Good conversations lead to good stories

Posted by  Robyn —August 2, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Watching Andrew Denton interview Michael Parkinson on More Than Enough Rope on ABC television recently was a lesson in good interviewing techniques. Denton even admitted he only needed to turn up, say something to get started and then sit back and let Michael just tell his stories.

Parkinson was relating how difficult it was way back when he was trying get his interview show up and running and he credited the late Orson Welles with its successful beginning. Because Parkinson was not as yet an established name it was difficult to get people to come on the show. The producer went all out to get a big name, one that would smooth the way for others and flew to Spain where Welles was making the eventually uncompleted Don Quixote. The successful deal negotiated meant persuading British Airways to knock out the front two rows of seats on the aircraft out so that Welles could sleep on a mattress on the floor.

“And he walked on the aeroplane and he looked at the mattress on the floor and smiled and went and sat in the seat. It jumped the hurdle. And then he came to my room and I’d been working on this interview for, like, all my life, and I opened the door and he was dressed entirely in black, black sombrero, black tie, black shirt, black cloak and he swept into the room. Incredibly dramatic.

“My name’s Orson Welles”, he said “And you would be?”

And I said, “Er Parkinson.”

“Yes”, he said.

And he looked around and he saw this scrap of paper on my desk and he said, “That?”

I said, “My questions.”

“Do you mind if I look?”

I said, “No.”

And he picked them up and he turned to me and he said, “How many of these shows have you done?”

I said, “Two.”

“I’ve done many more”, he said. “Will you take my advice?”

I said, “Certainly”.

And he ripped up the questions and he said, “Let’s talk”. And walked away.

And he sat down and he did two one hours that night, that were majestic.”

Tearing up the questions might run counter to our instincts of wanting to be well prepared for what comes next. Sometimes the best stories arise from our letting go of the process and just having a conversation.

About  Robyn


  1. Nerida Hart says:

    Robyn I love this story – I find myself very frustrated when those I have worked with want everything prescribed (just in case) and are often unwilling to “go with the flow” and see what emerges. However, my experience tells me that sometimes letting go of control leads to the most amazing outcomes, that probably would not have eventuated under the control model.

  2. Robyn Ciuro says:

    I’ve experienced that frustration too Nerida. That’s why this story struck such a chord with me when I heard it. I think the fear that something might take them by surprise keeps people caught up in the predictable and fully focussed on getting every detail right. The confidence that you can cope with the unexpected comes with experience, and as you say, can bring about amazing outcomes.

  3. Terrific story, Robyn,
    And it has me thinking about the “behavioral questioning” nature of business and media these days.
    We seek to discover things about a person, and then tell them what we want to discover!
    “To Orson” should become a new infinitive.

  4. Robyn Ciuro says:

    Steve, you’re right about the popularity of “behavioural questioning”in business. It is particularly beloved by recruiting staff. Advice on how to “correctly” answer those questions abounds on websites and job boards. What you then get at interview is a performance.
    I loved asking potential new employees “Tell me about your first paid job” as much for the look of shock on their face when I ask something they’re not prepared for as for the interesting stories that can reveal something of the person behind the presentation.
    And I’m planning to use “To Orson” as soon as I can get away with it.

  5. Nerida Hart says:

    Great commentary on the so-called “right” questions and answers at interview. I have been criticised in the past for not asking questions that have correct answers. I love setting a scenario up and asking the applicant how they would deal with this situation. I try to make it something completely out of the ordinary so I can see how they might think about the problem. The answer is largely irrelevant 😎

  6. kitchensink says:

    I think there is a subtext being ignored in this thread. In writing his questions, Parkinson had done the necessary research to interview Welles. While the pre-interview questions were torn up, I’d conjecture that the conversation was able to flow because the homework had been done. All that Parkinson changed (at Welles suggestion) was the approach to the conversation. And, Welles haveing read the proposed questions then knew the areas that Parkinson was briefed on and had some idea where fruitful discussion could be found.

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