Hannah Storm Helps Us Understand How She Became One Of The Best Interviewers On Earth

If the key to a good interview is listening, then Hannah Storm must have a truly great sense of hearing. The longtime ESPN vet recently made the move to the 10 a.m. edition of SportsCenter, and she’s turned her “Face to Face” segment into a daily brand, featuring conversations with Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Draymond Green, Danica Patrick, and DeMarco Murray in the first couple weeks alone.

She also had a memorable discussion with Magic Johnson, where he talked about the 1992 All-Star Game and revealed just how important winning that game’s MVP was to him. With her ability to make her subjects feel comfortable and still ask the tough questions in a direct and matter of fact manner, Storm should have a lot more interviews like that to come – just as she has many times over the course of her career.

Uproxx Sports spoke at length with Storm about that Magic Johnson interview, what she hopes to accomplish in her new gig, the art of interviewing, and more.

Martin Rickman: You’ve had a few days now, and a little bit of a sample size, but maybe some time to get your feel for the 10 a.m. SportsCenter slot. How has that been so far? 

Hannah Storm: It’s been fantastic. It’s a real departure from the SportsCenters I was doing before in the sense that it’s very interview driven. I’ve had the luxury of being able to do a lot of long interviews. I did 10 minutes with Danica Patrick on the air. Magic Johnson for a half hour, which is unprecedented. I have a lot of taped interviews, many of which I did during Super Bowl week, which have continued to run. I was able to run Draymond Green for 10 minutes the other day, and an additional five minutes on Wednesday. The same thing with Eli Manning. It’s really conversation driven, unlike anything else you see on the network.

It’s a very different sort of hour, which reminds me in some ways of what I did at CBS News when I hosted the Early Show. You’d really have the chance to dig in for these great sit-downs. It’s also reflective of the interview specials I’ve done for the past several years, those “Face to Face” specials, but now it’s become an everyday brand. I’ve enjoyed it. We’re doing different kinds of interviews, and I have a ton of input into the production, as well, which before now I’d had on Sundays, but now I have it every day. It’s really cool. We have a lot of flexibility, I guess, I should say. We’re not locked into an “Xs and Os” segment, or a version of what was done on the last hour. Our goal is to be really different. Cover the stories of the day, obviously, but in a way that’s really probing or next-level in terms of going beyond the actual story itself and pushing forward.

I think we’ve gotten incredible feedback, and now we’re getting tons of tweets from people who want to see the whole interviews. We push out segments of the interviews, and we assume that people just want to watch a snippet, or that millennials don’t have a long attention span. I think the opposite. If it’s something you’re interested in, you’re going to want to watch it. Now we’re almost having the opposite happen where people are mad we’re not posting the full interview. It’s something we’ll have to explore even more. It uncharted waters in some ways for what SportsCenter has been. In another way, it’s a classic format, like Roy Firestone or Bob Costas. It’s not exactly like that, but it hits that sweet spot from 10 to 11 in the morning, where people already know everything already.

I’ve gotten that general sense, too. You have this expectation that people want the grabby “headline quote,” but you look at it later, and some of the stuff that does really well are these long, nuanced, thought-provoking interviews where you get more of a feel for how a person is and what they’re really like. If it’s something someone’s interested in, they’ll read 5,000 words or watch 20 minutes on it. But it takes a lot of homework and prep.

It’s an incredible amount of homework.

But you go back and watch some of the things that you’ve done over the years, and even recently, people seem like they really want to talk to you. 

I think you just build up a reputation that way, and I do think the homework aspect of it, this show is a lot more work than if I just dial in a regular SportsCenter because of the preparation that it takes. I don’t just do print research where I take articles about someone, but now I’ll go read the Twitter feed and go on the Instagram, or the Facebook page. Whatever it takes to get some insight on the person. For instance, Danica Patrick, sure I could have read a few articles or done the whole NASCAR thing, but I saw on Instagram she loves to post about yoga, so sure enough it became something she mentioned in the interview, and I connected with that and asked her all about it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, but it takes a lot of effort.

