Tag Archives: Robert Morris

Five Marks of a Great Interviewer

There’s a scene in the movie Life or Something Like It where Lanie Kerrigan (Angelina Jolie) ignores what is “expected,” and chooses her own questions to ask the legendary TV personality Deborah Connors (Stockard Channing).  It, of course, made for a great interview.

{from the script:
Producer:  You’ll find your list of questions in here.
Lanie:  Oh, I have my own questions.
Producer:  Uh, Deborah Connors doesn’t answer any questions she doesn’t already know.}

Bob Morris

I thought of this as I read, quite thoroughly, Bob Morris’ interview with Laura Vanderkam, author of the book 168 Hours, on our blog.  (Read it here).  Bob won’t like it that I praise him so visibly, but for those who like to read interviews, let me state the obvious:  he is a master at the art of conducting an interview.  What does he do?

First, he actually has studied his interview subject – thoroughly. He has read their books, and paid careful attention to their backgrounds.  This greatly informs his choice of questions.  If you read many of his interviews, you will see that he does not use “boilerplate” questions.

Second, he crafts questions from the content of the books of the interview subjects. Because he has actually read their material, he knows what they said, and he asks them to summarize key concepts, and then to elaborate on their insights.

Third, he interviews “from overflow.” There is no predicting what other authors, poets, or other sources will be used to frame a question.  And every such “unexpected” question fits the interview perfectly.  For example, in his interview with Ms. Vanderkam, he quotes from English poet William Ernest Henley, and other authors/people that Ms. Vanderkam profiles or quotes in her own work.

Fourth, he puts each interview subject into a larger context. He realizes that no author, no book, stands alone, and he draws from his wide-ranging knowledge in every interview.  By the way, I don’t know the exact count, but Bob has posted dozens of interviews with authors on our blog, and many more are on the way.

Fifth, he starts by choosing interview subjects that he respects. It is clear, in all of his interviews, that he respects the authors and their work.  I happen to know this about him – he loves to learn, and he respects authors who write books that are worth our time.  This respect comes through in his interviews.

In all of these, there is one very obvious, yet critical factor – he prepares for each interview, one interview at a time.

We are fortunate to have these interviews on our blog.  Authors are finding his interviews valuable to them, and many of them link to these interviews on their own web sites.  And, most of all, reading his interviews adds greatly to our own never-ending pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

So, thanks Bob.

My favorite Gladwell Essay – “In the Air: Annals of Innovation”

Malcolm Gladwell

If you have not discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s essays yet (from The New Yorker), then check out his own web site for the archived essays.  They are rich, valuable, and absolutely engaging.  (yes, many of them have been put in his new book, What the Dog Saw:  And Other AdventuresRead Bob Morris’ review of this book here).

Although it seems an impossible task to choose a favorite, I think my favorite essay is:  In the Air:  Annals of Innovation.  In it, Gladwell chronicles how, on many occasions, a “discovery” is not made by “one person” – the discovery is “in the air.”  It is as though the idea is floating around, waiting to be grabbed.  And frequently, it is “grabbed,” by more than one person – people working far apart (geographically, and in every way), not knowing of the work of the others.

In the essay, he talks about a legendary/repeated brainstorming session led by Nathan Myhrvold, which includes a group of very, very smart people.  And the entire essay is an investigation into the simple but profound question, “where do ideas come from?”

Here’s a favorite quote from the essay:
Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination. How can you put that in a bottle?

Check this one out – and his others.  They are great, short reads, that will get your creative and thinking and learning juices flowing.

Some Places To Keep Current With The Folks At First Friday Book Synopsis

Doug Caldwell keeps telling me that I’ve got to get better at all this social networking.  It comes more naturally for some than others.  I acknowledge the obvious — I’m something of a Luddite.  But I’m working on it.

So — here’s a little…

Yes, I’m on twitter.  You’ll find me as Randy1116, and you can follow me here.  (I’m still learning about what it means to tweet, and how to do it effectively — but there’s usually a few tweets a week from me).

I try to put the title of the next book I’m preparing up on my LinkedIn and Facebook pages.

And Doug Caldwell posts new videos from our First Friday Book Synopsis gatherings, and our Take Your Brain to Lunch gatherings, up on youtube and other sites.  Thanks, Doug.

