How to Start a Conversation with Anyone, According to Katie Couric

Katie Couric Conversations
Photo: Photo Illustration: Photos: Mike Windle/Getty Images

Katie Couric has interviewed everyone from Beyoncé and Prince Harry to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. As one of journalism’s most prominent voices, she's kept contentious conversations civil, gotten the tight-lipped to open up, and chatted with Meryl Streep without fan-girling (at least not on the outside).

Couric knows how to get people talking—and her foolproof methods work whether you’re on camera or feeling awkward at a party. To master small talk with just about anyone? “One component is being a good listener,” she says. “Be focused on what they're saying, so then you can use that to continue the conversation.” That requires following Couric's golden rule: “No phubbing allowed,” a.k.a. no snubbing someone by paying more attention to your phone than to them. “I've done it myself so I'm not being super judgy here. But I hate when you're talking to someone and then they start looking at their phone.”

Once you’ve made your approach, good conversation is just a question away. “People love to talk about themselves,” Couric says with a laugh. “The key thing to being a good conversationalist is asking questions.That’s how the journalist gained the trust of the subjects who appear in her new docuseries, America Inside Out with Katie Couric, which explores the making of the #MeToo movement, runway trailblazers, tech that’s literally changing the way our brains work, and more. It’s also how she makes sure to meet the most interesting person in the room at any social function.

Scroll down for Couric’s field guide to making conversation with anyone, and catch the premiere of America Inside Out on National Geographic tonight at 10 p.m.

How to approach anyone at a party… If you ask questions about somebody—what their project is, what they're doing, how they feel about something—A, they'll be flattered that you're interested, and B, it will get a conversation going. I tell all my friends if they feel awkward or shy at parties, always ask questions. You hope that the person with whom you're speaking will eventually get around to asking you a question because that's really freaking annoying too.

The best icebreaker… “What’s your sign?” I’m kidding! “What brings you here?” Or “How do you know the host?” Sometimes I’ll say, “I don’t really know anyone here—can I talk to you?”

How to decide whom to talk to… I always look for the person who’s standing alone, awkwardly, at a party because I have, I guess, a rescue fantasy. It must be my maternal instinct or something, but I always introduce myself to them or include them in a conversation and slowly bring them into a circle of people. And I always introduce people who’ve known each other for, like, 30 years, but I think that’s better than not introducing people at all!

Ask this question to get someone to open up… I like to ask where they get their news—not what newspapers and magazines they read (that's my well-known question for Sarah Palin)—but I am interested in where people get their news and information. I ask if they've read any really good books lately. I ask about how they're feeling about the state of the world, causes and issues they care about. And a lot of times I think the most important question is why? You want to have a better understanding about why they feel a certain way, so I'll ask, "Why do you think that? What is the basis for that opinion?" That is as illuminating as the initial answer.

What not to ask… I try not to ask people what they do because I think too often we define people by their jobs instead of their lives.

How to talk to people you strongly disagree with… Hear them out. I really do try to unravel where someone's coming from and how they formed an opinion even if I don't agree with their perspective. Sometimes you can get rankled by a person's answers, especially when they're doctrinaire and rigid in their point of view. When I interviewed a white supremacist at [the Unite the Right] rally in Charlottesville, I wrestled with everything these individuals said, but I also think it was important to hear because you need to understand people to figure out how to contend with hate and intolerance. That's why even views I find repugnant are important to hear—so we know that they're out there. You can't put your head in the sand.

VIDEO: The Importance of Asking Questions with Katie Couric

Three topics people surprisingly love to talk about… People always like to talk about what they’re doing to stay healthy and about technology and how they’re addicted to their phones. I think women are very interested, these days, in talking about workplace cultures and how we can change environments to make them more hospitable and receptive to women. And elevating women’s voices—the silver lining to some of the negativity in the country is that people have galvanized at a grassroots level. They’re feeling that they have the power to change things.

Most importantly... Listen. Listening is critically important, and that means giving your undivided attention. Nothing's worse than an interviewer who isn't actually having a conversation, who isn't listening and responding based on the answer to the question you just gave. I find that incredibly off-putting when I'm being interviewed.

End the convo if you're bored... You need to be genuinely interested in the person to whom you're talking and the subject you're talking about because people can smell a phony a mile away. People want to be heard and acknowledged and appreciated for what they have to say, so I think that is the number-one thing. If you're not sincerely interested then you shouldn't be having the conversation!

How to sniff out tomorrow’s news… I’m curious about the world and not just the daily news that we’re consuming. In August, I called Meryl Streep—I know that was such a big name drop, wasn’t it?—but, I called her and I said “Hey, I want to understand why women are so stuck in Hollywood. I keep reading about the small percentage of female directors, how women are paid less. Why do you think it’s happening?” We talked about it and she said, “I don’t think men really want to see the kind of movies women want to do and see.” It was clear that there was so much to this story, but it just hadn’t materialized yet. And then, lo and behold, Me Too, Time’s Up, all these stories of harassment started springing up. So I thought, “Wow, I’m onto something.” I’m interested in what those pieces of news say about the direction the country is going. I really try to step back, look at the big picture, and connect the dots.

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