I over prepare, and I structure my entire interview so that when I go into my interview, I’m prepared to throw it all away. I know it sounds weird, but if I ask my question and I have nine followup questions, if what they said was that interesting or groundbreaking, I always have more than I need, but I have to have the confidence – because I’m so dialed into that person and able to listen to them – that I have all the other questions in my mind. Instead, it becomes a conversation, rather than an interview per se. It’s also unfiltered, so I don’t roll a ton of b-roll, or bring in other voices. It’s really just me and them. I think the essence of the person comes out, and that’s why they’re comfortable. We’re making eye contact. They just know they’re going in, and they know what they’re going to get. They’re going to get someone who’s going to listen.

We saw that with Magic. That interview felt so natural. You got this person who is such a force to explore issues in ways I don’t know that he has before.

I always feel like my job is to find out who they are. I try to not interject my thoughts or how much I know. It’s all in the back of my mind, and it stays there. The art of interviewing is pretty specific. You can get into a trap of saying everything you know, and leaving the person there with not a lot to say. I’d much rather have a quiet confidence in how much I know and ask them an extremely open-ended question because then they’re going to say something interesting that you’re going to be able to latch onto. It’s going to take you in a really interesting direction. If you frame it in a way that they can take it right where they want to go, then you know it’s in a place they care about, what they’re passionate about, and what they’re feeling. There’s only so many questions to ask a person. They end up answering the same questions over and over, unless you get to the heart of something open and really listen to what they’re saying. Really take it in a direction that’s going to be interesting, and insightful.

It’s like Draymond Green. Everyone assumes the easy narrative is they’re pissed off, they’re feeling dismissed because they didn’t play the Spurs last year, and they played the shorthanded Cavaliers. Is that really the right narrative? No, it’s not. He said “the reason we’re winning is because we love winning so much and we’re scared to never have that feeling again. We don’t listen to people on the radio. We don’t talk about winning the 72 games.” Those kinds of things are interesting. As sportscasters, we assume we know it all. It’s human nature to dumb down the narrative or oversimplify it. Even with the Broncos, everybody said they wanted to win one for Peyton. You know what? Each person had their own reason for why they wanted to win the Super Bowl. The guys I had on, they were all so pained by the loss two years ago, and they all said, “We have to have Brock Osweiler back.”

It’s your job to find out about them and find out what they care about, and then you can say, “Wow,” and it’ll take you somewhere else. That’s my style. I don’t really worry about trying to sound smart or proving how much I know. The temptation as a woman coming up in the business was always to prove how much you know to people who thought women shouldn’t be there. I got over that pretty quickly. I found out the real power was in being yourself, being curious, and being prepared.

There’s also that power in knowing you can ask a tough question, and the subject will still respect you.

When you ask the hard question, you ask it in a respectful way. Those are things when you spend time in a news organization, those are instincts that are really sharpened. You are there to generate news in a way. When I would interview someone in the White House or a senator, the goal was always to find something that was interesting enough that would be picked up by the wires. I’m not saying that’s the goal in every interview, but once you think that way and once you say, “I’m going to ask this question that everyone’s wondering, that needs to be asked in a respectful way,” no one is going to walk off the set.

It happened quite a bit at the Super Bowl. Talking to Drew Brees, sure we had a great time talking about wrestling an alligator and all that, but I wanted to know – everyone wanted to know – was he going to restructure his contract to bring in defensive players. Or with Eli Manning, I had to ask him about Odell Beckham Jr. and his maturity level. Does he want JPP back? Sometimes you ask questions that you maybe dread asking, but they have to be asked. You embrace that. Not everybody does.

With Magic, you got such an amazing answer out of him where he said, “I needed something good to happen in my life to say, ‘Earvin, you’re gonna live for a long time, and you’re gonna beat this.’ And that game did that for me.”

