After Savannah Sellers finished the NBCUniversal Page Program, her first job was assisting veteran NBC News correspondent Harry Smith. Now an NBC News correspondent and NBC News NOW anchor, Sellers circles back to her mentor to ask how to master the interview. The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Savannah Sellers: What’s the most important thing for you when you’re prepping for an interview?
Harry Smith: I find in my line of work that you can’t do enough homework, you can’t do enough preparation. It helps you understand what questions to ask, beyond the boilerplate. Say, for instance, your assignment is to interview somebody and then put together a package about it. It’s not just about Googling their resume. Keep hitting the button, come away with everything. I was doing an interview last night for the [John F.] Kennedy Library and one of the guests is a professor at Princeton. And I was going back, looking at the notes on a book that he wrote 20 years ago. And interestingly enough, it came up in the 90th minute of the interview. So to me, preparation is key.
On the other hand, if you’re working your first local news job, and the assignment editor says, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got a two-alarm fire down at 16th and whatever,” you don’t have a lot of time to do much homework other than look at the address. Look at who’s there, what’s there, all that stuff. If there’s two alarms, why is it more critical? You have to keep your eyes open, keep your ears open, keep your feel about: “There’s a business there that’s been in business for how many years?” You may even be able to call someone on the way to the emergency. But it has to be about how curious you are in the first place. And if you’re curious, you’re going to ask. Your brain is going to be asking more questions all the time.
Sellers: Is there any type of advice for when you’ve got a camera, and as soon as it’s out, sometimes people act totally differently than they did before the camera was out? Because suddenly, it’s not just a conversation, it’s a conversation that’s being recorded and it feels scarier. How do you talk people that you’re interviewing through that?
Smith: Sometimes just put the [camera] down, right? Make contact first. “I am who I am, this is what we’re doing. Wow, can’t imagine what you’re going through, etc., etc.” And then, “I’m not going to take a lot of your time. I just have a couple of questions for you.” You need to try to build a little bit of a bridge first.
Sometimes there’s no time to do it. Sometimes it’s just chaos. Going back to the news conference, especially if it’s an ongoing story, the person who’s giving the news conference sometimes just doesn’t break that much news, right? There’s a message that they’re going to convey, it’s been written out, they’ve consulted about it. But a lot of times, it’s the person who’s standing off a couple of steps who actually has a better understanding and a better grip and maybe a more nuanced take.
I call it “stay away from the scrum.” Once in a while, there’s some nugget of information that you need to get, but once that scrum is over, you’ve got to have your “Ron Burgundy” head on a swivel. You’ve got to be looking around for — who’s that person over there who’s just leaning against the wall? And you just sidle up and say, “And what do you think? Yeah, tough day.” Just an observation. And sometimes the water comes, you know? You’re in a flood of information and stuff that you wouldn’t get otherwise. But that goes back to curiosity, again.