Here’s the First Friday Book Synopsis youtube page.

You can get a taste of Take Your Brain to Lunch here.

But, of course, my primary attention is given to this blog.

And, don’t forget Bob Morris’ main page at Amazon.

Thanks to all of you for reading.

Interview: Robert (Bob) Morris — Conducted by Randy Mayeux

Robert (Bob) Morris is a key member of our blogging team, and knows and shares a true wealth of valuable information and insight.  I interviewed him for this blog over the last week.

bob-morris-1

Robert (Bob) Morris

Robert Morris

Morris was born and raised in Chicago, attended public schools there, earned a B.A. degree with a triple major from Beloit College and an M.A. in comparative literature from Yale University, taught English and coached varsity football and baseball at Kent School and then St. George’s School in New England, served as Director and CEO of the National Humanities Faculty, held a number of senior-level corporate executive positions, and since 1986, has sustained his practice as an independent management consultant who specializes in accelerated executive development and high-impact organizational performance. For the past ten years, he has reviewed more than 1,800 business books (more than 1900 book total) for the US, UK, and Canadian Web sites of Amazon and Borders and has interviewed more than 100 business thinkers who include Warren Bennis, Marcus Buckingham, Jim Collins, Bill George, Michael Hammer, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Chris Zook.

(The following interview was conducted by Randy Mayeux).

Mayeux: Let’s start with titles.  What have you been when in your life? Recently, Judith Bardwick called you a “famous literary critic.”  (Seth Godin refers to you as a critic who matters).  I think that is an accurate current title – but you are so much more.  Title yourself, then and now.

Morris: Frankly, I have always been uncomfortable with labels and titles insofar as they are used to explain who someone is. Over the years, I have been a high school English teacher and varsity football and basketball coach, CEO of a non-profit organization (the pre-collegiate division of the National Endowment for the Humanities), an entrepreneur, corporate executive, independent management consultant, and book reviewer. With all due respect to Bardwick and Godin, I am neither a “famous literary critic” nor “a critic who matters.” Rather, I see myself as a “bridge” between the books I admire and those who read my reviews of them.

Mayeux: You are a great synthesizer.  You draw from so many arenas – literature, sports, film, books….Have you always had this ability to pull from so many places?  Where did you lean to do this?  And, why is it important to be so broad instead of “narrow?

Morris: That’s an especially interesting question because I am constantly struggling to find an appropriate balance between the scope and depth of what I characterize as the “sources of nutrition in my life”: family, friends, the creative arts, the performing arts, sports, etc. Almost everyone and everything in my life seems to be connected. Here’s one example: Since childhood, I have been an avid reader. For me, books were like magic carpets that could take me almost anywhere. To the plains of Troy, into the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, to the London in which Charles Dickens observed so much human misery, to…whenever and wherever. Meanwhile, as I recall when I first read about whatever, I immediately associate with that experience what my own situation was then. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol invested my own childhood Christmases with the spirit to which Tiny Tim refers. I cannot separate what I felt while playing football in high school and then college from the pride with which Achilles confronted Hector. You get the idea. Even today, each day, so much of what I have experienced is central to my life now. To what extent do I synthesize all this? I have no idea. I do acknowledge that the process of interconnection is irresistible and apparently irrevocable.

Mayeux: You have a gift for finding the most important pieces of a book’s/author’s message.  Are there techniques you have developed to do this?  Did it come from your academic training, and your teaching?

Morris: Formal education (especially graduate study at Yale in the field of comparative literature) certainly helped but, over time, I have learned how to recognize “clues” as to how to read most works of non-fiction, including business books. My first insight occurred quite by accident: I was struggling to pass a calculus course in college and, just for the hell of it, converted all of the chapter and sub-section titles into a series of study guide questions. Wow! Now I knew what to look for as I worked my way through the text. Now, when I read a business book, I follow this process:

• What does the title reveal about the book’s objective(s)?
• What does the subtitle reveal?
• What are the most important questions that are answered in each chapter?
• What are the answers and how convincingly are they supported by logic and/or evidence?
•  So what?

