Marc Pachter: The art of the interview (TED talk)

The National Portrait gallery is a place for celebrating the lives of great Americans. There are amazing people today though, who don’t bother getting their portraits painted any more. This was a concern for Marc – so he came up with the idea of a living portrait. He would be the brush, and interview the people.

When you interview these fascinating people, what do you try to find out? When do they deliver, and why?

Two preconditions for the interviews: 1) they need to be American, because that’s what the National Portrait Gallery is for, and 2) they must be of a certain age – we want people who have lived through the story, and are willing to share how it turned out, to be able to reflect, rather than be in the midst of it.

On the part of the interviewer, you need to have empathy with the person you’re talking to, so that you can really live the discussion with them. For the interviewee, it didn’t matter about their intelligence, it was all down to one thing: energy.

Energy created extraordinary interviews, and created these extraordinary lives. Even at ages 96, George Abbot filled the room with engaging discussion, his energy and life force was tremendous.

The worst interviewees you can have are the people who are modest. Never get up on the stage with somebody who is modest. Because the people in the audience listening, taking hours of their day to be there, want to get something from the person. The worst interview he ever did was the journalist William L. Shirer – this guy had met Hitler and Ghandi, and when asked about it, he said things like ‘oh, I just happened to be there, no big deal, didn’t matter’. Awful.

The people you interview have to think they did something, and they want to share it with you.

All of us are public and private beings. If all you’re going to get from the person is the public side, it’s not worth it, because you’re getting the commercial.

(Part of TED a day for June)

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