Caught in the undertow of CNN’s corporate confusion, venerable talk show host Larry King decided this week to step aside. After a record-setting 25 years in the same prime-time slot, King announced on the air Tuesday night that he will end his show this fall.
This is a major loss for TV viewers, especially sales professionals.
For the past ten years or so I have recommended my sales leaders and students watch Larry’s show. The reason was never Larry’s guests, but rather how he went about doing what he does so well.
It is no accident Larry King is a household name in America and abroad. He blends style and skill, and there’s much to learn simply by watching him in action. Larry is a master interviewer who gets what he needs in a safe, non-threatening way.
Larry has interviewed an estimated 50,000 guests with grace and restraint. While stones were tossed after his recent, awkward interview with Lady GaGa, I will never forget the disciplined professionalism he showcased years ago when Heather Mills came out during Larry’s interview with Paul McCartney. Mills butted in, insistent on advancing her personal agenda (land mines).
Larry took the high road. And he stayed on it. At the conclusion of the program Larry revealed Mills for what she was, and proved later to be: selfish and self-serving, a person whose personal agenda transcends respect for others.
The fundamental traits of a good interviewer are easy to grasp but harder to apply, certainly at King’s level of “unconscious competence,” where key behaviors are intertwined and automatic. King knows these elements and practices them on-air with great discipline.
Two specific skill sets have made him successful: King knows how to listen, and he knows the three types of questions to ask. His consistency is unswerving. Regardless of the guest, Larry is adept and adroit when incorporating these skills from his side of the microphone.
These two things, listening and questioning, are what I have asked my students to study.
“Learn from him,” I urged. “He will help you sell better.”
A great listener listens with a very distinct purpose: He or she watches the speaker while listening for two things, content and emotion. Content, of course, is what someone says. Emotion is the emotional amplitude tied to what he or she is sharing.
King retained what he heard, and zeroed in on areas of emotional value to the speaker. All salespeople should do the same. People act on emotion; the more precise we can be identifying those key areas, the more relevant we can be when it’s our turn to respond.
Larry is also a perfect role model for the three types of questions an interviewer or salesperson should ask. Questions must serve a very specific purpose; they should seek information, clarify what we’ve heard, or test our understanding.
Every question, whether asked during an interview or on a sales call, must serve its purpose.
Too often in selling salespeople are told, “Ask a lot of questions.” Well, that’s nice; but if we ask haphazardly, without a purpose, we are likely to aks irrelevant, disjointed, or non-germane questions that result in a non-cohesive exchange.
Customers are irritated by that. They will shut down. When they do, they close their lens of disclosure.
As well they should. Customers reward professionals and punish amateurs. And good for them for doing so. This reaction is fair, and it’s very predictable.
When Larry was asked by his guest that night (Bill Maher, who’s far more opinionated and cannot pretend to be neutral on anything) who should replace him, King answered, “Ryan Seacrest, assuming he likes politics.”
And there lies CNN’s conundrum: Seacrest is a smart, personable workaholic with a tremendous skill set. But will he have the range to cover the remarkable spectrum of diverse, global personalities Larry King maestroed for decades?
We can only hope so.
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