David Letterman is often chastised for not preparing well for interviews. I think sometimes that’s right, as he seems far more interested in having a normal conversation with a person that reading suggested questions from a publicist. If the guest is personable and willing to engage, the conversation goes well. If the guest is only willing to discuss their current movie, they’re going to have a bad time.
The claim that Letterman simply can’t, or won’t, prepare for an interview is simply false. In fact, when he has a guest he respects or a guest he feels has something to say, I think he is an extraordinary interviewer.
Case in point: a recent interview with Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and former Army Sgt. Kyle White. First, I’m disappointed this first clip removes several early minutes of the televised broadcast of Letterman putting Sgt. White at ease, asking him about his background, etc. It was nice to see Letterman not leap into the emotional part of the firefight, but making it clear that White is an actual human being outside of these events.
Notice how Letterman sets up Sgt. White for a successful interview, guiding him through the discussion, making sure he highlights relevant points, and reducing the glare of the spotlight so that it’s really a conversation between just the two of them, with us listening in on it.
It’s amazing how Letterman conducts this entire interview without once referencing his notes. At times, Letterman knows the narrative so well that he circles back to remind Sgt. White of details he had not mentioned. Throughout the interview, it is given the weight and attention required of someone who has earned respect.
After the essential details of the event are relayed to the audience, Letterman again returns the interview to Sgt. White as a person. He inquires about PTSD, the help he received from the army and how he is doing today. Letterman mentions the importance of the GI Bill and indirectly highlights the plight of jobless veterans by giving Sgt. White the opportunity to highlight his new employment as an investment analyst.
This is just a terrific interview in every way. Letterman demonstrates respect for Sgt. White in so many ways, both verbally and non-verbally. It’s an excellent illustration of how to help a veteran tell their story.
A few other things I like about how Letterman demonstrates respect:
- Sgt. White was the first guest on the show, not the last.
- Letterman doesn’t make a big show of grandstanding and ‘thanking him for his service on behalf of the American people’ or anything like it. He keeps it personal and treats Sgt. White with warmth and sincerity.
- Sgt. White is given all the time he needs to tell his story. These clips are over 12 minutes, and there was additional footage televised that is not included here. The interview is never rushed or cut short so that they can move on to something else.
- Sgt. White is given the opportunity to highlight important issues like PTSD, health care, education and employment within the context of his personal story.
This is a terrific interview of a true hero by a television legend. I think it’s worthy of viewing and reflection on both accounts.