Have you ever watched your career circling the drain in front of tens of thousands of people?
It happened to me one day in the early 1970s. It was one of those moments we all have, a moment we relive over and over again, simply because it was so humiliating we never want to go through anything like it ever again.
I was at the top of my game. I’d filled in for Arthur Godfrey on the CBS network. I’d hosted a dance party show that was hotter in the Carolinas than Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, emceed the Thanksgiving Day Parade for CBS-TV. During my fifteen years in broadcasting, I’d interviewed the cream: Richard Nixon, Bob Hope, Julie Andrews, Bill Cosby, Maggie Smith, Hugh Downs.
Old Big Deal had really arrived. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever felt that way when life is dealing us a terrific hand.
That particular day, I was to interview Jonathan Winters for the noon talk show I hosted on WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte. Now, Winters was the comedian whose eccentric style inspired the work of Robin Williams and Steve Martin, and I was thrilled to pull celebrity duty. It was exciting to be bringing our audience such a funny, funny man.
But, as was sometimes the case, I saw the interview as my time to shine.
I sat down with the legendary comedian, known for his manic style, his offbeat characters, and set out to impress him with the wit and wisdom of Ty Boyd. I made a clever comment. I tried to one-up him with a wisecrack. I tried to beat one of the funniest men in the world at his own game.
After all, that’s the way the game was played. Celebrity interviews in particular were duels, a contest of wits to see who came off looking the best. Who could get the most laughs. Who won.
That day, Jonathan Winters won.
He won by completely shutting down.
When he realized I was playing the game I sometimes played with celebrity guests – the game I believed I was being paid to play – he walked off the playing field. Oh, he stayed for the interview. But he didn’t make a single humorous comment, didn’t whip out a single eccentric character, didn’t evoke a single laugh during the entire, grueling ten minutes we were on screen together.
The interview was deadly.
I was humiliated. Ready to hang up my microphone. And my humiliation only got worse as the sad truth began to sink in: I’d brought it on myself. I hadn’t been interested in interviewing Jonathan Winters, in showcasing the talent of a comic genius, in providing my viewers with insights they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
All I wanted was to impress them with me.
At that moment, I was a complete failure as a communicator.
At that moment, I took a giant step in my journey to becoming an effective communicator.
One of the times I experienced first-hand true power of communicating instead of simply entertaining was in Santa Fe on a movie set. As a talk show host, I was invited to many movie sets to interview the stars. I don’t remember the movie in this case, but I sure do remember the star – Clint Eastwood.
On screen Eastwood always played – still does – a man of few words, and he was notorious among journalists for being the same off screen. He was a non-talker, a deadly interview. All the prodding in the world would not compel Dirty Harry to dish the dirt.
Eastwood and I, it turns out, had a mutual acquaintance. In his early years in Hollywood, Eastwood had roomed with an Olympic record-breaker and decathlon bronze medalist named Floyd “Chunk” Simmons. Now, I also knew Chunk Simmons. So instead of asking about the movie, instead of digging where interviewer after interviewer always came up empty, I asked about Eastwood’s friendship with Chunk Simmons.
I hardly had to ask another question during the entire interview.
Here was a guy who didn’t talk to most people and he opened right up to me. And all it took was asking a question about something I knew meant a lot to the actor. Showing a little genuine interest. Finding our common ground in Chunk Simmons, a wonderful and colorful man.
Communication genius Dale Carnegie liked to say we’ll gain more friends in two hours by being interested in others than we will in two months trying to get them interested in us.
I failed that lesson with Jonathan Winters, but had begun to learn it by the time I sat down with Clint Eastwood. The more questions I asked, the less verbiage I used, the more effective the communication. I was beginning to respect the value of listening and asking questions.
There is, of course, a place for confidence, but the next time you start feeling as if “you’ve arrived” and you find your communication becoming more self-serving than respectful, start talking less and listening more. Remember, those that are interested are the most interesting.
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