What I Learned From Larry King

I know he’s been gone a few days now, but the passing of Larry King actually hit me kind of hard.  See, Larry King was that kind of interviewer that all journalists should want to aspire to be, but a lot can’t understand it in their hot and fiery youths.  

He was a light touch, he had a reputation for being friendly and engaging, but the opposite of the bulldog every young journo wants to be.  They want to go for the hard questions right out of the gate, then bulldog as hard as they can until their prey (the person being interviewed) is exhausted and simply gives in to a well-earned pummelling.

But the truth about interviewing is a lot different than that.  The real nuts and bolts of the art of asking questions are subtlety and negotiation.  This is something Larry King understood that one of the heroines of my youth, Barbara Walters, did not.  Babs was a bulldog, she never let go.  But as I’ve gotten older, and wiser, and more tired, I’ve come to understand that bulldogging isn’t the way.

This is what I learned from Larry King.  Even though I didn’t come across him until late in my training years, he profoundly changed the way I approached everything.

The Edge Larry King Brings

The last thing most people will think of when they hear the name “Larry King” is edge.  He was a man full of round corners and soft spots.  He was the guy you’d grab a beer with, not the guy you wanted to try to nail some of the toughest enemies of the United States.  He wasn’t the king of “gotcha journalism.”  The man was a whisper.

And for the longest time, I couldn’t understand the power of a whisper.  

You see, the thing about a whisper is that it can silence a room.  It can make the most brutal man lower his voice and listen, if only for a moment, because he might miss something important.  

It’s easy to scream.  It’s so, so easy.  It’s the hardest thing in the world to whisper when you’re not sure you’ll be heard.

But a whisper can stop everything.  It can invite people to come closer, to listen carefully, to drop their defenses.  It can change the world.

And Larry was a whisper.  He came in gently, he was kind and friendly and considerate.  And even so, he asked tough questions, but in an incredibly gentle way.

Larry wasn’t a bulldog, he wasn’t the kind of reporter I imagined I’d grow to be.  He was a whisper, he was space for those people being interviewed to breathe.  There’s a lot of power in being that person.  People open up unexpectedly.  They surprise themselves with their candor sometimes.

All the strength and aggression a bulldog brings to an interview is nothing by comparison to a whisper.  Whispers change everything.

How I Became a Whisper

I didn’t understand Larry’s methods at first.  I thought there was no earthly way that anyone could get to the bottom of a tough interview with so much measured patience.  I couldn’t see what he was doing, even though looking at it now, it was absolutely the most brilliant position possible for a journalist to adopt.

It wasn’t until I was a real reporter (albeit at a small local paper) that it really started to click.  Hounding people got me nowhere.  It was frustrating for me, it was infuriating for them, it just didn’t work – I had no idea how any of the absolutely legendary bulldogs succeeded that way.  But Larry… he could get anyone to talk to him about anything, it seemed.

So, I started listening more than talking.  

I tried to become a whisper.  

And it was funny, because suddenly people were telling me things they’d never told anyone, or family stories that hadn’t been shared in a generation, or things they had forgotten until we were chatting.  Becoming a whisper gave me a whole new way to understand people and to understand what it really meant to be a local reporter.

When I became a whisper, I hit journalistic Nirvana.  I started teasing stories out of the hardest nuts to crack.  It was like a miracle.  And all because I whispered and I didn’t scream.

You Can Become a Whisper, Too

I know a lot of non-journalists read these columns.  After all these years, I think I have a pretty good feel for who’s coming to look, and I hope you all know you’re appreciated.  This particular piece may have come from a place about my days as a reporter, but it’s a thing you can literally apply to your entire life.  You can become a whisper and get outstanding communication results as a consequence.

So, here’s how you do it.  And I can assure you, anyone can learn to be a whisper.  Anyone who knew me in my bulldog stage will likely tell you that I was about the last person they would have thought could change so dramatically.

  1. Listen very carefully.  Being a whisper means you’re saying less than you’re hearing.  It’s all about being very quiet, like a cloud floating by.  Hear everything, because when people know they’re being heard, they tend to speak more.  They’ll tell you things you never expected.  This is why Larry didn’t work with a real list of questions.  He knew he’d find threads to pull and follow if he only listened.
  2. Take up little space boldly.  There’s a difference between being a whisper and shrinking into the corner.  A whisper has size and shape and takes up the room it needs.  It just doesn’t need a lot of room to get the job done.  If you’re trying to shrink into a corner to be a whisper, you’re not there yet.
  3. It’s important to actively converse.  Active and natural conversation is important when you’re a whisper.  This is your main skill, in fact.  Rather than demanding information, you’re teasing it out.  Never interrupt, but do ask carefully chosen questions about things that come up, and use those to naturally control the conversation, moving it in the direction you need it to go.
  4. Be gracious.  Whispers are courtly.  Whispers understand and appreciate the trust a subject has put into their hands.  Whispers know that if they scold or use any kind of negative pressure, they’re going to lose all the trust they’ve built.  Be gracious.  Thank your source.  Keep your promises.  Hold tight to the secrets you swore you’d keep off the record.
  5. Open yourself up.  This may be the hardest part to gate keep.  Part of working in this way means being vulnerable.  But you can be vulnerable without overwhelming someone else with your problems.  If they bring up a subject that’s difficult and you’ve had a similar experience, it’s ok to say so.  Don’t make it about you, but ensure the subject understands that you do feel their pain on a very real level.  It’s not about you, it’s still about them, but being vulnerable builds trust.  And trust opens all kinds of doors if it’s real.

Live Your Life Like a Whisper

Since I learned the power of being a whisper, my whole life changed.  As you practice being a whisper professionally, you’ll start to become a whisper in real life, too.  This is tricky, to be sure, but it’s worth the heartache, I promise.  Protect yourself with some healthy boundaries, but become a whisper.  There’s no better way to achieve truly deep levels of intimacy with your friends and family members.  Trust is everything in this world, even today, and I don’t know a better way to reach it than to be a whisper.