The most valuable business books answer an important question. Here are three examples. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton’s The Knowing-Knowing Gap:  “What is it and how to avoid or eliminate it?”; Jim Collins’ Good to Great:  “How can a company complete the ‘leap’ from good to great?”; and Jason Jennings’ Think Big Act Small: “What do all high-performing companies share in common?”

(click read more for the remainder of the interview).

Continue reading

Bob Morris: DJ/BJ Par Excellence

Bob Morris, DJ/BJ par excellence

Bob Morris, DJ/BJ par excellence

Robert (Bob) Morris, our blogging team member, is the true business book expert of our group.  He has written over 1900 reviews on Amazon.com, and many others that show up in other places, including on our blog.

Every week, as I read Bob’s entries, I discover new authors and new books and new insights.  He is a one-man knowledge aggregator.

I now have a new label to put on Bob.  Let’s call him the DJ par excellence.  But, let’s change that slightly, and make that “BJ – Book Jockey” instead of “DJ — Disc Jockey”).  This label is prompted by this post from Andrew Sullivan’s blog:

DJ Culture
Salon interviews Dennis Baron, author of A Better Pencil. There isn’t much new here, but this is worth commenting on:


There’s always been too much to read. Nobody read all the books at the Great Library of Alexandria. Nobody was capable of doing that then. Nobody is reading all that’s online today. What we need and what we always seem to get is a way to make this glut of information navigable. We need search engines, we need indexing, we need reviews. We have all this apparatus to find the data we’re looking for.


The Dish can’t read the whole internet, but the web allows social networks to filter the best content upwards. We try to catch as much smart stuff in the net as we can. In this fast-evolving medium, a blogger still writes and edits, but he or she also acts as a kind of disk-jockey for the collective mind – sampling the best, re-mixing the funny, keeping the crowd dancing in the public square.

I think Bob fits this bill with books.  (And increasingly, he is finding blogs and articles for us also).  This truly describes his work:  “He makes this glut of information navigable.”  And, he acts as “kind of a book/disc jockey for the collective mind, especially regarding the good and valuable business books out there.”

So, Bob, thanks again for your work.  I will now think of you as the DJ/BJ par excellence.

Bob Morris is a Critic Who Matters — Seth Godin singled him out as just such a critic

We are very fortunate to have Bob Morris as such a frequent contributor on our blogging team. (In fact, he writes more than the rest of us combined).  He is a rapid provider of quality content.  He reads constantly, and then he gives his best thoughts on what he read, and then asks follow up questions in interviews with many of the authors. How valuable is he?  Here’s what Seth Godin had to say:

Some critics matter. (Your biggest customer, for example). Some are merely loud. Others are just difficult.

After naming one New York Times critic that is not helpful, in Godin’s opinion, he then writes this about Robert (Bob) Morris

Robert Morris is a useful guide for people in search of good books. He’s reviewed nearly 2,000 books and received almost 25,000 helpful votes for his reviews on Amazon. If he likes your book, you’re going to sell more copies–not because he liked it, but because his thorough review lets other people decide if they want to buy it or not.

If you read Godin’s post carefully, you get a hint as to why Bob has become so valuable.  Godin describes the NY Times critic as “a cranky hack. She reviews popular fiction and non-fiction, and as best I can tell, she likes neither very much.”

That’s the line.  “She likes neither very much.” Bob, on the other hand, loves to read.  He loves to find authors that provide valuable insight, and valuable tools, for the rest of us.  Bob is a book lover.  And a book lover is a more valuable guide when it comes to finding valuable books.

I have sensed this same thing about movie critics.  Without naming names, some critics quickly disappeared from my radar years ago because I sensed that they did not really like movies.  Roger Ebert, my favorite movie critic, loves movies.  You can tell he loves movies.  (And occasionally, when he does not like a certain type of movie, he reveals that up-front in his reviews to that we will know that this may not be as objective as his other reviews).  You can find all of Ebert’s reviews archived at his web site.

Back to Bob – he loves books, and he loves helping us find valuable books and insights — thus he is truly a critic who matters.  And we are fortunate to have him on our blogging team.  And we are all fortunate to read his wonderful insights.
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Bob’s Amazon page, the entry into all of his Amazon reviews, is here.