Lately have been enjoying the podcast edition of Here’s the Thing, initially despite myself. Every couple of weeks Alec Baldwin interviews a different guest, and at first I thought he was terrible at it, particularly in how he seems to interrupt and talk over his guests constantly. His never lets his own voice go unheard for very long, preferring instead to dive into the middle of his guest’s thought to ask another question, or even just to finish their sentence for them.
And yet I kept listening! It dawned on me after several episodes that Baldwin makes his interrupt-driven interview style legitimate by keeping all those interruptions in the service of the getting the interview subject to tell a good story. If he asks a question before his subject is done answering the last one, it’s because he picked up on a multilayered mood or keyword they mentioned, and he wants to waste no time digging further into it. When he paraphrases something they just said, that’s him trying to draw more of that same story from the subject; when he starts pitching sentence-completing phrases at them, he’s nudging them back to where he feels the better story is.
It’s a very sort of full-contact approach and I most certainly don’t think it can work for everyone, but I’m convinced Baldwin pulls it off most of the time because of his keen nose for what makes a radio-worthy story, combined with some sort of odd charm that puts his guests at ease. As a listener I forgive his apparent overexcited badgering because the result is so often memorable stories both personal and professional from interesting people who sound genuinely delighted to tell them.
Even though a gloss-listen sounds as if he merely loves the sound of his own voice, it becomes clear after listening to a few Here’s the Thing episodes that nearly all of Baldwin’s speech is about his subject. Occasionally, when the guest is a fellow actor or entertainer, they will try to throw the spot onto Baldwin’s oeuvre. He’ll graciously acknowledge that, but then shift the focus back to the other person as fast as conversationally possible.
I’ve noticed that his interview style has begun to influence the way I have conversations with friends, colleagues, and clients. Combining my appreciation for Here’s the Thing with Scott Simpson’s usefully acerbic article You are Boring, I tune the Baldwin Approach away from making an excellent radio story and more towards a sort of active listening. When my friend shares a thought, even if I don’t have any immediately clever followup observation, I’ll ask a followup question. If they say something I disagree with, I’ll put a lid on my instinct to object, instead replying “Oh! Why do you feel that way?”
Sounds a bit like I’m playing ELIZA more than Baldwin, perhaps, but it keeps me focused, listening, and thinking. I play keep-away with my desire to turn the conversation back to myself, for as long as I can, and I always seem to end up learning something new before it’s my turn to talk again. So that’s pretty good.