What a Reporter Can Learn from Dick Cavett and Alec Baldwin

By Jack Limpert

The Sunday New York  Times has a wonderful “Table for Three” conversation among actor and talk show host Alec Baldwin, the legendary talk show host Dick Cavett, and Philip Galanes of the Times. At one point Galanes encourages Baldwin and Cavett to talk about how they get talk show guests to open up:

Galanes: It’s interesting how in tune you are on performing. It brings me back to your talk shows. Physically and temperamentally, you’re very different. We have Cavett’s Mr. Sly and Twinkly-Eyed and — —

Baldwin: I can’t wait to hear what you’re going to say next.

Galanes: And Alec’s more full-throated, upfront delivery. But the tone of your talk shows is very similar. I watched Dick’s interview with Marlon Brando — in 1973, maybe the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. But he didn’t want to give anything away. He spoke in monosyllables. But you just waited and waited, and finally, he opened up and gave the best interview I’ve ever seen with him.

Baldwin: There must be some technique.

Galanes: And I saw the same thing in your interview of Debra Winger, Alec. She launched a few stories, and I thought, She has no idea how to land this plane. But you gave her room and were so kind that she found her way to a beautiful point about processing disappointment that she wouldn’t have if you’d rushed her.

Baldwin: What I find is that when you push or try to take something from them, it doesn’t work. But when you let it breathe, when you let your segments run a little longer, they give it to you. They give it to you if you let it be their choice.

Baldwin is talking about one of the great interviewing lessons a reporter learns: Don’t be afraid of silence, a long pause in the conversation. Let the person you’re interviewing think and decide how to break the silence.

As Baldwin says: “…when you push or try to take something from them, it doesn’t work….They give it to you if you let it be their choice.”

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