Barbara Walters: The art of the interview for everyone

Posted: January 3, 2023 by chrisharper in Uncategorized

By Christopher Harper

As a journalist with the Associated Press and Newsweek, I interviewed some interesting and important people, from Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat to the killers of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the survivors of Jim Jones’ haven in Guyana.

But I was a neophyte compared to Barbara Walters. During nearly a decade of working with her, I came to understand why she was so good at interviews.

When I left 20/20 for academia, I asked her if it was all right to provide some of her secrets to budding journalists, and she agreed.

But I think her techniques can help almost anyone interviewing other people or finding out information about any subject like Medicare plans and benefits.

First, research a topic or a person thoroughly. Know as much as possible to formulate a list of questions. Barbara had a photographic memory, so it was easy for her to recall all the details.

Second, carefully select the questions and try to anticipate the answers.

Before each interview, Barbara and I each would write down questions on three-by-five cards. We’d then meet in person to edit the questions. Some would be included, others rejected, and some would be combined.

Some questions would try to elicit long answers: Tell me how you feel about this or that.

Some questions were intended to evoke a yes-or-no reply. Barbara’s most famous question of this type occurred when she asked Vladimir Putin if he’d ever ordered someone killed.

Some questions weren’t questions but statements of fact to prompt a response. You said you felt alone…. Pregnant pause…

When we’d chosen 30 to 35 questions, Barbara’s assistant would type the questions on several four-by-six cards. These cards remained in Barbara’s lap or hand without the audience being unable to see the cards.

As the producer, I would listen to the interview subject’s answers and make sure that he or she had adequately responded and made sure Barbara had asked all the questions. If something were off by only a bit, we’d redo the question and answer at the end of the interview.

Third, and perhaps most important: Barbara listened.

The rigid structure of the questions resembled a well-choreographed dance, but Barbara could and did drift away from the questions if she found something of interest.

It’s essential to ensure you don’t overlook information simply because it doesn’t fit into the choreography.

Like most everything in life, you need to get all the details and listen to what others say.

Barbara Walters made her mark by doing both better than anyone else in journalism.

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