This is the third in a series of articles on Interview Lessons' 5 kinds of interview: testimonial, conversational, exploration or curiosity-driven, journalistic, and story focused.
What is a curiosity-driven interview?
The third type of interview in our Interview Lessons system is the curiosity-driven interview. The curiosity-driven interview is all about listening. What makes this style unique is that the interviewer does not begin the conversation knowing exactly what the discussion will cover. Success at this style of interview requires the interviewer to be completely present, to be curious, and to be willing to ask simple questions.
Larry King and Terry Gross
Two classic examples are Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh
Air, and Larry King, host of The Larry King Show. They are two very different interviewers, but both use this interview type.
Be in the Moment
Larry King has described himself as being completely in the moment during interviews. He says “The 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 gonna depend on going from the 4th question to the 5th question without listening to the answer of the 4th question ‘cause they’re concentrating on what they’re gonna ask for the 5th.” What makes Larry King a great interviewer is his ability to connect and his insatiable curiosity.
"I've always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions." says master interviewer Terry Gross.
In one classic Fresh Air episode, Maurice Sendak shares a deeply personal and moving meditation on death and how near he is to it. The interview was planned as a simple discussion of his latest book. By being present and listening deeply Gross was able to allow the interview to move into this topic.
How do I prepare?
What about interview prep for a curiosity-driven interview? Prep is always important, but the curiosity-driven interviewer needs to be willing to set aside assumptions and seek out new territory. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris put it this way "If everything was planned, it would be dreadful. If everything was unplanned, it would be equally dreadful."
What's so great about this interview style?
Why use the curiosity-driven interview style? If you interview guests that have been interviewed by others, this is your best chance at finding new and untapped territories. If you are interviewing people that don't arrive with an agenda or planned message, the curiosity-driven style gives you a means to create a connection. It takes practice and a special skill set to be a great curiosity-driven interviewer, but once learned you can take those skills into ANY situation.
How to start
Start with simple but broad questions to get the lay of the land and see where your guest will lead you. Larry King remembers asking a pilot if he ever wondered if the plane would take off. Other examples that require just a little context to set up - was there something surprising that happened related to your subject? Did you learn something from it? Even how did you start your day? Once your guest begins to speak listen intently. This is not the place for notes and pre-planned questions, in the curiosity-driven style those become distractions. Never be afraid to ask the "dumb" question. If you're wondering something you're not the only one, remember you are the stand-in for your audience who can't be there to ask.
The key to a great curiosity-driven Interview
Empathy is key. If you can put yourself in your guest's shoes, you can build a connection. Terry Gross may follow up with wordy descriptive questions as she listens hard and grapples with new ideas, while Larry King believes in keeping questions short and simple, but both use their questions to dive deep and find the strings that, when tugged, will unravel new and compelling and sometimes surprising stories.
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