A good interview is memorable. It makes you leave your own world and enter that of another person. It makes you understand the reality of that person. A good interview also has a good reporter that shows curiosity. She is generally fascinated by how people tick, and specifically engages and builds rapport by asking the right questions.
Barbara Walters is a great interviewer. The legendary broadcast journalist was herself interviewed by David Gergen, Kennedy School professor and senior political analyst for CNN, last week in the Forum. She shared her wisdom on life, journalism and leadership. "Make yourself valuable," she said. "Fight the big fights," she said repeatedly. "Get your foot in the door."
She also shared what compels her about being an interviewer. "I'm fascinated by what makes people tick," she revealed. She went on to say she is always interested to connect with the interviewee, often starting with asking a question about childhood. She moves on to the big questions: "What is it about you that made you the person you are today?" Her questions are not about facts, but about feelings.
Walters also argued that preparation is key to any interview. "If you don't have curiosity, you shouldn't be in this business," she said. Doing your homework is essential, she said. She also stressed the value of authenticity, with requires curiosity and a willingness to work without a net. She shared that, when she has finished her research, she writes down all the questions and then throws them all out. Preparation and purging make for her signature authentic style.
Walters began her career as a writer. She wrote stories for other people at first and later began to write special reports. Her breakthrough came with the interview of Cuban communist revolutionary Fidel Castro.
In the course of her career, as Gergen noted, Walters is the journalist who has interviewed more statesmen than anyone else in history. Naturally she told students what makes a great leader. Great leaders have vision and an ability to make decisions, she said. They have passion beyond reelection and commitment that is bigger than themselves.
With years of experience, Walters is aware of all the nuances and dynamics that an interview can have. She shared how difficult it is to conduct an interview in a foreign language. Understandably, not talking to the interviewee directly creates a barrier. She also admitted that she prefers to interview the Obamas as a couple, because they are both funnier that way.
The key to a great interview, however, is suspending judgment. Walters said that she tries to understand the other person without bringing in her own biases. In an interview with American actress Katharine Hepburn, who was known for her stark opinions, Walters said, "Ms. Hepburn, I don't see things in black and white very often. I see things in shades of gray." Hepburn replied, "Well, I pity you."
To do an interview and really try to understand where the other person is coming from is difficult. Instead of having answers that you planned to ask in advance, ask yourself how you can understand how they see reality. Genuinely listen and hear what the other person is saying. This advice applies to any conversation. Sympathize, don't criticize.
This was originally published at The Citizen, the student newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School.