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The Art of the Interview With Sam Fragoso

Ahead of his live taping with actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, we caught up with him about his intensive research process, the ingredients of a good conversation, and how he gets people who have given thousands of interviews to say something new.

  • June 6th 2024
If you can accept that we are all (always) falling short — then I think it’s easier to quickly arrive at a place of love.
Sam Fragoso

Reflecting on the art of the interview, you’ve said, “People, especially public figures, come in with a very well workshopped story of their life. And my job is to say I’ve heard the story because I’ve listened to everything you’ve done. I’ve read every interview you’ve been part of. And we’re going to try to tell a different story today.” So how do you get someone who’s given thousands of interviews to say something new? In the short time of an hour, how do you get people to trust you enough to reflect honestly on their lives?

I often hear interviewers praising their guests in conversation, which is fine. But I think the greatest compliment you can pay a guest is research. Doing the homework — demonstrating that you’ve taken the time to comb through their work — and what they’ve said about it — and have arrived at a new, more focused set of questions. From there, I think people tend to trust — and want to show up for — someone whose clearly shown up for them.

You say that interviewing lives and dies by the follow up question. What makes a good follow-up? Are yours often anticipated ahead of time, or do they arise in the moment?

They arise in the moment. I can’t predict what they’ll be, but I know when they are supposed to happen.

Your conversations on Talk Easy are intensely outlined and researched, typically following a three-part arc with an epilogue. How do you balance all this preparation while ensuring the conversation unfolds organically and allows for possibility? 

Sidney Lumet in his book “Making Movies” talks about “all great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen.” Preparation, the act of having a real plan — and the comfort and ease that plan offers — is how I’m able to stay present. I’m not sure how it works for anyone else, but it’s the only way it works for me.

I fall in love in the process of research,” you’ve said. “I’m so enveloped, that I find something to love about everyone who comes on.” How does that love come through when you’re talking to someone? Is there a way to bring that to everyday conversations, ones that can’t possibly be prepared for?

The love is communicated in the questions. The care and time put into scripting, endlessly turning over moments from the guest’s life and work, is a way of showing love.

This is a lot harder to do day-to-day, but on the best of days I think of that Richard Powers’ passage from “Bewilderment”: "Nobody's perfect, she liked to say. But, man, we all fall short so beautifully." And if you can accept that we are all (always) falling short — then I think it’s easier to quickly arrive at a place of love.

Are the aspects of the art of conversation that we’ve lost, or are losing? How do we find our way back to them?

I only know that some mix of presence, humor, curiosity, and empathy typically brings out the best of us in conversation, on mic or off.

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