Chris Lydon’s “Letterman List” of Interviewing Tips

January 3rd, 2013 | by Chris Lydon
Chris Lydon photo by Nubar Alexanian

Chris Lydon photo by Nubar Alexanian

[Editor's Note: This feature was pulled from an email Chris Lydon sent to a colleague.]

Basic starting point: imagine in an interview you’re on a flight (90-minutes or so) to Chicago… You fasten your seatbelt and, to your amazement, find you’re sitting next to this person you’ve been wanting to interview…Magic Johnson, or Jane Austen or Paul Revere. Your mind is jumping to the moment when you can call home and say: you’ll never believe who I just talked with, heart to heart, no kidding.

Try these on the person in the next seat on the flight….

10. You have a definition of victory before you say hello. You’ve got an idea of what you’d like to phone home.

9. But: You’re ready for something entirely different. Jane Austen wants to talk about God, Paul Revere about sex… Somebody says: I know this isn’t what you’re interested in, but… and you know you’re launched.

8. The assignment is essentially about getting people to laugh, or cry. Or gasp. The novelist Alexander Theroux once told a prison writing class I was teaching that Buddy Hackett had it right about comedians and writers: the job is to go out there on stage, bang a nail into the wall, and then pull it out with your backside. I think with pleasure about interviewing Harold Evans about his book The American Century and intuiting from the book that the key moment was Harry Hopkins’ arrival in London with the Lend-Lease promise in 1940, or ’41. Harold Evans was 13 at the time, scared that his country (starting with mum and dad) was going down. I asked him just to talk about Harry Hopkins and sure enough he got to the moment when Hopkins recited from the Book of Ruth to Churchill and his Cabinet: “Whither thou goest, I will go… to the end.” And dear Mr. Evans cried like a baby. Bingo! He said Hopkins made Churchill cry, too.

7. Broadcasting, as audio ad genius Tony Schwartz told me insistently, is “not a medium of information; it’s a medium of (emotional) effects.” That must go for most interviews, most conversations. It’s not those facts and figures that sink deep so much as the excitement and passion, boredom or hypocrisy they’re pitched with. Studs Terkel celebrated “that fabulous instrument, vox humana.” Voice came first, in evolution and to everyone in childhood; and voice is still freighted with endless key signals of connection. So use the hell out of it.

6. Public conversation is not psychiatry, not seduction either. But it has something in common with both. It should turn on some lifting of veils, some unrehearsed and maybe unintended revelation of self.

5. Play doctor. I think Dr. Bernard Lown is the best interviewer alive.Latvian born, a natural Jewish lefty modern Marxist who looks at patients in their productive/professional situations and inevitably in some pain of alienation. (He’s also a great scientist who invented the defibrillator, and a great humanist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing doctors against nuclear war…) Bernie Lown is an old-school diagnostician who’s written that the taking of a patient’s history is the most valuable medical device ever known; and that the laying on of a doctor’s hands is the most valuable treatment ever conceived. He examines you inch by inch. And then he sits there with you in what feels like a sealed room. No interruptions, no distractions of any kind. “Half like a general, half like a bishop,” as Henry James writes about Dr. Luke Strett in The Wings of the Dove. Like Henry James’ doctor, Bernie sets on the desk between the two of you “a great empty cup of attention.” Bernie listens and watches….Bernie is a doctor on the William Carlos Williams model, who is willing and able to become us, to become the patient, for half an hour, or an hour at a stretch. You leave his office, as Henry James’ Milly Theale did in The Wings of the Dove, feeling that you’ve confessed and been absolved.

4. Cock a third ear to the phrases and sentences, the sound bites, as they’re unfurling. We remember aphorisms. I am thinking of the Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf (Leo Africanus and others) remarking: “I love to hear Arab and Jew debate. As long as Arab take Jewish position, and Jew take Arab position. Otherwise, is just tribal lies and bullshit.” Take that, Alan Dershowitz! With Maalouf, I sat right up. If your subject is staggering forward without anything that sounds like a “good line” or a strong paragraph, you can always change the subject.

3. It always helps to have three main points, specified up front, or implied. Faith, hope and charity. Sex, drugs and rock’n'roll. Cornel West’s great sermons and talks of every kind always seem to pivot on what’s American, what’s modern, what’s human. Stanley Hoffman, a three-points guy, says they’re built into French education. His prose is Exhibit A. Recently I heard Stanley ask: what could Europe possibly make of Woodrow Wilson, who brought 14 points to a peace conference? Alex Theroux, again, says Ivan, Dmitri and Alyosha Karamazov form a three-points masterpiece: mind, body, spirit — and the model of every other three-character act, including Jack, Bobby and Teddy; the Three Tons of Fun; and the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion. Three points ease and organize all minds in range of the conversation.

2. By all means, give something of yourself. So you’ve never played for the LA Lakers, but you owe it to Magic to tell him where you stand on the Celtics — and then a lot about yourself. You are not a potted plant, as the saying goes.

1.The best interviewing technique, as Susan Stamberg used to say, is to listen.

Christopher Lydon has been an unconventional voice in print, 
broadcast and online journalism. He covered presidential 
politics in the Washington bureau of The New York Times in the 1970s; anchored the Ten O’Clock News on WGBH, public television in Boston, in the ’80s; founded The Connection at WBUR, PRI and NPR in the ’90s, and Radio Open Source in the new century and the new media. He and Dave Winer made the first podcast in 2003. He “blends 
the expansiveness of the Renaissance thinker with a trademark Boston 
toughness,”  The Boston Globe observes. Born in Boston in 1940, he 
graduated from the Roxbury Latin School and Yale. He ran for 
mayor of Boston in 1993 in a citizens’ campaign for radical school 
reform.

Most recently, Chris was in Egypt where he was collecting stories of the Arab revolution. You can listen to some of the interviews from that project here.


6 Comments on “Chris Lydon’s “Letterman List” of Interviewing Tips”

  • Peter Kadzis says:

    Best essay disguised as a list I’ve read in some time.

  • Aaron Read says:

    IIRC, one of Terry Gross’s (or maybe it was Diane Rehm?) best interview tricks is to ask people what they think is the biggest misconception about them. It’s a classic trick because anyone who’s being interviewed on a national show is famous enough to have some rumors or even slanderous stories about them floating out there, so such an interviewing trick appeals to their ego and thus inevitably a passionate response. Plus it inherently reveals something that most people don’t know. That’s two for two, and if the response is a story…and it usually is…then you’ve got three great elements for an interview in place.

    So Chris, next time I’m sitting next to you on a flight, what should I ask YOU? :)

  • Kevin Kelly says:

    Thank you for not just a list, but a thoughtful piece on discovering the person as well as the story in every conversation.

  • He’s certainly matured a lot since his Sex Pistols days.

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