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Media and Crisis Management

How to Give a Powerful Interview – the late Dr. Joyce Brothers

Posted on: May 23rd, 2013

The late pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers may be gone but she can still teach. Before her death in May 2013 at 85 she had given advice via virtually all media for 40 years and was so well known she did cameos on entertainment TV shows with regularity.

She left me with two powerful concepts – one for communication, one for life – when I interviewed her during my journalism years.

She came on a weekly TV interview show of mine in St. Louis to push one of her 15 books and by the time she walked out I felt steamrolled. I had speed-read her work and prepared many questions but within a minute of the program’s start we were NOT talking about anything I intended. She overpowered the conversation with the ease of an NFL quarterback playing against cub scouts. It mattered little what I wanted. She knew what she intended to say and could get there in seconds. I might ask why the sky is blue and in a blink she’d be giving five ways to improve a marriage. If I asked about topic A and it didn’t fit her plan then, bam, we were on topic B before you could say, “But Dr. Brothers…” Never had I felt so out of control of an interview.

The verbal whiplash from this diminutive blond force of nature was such that I decided, “What the heck, I’ll hook the show to her engine and go for the ride.” Might as well because – and this is important – whatever she said was almost always more interesting and compelling than what I intended. She combined a phenomenal sense of what the audience wanted to hear with the ability to articulate it dynamically. Her voice was almost a whisper yet her self-assuredness and knowledge plus her understanding of how to steer, or should I say commandeer, an interview with a sound bite machine gun style amazed me. And she did it with a subtlety that I think masked her manipulation. I was being manhandled and only I knew it. Well, she was Dr. Joyce Brothers!

That was when I learned there is an art to giving interviews. She knew I was not the audience. Her mission was to convey practical information over, around, and through me with grace, style and purpose. Business leaders could learn much by emulating that.

Jump ahead about 20 years. I interviewed her briefly about her painful book “Widowed.” This time I sat back and let her rip. Dr. Brothers drew lessons from witnessing the slow death of her longtime husband and its profound impact. The woman who knew everything suddenly knew nothing in the face of this experience. There was a reality about the loss of a spouse she had not foreseen.  She said it didn’t matter that she knew for two years that her husband would die. His dying still pole-axed her. She admitted she holed up for a year afterward. It would take another year before normal life was thinkable. Her take-home for the rest of us?  You cannot pre-mourn the death of a loved one even when death is long expected. There is no work-around. No get-out-of-pain-free card. I have shared that insight with grief-stricken friends over the years.

And for years to come I will remember Joyce Brothers.

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