Can I Learn Anything From Larry King?

By David Debenham

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. I never learned anything while I was talking.”

Larry King

Larry King was the longest running radio and television talk show host in history.  He was also one of the most maligned interviewers. Why?  He did little research about his subjects.  If his subject wrote a book, he would know the title, and he might read the back cover, but nothing else.  He would ask the first question and his natural curiosity would take the first answer into his second question, and so on. He believed he asked the questions his listeners, who hadn’t read the book, would want to ask.

There was an exception to this question-answer-question format.  That was when an answer suggested a pointed question that would make his interviewee uncomfortable or embarrassed.  When that time came, Larry would change tack toward safer waters. Larry never asked the tough follow up questions.  Instead, the interviewee was led back into their comfort zone. 

This drove Larry’s critics crazy.  Interviewees were happy to go on “Larry King Live” knowing that they were in safe hands.  Larry got interviews from those who would not have ordinarily have allowed themselves to be interviewed.  He got scoops that other networks never got because his subject felt comfortable to tell their deepest darkest secrets to Larry.  He was non-judgmental.   

It was a formula that was successful for decades.   But can it work for forensic investigators?

We are trained to do as much research as possible before we do interviews.  This, we believe, allows us to be expeditious (get our investigation done on time), efficient (get to the point), and effective (ask the questions that need to be answered).  But are these worthy goals?   Should we take our time and build a relationship that earns the interviewee’s trust while we get to learn the idiosyncrasies of their style of communication?   Are we in such a rush to get to “the point”, that we don’t let our subject guide us to another area that may ultimately be of greater interest?  Considering the amount of information Larry could elicit in a half hour interview,  is our approach really so expeditious?   Is our approach trying to wear the witness down as opposed to elicit data from them?  Is an interview the place to sort out meaningless data from useful information or does he interviewee’s stream of consciousness response an untapped source of telling, psychological information? 

One benefit of Larry’s conversational approach is that it puts the interviewee at ease.  Because Larry has not done the research he has no fixed idea about whether his subject is good or bad.  His interview is therefore non-judgmental, and therefore rapport building.  Consider the following:

James Cameron asked Larry King who his fantasy guest would be. King replies, “What a list. It would be an endless list. Stalin would be on it. Hitler – you know, evil people make great guests. Because evil people don’t think they’re evil.”

“And you’ve had some of them,” Cameron comments.

“Yes, I know,” King replies. “They don’t get up in the morning, comb their hair, say, ‘I’m evil.’ So I don’t approach them that way.”

Contrast that with Cressey’s fraud triangle where the subject is said to be “rationalizing” their dishonest conduct.  Can you, as interviewer, hide your own verbal and non-verbal cues from your subject once you have concluded your subject is dishonest and evil?  Are you so gifted at hiding your own “tells” that the interviewee won’t pick up on your distaste or disgust of them and  become defensive?

Consider an internal investigation by an employer.   The employees are required by law to cooperate with the investigation.  You can interview the same employee more than once.  The employer has hired you with their own theory of the case before they hire you, and they are only more than happy to share it with you.  Does this create tunnel vision?  What if you simply interviewed the allegedly relevant actors and let them tell you if anything wrong is going on. Maybe it is not what the employer thought.  Maybe it goes higher up in the hierarchy than the employer wants to believe.  With a relatively clean slate, and no need to be efficient or expeditious, perhaps you can be more effective by truly following the evidence leads without prodding or coaching.  With trust being built in place of fear, maybe evidence comes to you instead of you having to extract it.  

Food for thought.   

Last point. Consider the auditor who fears stepping over the line into criminal investigation and offending Charter rights.  If you have very little background information as to who did it, you can focus on what happened without being distracted by the question of who made it happened.

David Debenham