2. Be genuinely excited and interested in what the other person has to say. I’m not talking fake excited. You’re not a fucking brand. You’re doing this because you like to do it. You really want to talk with this person. So you’d better be curious. If you’re not, you’re a charlatan. Don’t conduct an interview if you can’t stand the author or if you didn’t care for the latest book. (It took me about 150 shows to figure that last point out.) If you don’t care for the person you’re talking with, then the only reason you should be there is because you are immensely curious and interested in that person’s perspective or the ideas she is promulgating. If you’re writing the interview up for an outlet, avoid those hackneyed personal details (“He downed a beer when the conversation shifted to Spinoza”) unless the moment is really interesting and specifically relates to the conversation.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions, but present them in the friendliest possible manner. Civil disagreement is possible. Be familiar with the Socratic method. Don’t be afraid to be a little theatrical. (The other person may very well be theatrical with you, and some very fun silliness will ensue.) If the person doesn’t want to answer the question, move quickly to the next one. Maintain conversational momentum, no matter what.

4. You cannot plan a conversation in advance. Learn how to improvise. Improvisation often results in the best conversational moments. (See Dick Cavett’s moment with Norman Mailer.) Make the interview a conversation. Become highly familiar with the following interviewers: Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, Mike Wallace, Terry Gross, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Michael Silverblatt, Bob Costas (Later segments), et al. Study what makes these conversations work (or not) and what makes these interviews interesting. But don’t emulate these people. Learn from these folks. Be yourself. David Letterman, contrary to popular belief, is not your role model. You’re having a conversation, not participating in a junket.

5. Maintain eye contact when you ask those pivotal first few questions. Don’t look down at your question list during the opening minutes. You’re a talker, not a reader. You want to communicate to the other person very early on that you’re intimately familiar with her work and that you’re very much interested in being there.

6. Read and listen to other interviews with the person you’ll be talking with. Note the questions asked. Strike the commonly asked questions off your list. You want a unique interview, right? Find several angles that nobody else has thought to bring up. These angles exist. You just have to do the work. Do serious preparation and research, and you’ll be ahead of 90% of other interviewers. Don’t rely on a research team.

7. When someone’s been on the interviewing circuit a very long time, she’s going to have a certain boilerplate. Learn how to recognize boilerplate in conversation and learn how to steer the other person off boilerplate with highly specific queries. Encourage the person to be thoughtful, goofy, and spontaneous. Also keep in mind that your questions may not be as unique as you think they are. Keep in mind that these folks have heard it all. Don’t try to be special. Don’t strive to do the “ultimate” interview. Great interviews happen by accident. Just do the best job you can and stay relaxed. Serious preparation and practice will stand you in good stead.

8. Don’t do too many interviews. You’ll burn out quick. And don’t just do interviews. Have at least four other fun things that you’re doing. One of the reasons why so many great interviewers fizzle out is because they are asked to do five or more interviews a week. Don’t do this. Try not to do more than one or two interviews a week. Take long breaks from time to time. Interviews require energy. Make sure that you do plenty of other activities that have nothing to do with interviewing and that have nothing to do with your expertise.

9. Have fun and, for goodness sake, don’t take yourself so seriously. Even when you’re having a conversation about a serious subject. Don’t be humorless. Humor goes a long way in making a conversation fun — both for the interviewee and the people who read or listen to the interview. Also, don’t make any assumptions about how the conversation is going to go. It may go well. It may be okay. It may not go well. Your job is to do the best that you can with the time and the resources you have at your disposal. And if you’re having fun, you’ll be more relaxed. And you’re going to want to be relaxed so that the other person will feel relaxed. Remember that fun can be quite contagious.

10. If the interview fails, it’s your fault. Not the other person’s. Yours. You failed to attract interest. You failed to read the cues. You failed to engage the other person. And you’re going to fail sometimes. No matter how good you are, you’re going to have a few stinkers. (Case in point: There are four interviews I’ve conducted that I never posted.) If the interview fails, don’t dwell on it. Pick yourself off the ground and kick some ass on the next one.

The State of American Literacy As Represented by Talk Show Hosts

From The Leonard Lopate Show, September 22, 2004, at the 14:04 mark on the RealAudio file, from a conversation with Terry Gross:

LOPATE: The question that people ask me the most is, “Do you read all of those books?” And I don’t know what to say. I do get help. And I usually say, “I get help.” But they don’t want to hear that. They want to believe that all I do, day and night, even on the air, is read books for tomorrow’s show.

GROSS: Well, what I say is that I read all the books. But I put — use my fingers to put quotation marks around the word “read.” ‘Cause what I do when I read the book is probably a closer approximation to skimming. ‘Cause I’m reading really fast and then slowing down for parts that I think will be relevant to the interview. And then taking notes on what I read.

LOPATE: Have you discovered that it’s ruined your personal reading? It’s hard for me to read a novel today or anything else just for pleasure. Because questions are always from it. I want to ask, “Well, Mr. Dostoevsky, why did you have Raskolnikov do that in Chapter 6?”

GROSS: That’s a really good question. You know, often, on vacations, I read — I intentionally read — a dead author. So that I’m not doing what you just said. So that I’m off the hook. So I can just read it. But this summer was one of the first vacations in a long time I did not read a whole novel. I read part of a novel. And then I found myself reading newspapers. It’s so hard not to read the newspaper right now. The newspaper itself is so interesting. And I feel like I can’t go a day without reading the newspaper. There are magazines that I wanted to catch up on. And I had to — I had to not read. I went to see one or two movies, or a movie and a concert, every day that I was on vacation. And I really felt I needed to spend a little bit of time not reading. Because I read so much.

LOPATE: When you’re putting together the questions you’re to ask, do you ever rely on those press kits? Their favorite question, which is, “Why did you write this book?”

GROSS: The part that I usually — I usually read the press releases because it’s a nice kind of frame before you start the book. When you’re reading at my pace, it’s nice to have a kind of brief overview of the book. So I’ll read reviews also. But I will intentionally not read the questions that the publisher gives. Because some of those questions are going to be good. Some of those questions are going to be questions that I would have asked anyways. But if I see those questions, it will make me think, “Well, I can’t ask that question.” Because that question has been put before me by a publicist and I’ll feel like I’m asking it because they told me to. So I feel like I can’t afford to look at it. So I’ll just, you know, do you know what I mean?

LOPATE: I know perfectly well. It’s almost a perversity, their pride that I have to do it all by myself. If I don’t want to rely on the publicity machine to tell me what to do —

GROSS: Well, you want to expect that your questions are independent of that. And yet a lot of the publicists are really smart. And they’re coming out with really good questions. So…

LOPATE: Well, they try to intrigue you into having the guest.

GROSS: Yes. So my technique is don’t read it.