People will remember Larry King for many reasons, but I think they all grew from the same original place.
In short, King succeeded for decades as an interviewer because he learned to ask questions, listen closely, and follow up correctly. As a result, he got people to open up and reveal themselves — sometimes more than they intended to.
King’s death at age 87 was confirmed Saturday. I think his interviewing revealed highly developed emotional intelligence; ironically, a phrase that wasn’t even coined until several years after he began his career in 1957.
I knew King slightly years ago, when I worked in the mid-2000s as the lead assistant to author and journalist Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, who was a frequent guest on Larry King Live on CNN.
I remember being struck that there was no “act.” The Larry King you saw on TV was the same King I saw in the studio.
I also remember noticing the structure of his questions, which basically went like this: Open broadly, listen closely, focus on detail, interrupt if the interview subject filibustered or grew boring, and have the discipline to stay out of the way.
In a 2017 Q&A on the website of Columbia Journalism Review, King went into greater detail, basically revealing all of his secrets. (I recommend the whole article; there’s also a related podcast.) Here are five of the key highlights, largely in King’s own words:
1. He wasn’t afraid to betray his ignorance.
Ignorance gets a bad rap. It doesn’t mean stupidity; it means a lack of knowledge. Sometimes admitting your lack of knowledge is the smartest thing you can do. And it’s certainly a trait of emotional intelligence.
King: “They’re the best [questions]. … ‘What happened?’ That’s the simplest question in the world. Why’d you do this? What happened? I don’t know more law than a lawyer. I don’t know more politics than a politician. … I don’t know more medicine than a doctor. … I’m a layman. I’m a pure layman who’s intensely curious. What I do have is a sense of pace. I know when something’s going well, I know how to draw people out.”
2. He listened to the answers.
Again, another key attribute of emotional intelligence. Not to betray my profession, but I’m sometimes amazed at how many interviewers don’t really listen carefully to the answers to their questions; they simply move on to their next point.
King: “[T]he key of interviewing is listening. If you don’t listen, you’re not a good interviewer. I hate interviewers who come with a long list of prepared questions, because they’re going to depend on going from the fourth question to the fifth question without listening to the answer. … I concentrate solely on the answer, and I trust my instincts to come up with [more] questions.”
3. He didn’t over-prepare.
If you were going to be on King’s show because you had written a book, odds were good that he wouldn’t have read it ahead of time. He said this helped him approach the interview from the point of view of his audience.
King: “I had the first national radio talk show. We used to do … ‘Who Is The Guest?’ They would not tell me who the guest is I’ve got to do a two-hour interview, guy or woman, and all they have to do is tell me their name. And then I’d find out who they were, and then I’d ask them questions. I loved that. … I’m in the same boat as the audience, they haven’t read the book. So we’re all in this together.”
4. He kept control of his emotions.
The “hardest” interviews, King said, were the ones in which he vehemently disagreed with his guests, but worked hard to keep himself and his feelings out of the equation. The only times he wasn’t able to do that, he said, was when interviewing people who were blatantly racist. And while it was satisfying to confront them, it didn’t make for good interviews.
King: “I never understood racism. Why would the pigment of skin mean anything? Anything? So when I had George Wallace on early, or the head of the Ku Klux Klan, or George Lincoln Rockwell, the anti-Semitic racist. That blew my mind, and I would get confrontational and sometimes have arguments. It’s not good to argue with the guest. Because it’s maybe interesting for the audience, but it puts you out of control. When you argue, you’re not in control.”
5. He gave control to his subjects.
Again, an irony: King had a reputation for being a bit of a “safe” interview for celebrities. But because of that, they sometimes wound up revealing more than they meant to. King used the example of his rare 1988 interview with Frank Sinatra.
In short, the one condition for the interview, which King agreed to, was that he not bring up the 1963 kidnapping of Sinatra’s son. (I had to look this up; Sinatra paid a ransom and his son was released.) But then:
“In the middle of the interview, we’re really in touch. And I asked him, ‘The thing with you and the press–is it overdone, or have you been bum-rapped?’ He says, ‘Well, it might have been overdone. But I’ve been bum-rapped. Take my son’s kidnapping.’ He brought it up. I just was asking good questions. And that’s the framework of which I like to work.”
So, rest in peace, Larry King. King said in that same CJR interview that he didn’t believe in an afterlife. I hope he was wrong about that–and that he’s asking broad questions of a lot of fascinating souls right now, and getting some really illuminating answers.
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