When I heard about the death of Larry King I thought – “the braces”. He had not been on our screens in his trademark show Larry King Live – for a decade. Yet, the visual image of King stayed in the mind. Also, the tone and manner of the interviews he conducted. He would lean forward in a spirit of intimacy and ask “the difficult questions” with the feel of a private conversation that made his interviewees feel relaxed and prepared to reveal more. It gave him a long career because it takes two to tango – and the great, the good and the not so good were happy to talk. The Brit who also mastered this skill was the late David Frost.
Tough minded journalists who fancied that they were “holding the powerful to account” looked down on this type of interview. But they tended to have shorter careers. Nobody likes to be badgered, treated with scepticism and even disdain on air. Besides, “the tough interview” becomes as much about the combative egos of the interviewers as the interviewee. The interviewer is too busy trying to “land a punch” and elicit the “gotcha moment” that leads the news bulletins for the day. Listening – always a difficult thing to do well – goes by the wayside. As viewers we intuit this and find it unappealing over time.
The career of King also tells us something about branding and memory. I can’t remember much of his individual interviews but I can remember their intimate tone. Maya Angelou put it well when she said: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
He also understood branding. In modern parlance he had an “instantly recognisable visual asset” in his braces – they trigger a visual memory at the mere mention of his name.
In truth, when I heard about his death, I had forgotten about him. Media are so pervasive and full of personalities that memories of the early generation fade fast as the all-consuming media juggernaut moves forward throwing up new personalities who in turn fade from memory like mayflies seeming to last only a season.
It takes hard work and insight to keep your name in front of the public for six decades, as King did. His insight was that we like people who listen and treat others with common humanity. This is unlikely to ever go out of fashion – but it is much more difficult to do on air in a hot studio than it looks.
Julian Saunders is a strategist, writer and teacher. He was CEO of a creative agency (WPP’s Red Cell) and has worked for the UK government and Google. email@example.com