I think that you can’t dance around the questions. If you’re uncomfortable asking something, then think about what that makes the subject do. In today’s era, direct conversation is critical. There are a lot of issues that, in the past, people have been afraid to confront, but particularly in the last two years, we’ve had some issues come to the forefront that have engendered some really important conversation, whether it be race, sexism, or sexuality, those are all things that have come into the sports world, and you have to talk about them. Nine out of ten times, people will appreciate that. Once in awhile, someone has their guard up. It doesn’t happen a lot, but there’s a certain respect level when you’re sitting across from somebody. They know I’m not going to trick or try and trap them. I won’t try to make myself look good, or ask anything unfair. I will not do those things. I want a good interview. I don’t want to make myself into a story. That’s years of that kind of reputation, and I think that’s why I’m able to book people and do the kinds of things I do.

When you look back at what you’ve done, are there interviews or a particular day that stands out as the hardest day on set you’ve ever had?

The hardest thing I did was interview families during the Second Gulf War when I was at CBS. The predictions were shock and awe, and not a lot of people would be lost, and it’d be a very clean war, and we’d get in and out, and I remember the first week, the families who would lose a loved one in the early going, it would happen right away, and they’d come on our air. I interviewed wives, and parents, and brothers and sisters, and I remember the first week because I don’t think anyone felt the casualties were going to be the numbers they were. We had started talking to the families, maybe one a day, and it was traumatic. I couldn’t sleep. I was depressed. It was just absolutely heartbreaking. I can’t even think about – that time to me was so dark. As war casualties rolled in and in, there were so many, and we couldn’t talk to everybody. But that first week … those were extremely difficult interviews.

Another one was Payne Stewart’s widow. I did the first interview with her after he died, and many years later, I interviewed her again. I think that was really difficult. And Bobby Phills, when he was in Charlotte after he lost his life in that car crash. I interviewed his wife right after. Interviewing people who have lost loved ones, to me, is the most gutting type of interview that you can do. You feel so much of what they feel, and you’re so respectful of the person who has passed away, and of their memory.

It was the same way I felt when Stuart Scott died. I interviewed all my colleagues, and did three hours on the air. I was spent. It was almost traumatic. You so want to do justice to the person who died, and you understand that grief is so private, but the person you’re talking to wants to talk for some reason. They want the person they lost to be remembered, and for people to care. I just feel so much responsibility with those interviews. Those are the most difficult and the most sensitive. They require a certain sensibility.

Doing those and facing them allows you then to tackle other subjects, no matter how sensitive. 

Sports is a microcosm of society, so anything you do in the news world translates to sports and vice versa. It forces you to think on your feet. The two jobs I had were incredibly complementary, and I feel blessed I made that career change for awhile. It made me better going back to sports. I will say with an interview like those I just mentioned, I always say a prayer beforehand. I feel so responsible. It’s my job to let that person’s truth come out. It’s my job to get to the heart of who they are, not what I want to hear, not the answer everyone else wants to hear or thinks they know about. It’s my job to bring them out, and that’s really what an interviewer is. You bring them out, and the audience might not remember how you phrased it or what you said, but they’re going to know the person you interviewed a lot better. The mark of a really good interview is – is it a good experience for the person you spoke to, and for the audience? Did it have value?

I had DeMarco Murray on the week of the Super Bowl, and the questions I had to ask him were extremely difficult. He’s a guy I have gotten to know well, and I really like, and hope he’s successful and care about. But it was going to be tough, we were going to talk about difficult things, but at the end we’ll have great respect, and maybe even hugs. As long as you ask a question and you’re really listening to what the answer is, you can’t just move on and put your own spin on it. If you’re going to ask the tough questions – and the fun questions – you owe it to the person to really listen to what they have to say. Respect goes both ways. It’s a little relationship that plays itself out for five minutes, or a half hour, and you want it as genuine as possible.

That’s not just good advice for interviewing, it’s good for communicating in general. We need to practice that more.

We need to listen to each other, and make eye contact, and care about what people say before rushing off to our next thought.