A large part of Tom Brokaw’s career was spent in one of the country’s most visible jobs, anchoring NBC’s Nightly News from 1982 to 2004. Before Facebook’s newsfeed and Twitter’s moments, before the rise of viral videos on YouTube, Brokaw was one of three network television anchors that Americans depended on to report what was happening in the world. Over the course of a career that spans more than five decades, Brokaw talked to all kinds of people, from politicians and pundits to prisoners and civil rights workers. To say he’s honed the craft of conversation would be an understatement.
But good conversations aren’t just the purview of legendary journalists. Throughout the course of any career, there are times when people will be thrown together with others they don’t know, or, with whom they have very little in common but need to make a connection. Networking events notwithstanding, getting to know new team members, clients, or competitors is an essential part of doing business.
So Fast Company talked to Brokaw to find out how he does what he does so well. It helps that he’s an extrovert who professes to be naturally inquisitive. “I grew up in a small town in South Dakota, and everybody remembers me going around finding out what was going on, and sharing it with everybody that I came across,” he recalls.
That innate ability translated to his early years as a political reporter who interviewed the likes of Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey, and continued through to his stint on the Today Show where he conducted two to three interviews each day.
Through it all, Brokaw logged hours of listening time, which is an important skill for anyone who wants to become a better conversationalist. As Celeste Headlee, host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s On Second Thought said in a 2015 TED Talk, “It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation.”
Part of that includes getting the other person to talk about themselves. In the “warm-up period” of a conversation, Brokaw says, “You’re taking the measure of [the other person].” Whether it’s with his interview subjects or his coworkers, Brokaw says he tries to know as much as he can about them ahead of time. “The personal side, the professional side, the friends, the interests that they have. That’s always important,” he says.
Brokaw intuitively understands what scientists have discovered through research. Talking about ourselves just feels good. So much so, that Harvard psychologists discovered that individuals were willing to give up money for the opportunity to disclose information about themselves.
What Brokaw also learned while listening to others talk about themselves was that it’s important to cultivate an element of surprise that helps engage the other person (or in his case, the viewing audience).
He explains how the best lawyers in a courtroom ask only the questions that will take them to where they want to get to, in which they can predict the answers. “I don’t do that,” says Brokaw. “What I do is anticipate how they’re likely to answer a question and try to steer them away from just a cliché of the moment.”
Here he underscores the importance of paying attention. “What you want to get is the kind of spontaneous reaction from people that will reveal who they are or what the issue that brings you to this is all about,” he says.
That’s not to say that his approach has worked smoothly every time. Brokaw confesses that interviewing Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2000 was his most challenging conversation to date. In sharp contrast to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Brokaw calls “quite forthcoming,” Putin was all business.
“There was a lot of kind of stonewalling,” he describes. “No humor. No kind of verbal play at all between us.” Coupled with the fact that their appointment was delayed and Brokaw had a deadline that night, he admits it was a tough job. “Even on the obvious things he would not give an inch,” he says. “He played it very much like the old-school KGB agent that he was.” That said, Brokaw admits he’d like another opportunity to talk to Putin, even though he thinks “the chances are pretty remote at this point.”
Brokaw says he’s also had to interview people he knows well. In the case of David Letterman, not only have the two known each other for years, but Letterman was also accustomed to being the one who asked the questions. Brokaw says it was up to him to “try to get at who David is and what his interests are.” According to Brokaw, Letterman was “engaged and funny and warm.”
No doubt Brokaw was just putting into practice what he’s advised a lot of young reporters to do to draw people out. “When Whitey Ford was pitching for the Yankees, Casey Stengel, his manager, would say, ‘Take a little bit off your fastball from time to time. That will surprise them.’ I think that’s also true with interviewing.”
Though not planned, during the course of this conversation, Brokaw himself got surprised. In the midst of answering questions, he was sifting through a small container of paper clips. “I just was going through a dish here that I haven’t seen in a long time and I found an arrowhead that I found when I was 15 years old, and I’ve been trying to find it for a long time,” he interjects. “So this interview is very worthwhile,” he adds, laughing.
The mood shifted out of business gear in just a few seconds. At this point, Brokaw the professional became Tom the person. Although I hadn’t been particularly ill at ease, that a little bit of unexpected self-disclosure made the conversation memorable.