So you started your podcast and you’ve marshaled a few dozen or a few hundred listeners. You’re off to a good start. Now, you say to yourself “I’m gonna interview someone” and then you find someone to interview. Now what?
Well, giving advice on how to interview is like giving advice on how to make love. Everyone has a different style and a different level of ability. So let’s start by breaking it up into two types of interview styles. We acknowledge that we’re over-simplifying things here, but this is for newbies and for that purpose we’re going to over-simplify.
The two categories are The Naturals, a la Howard Stern, and The Good Students, a la NPR/News people.
First, The Naturals. There are so few of this group who are famous. Howard Stern, I would argue, is the most prominent living member of The Naturals. Barbara Walters would be another one. Naturals interview without the listener or the interviewee knowing an interview is occurring. The Natural is, to varying degrees, a “personality” himself and he brings it to the interview which he conducts as more of a discussion or conversation one would have with his friend at a restaurant. The Natural may have questions prepared in advance, but rarely uses them. More likely than not, he has notes from which he formulates his questions on the spot. The reason he does that is because he is trying to find a way to connect to the interviewee. That needs to happen as immediately as possible. So, for podcasters, it helps to meet or, at least, talk to the person beforehand. Howard Stern doesn’t always have that opportunity and only has notes to go off of. Yet, he still conducts fantastic interviews. That’s why he’s one of The Naturals. He doesn’t need to do pre-interviews. You may think you don’t need then if you believe that you are a natural, but even naturals need practice. It’s still true: practice makes perfect.
Now let’s move onto The Good Students. There are infinitely more of these than there are Naturals. Good Students went to school for broadcasting/journalism, etc., and did well enough to get out with a degree and a job. Their style and technique are run-of-the-mill and bland and that’s exactly why they’re hired. Unfortunately, run-of-the-mill and bland is what most of the public wants. It’s none threatening. The reporters/interviewers are like robots. Their personalities are irrelevant to the interview because the interview is about the subject, not the interviewer. Most podcasters that conduct interviews are Good Students, or, I should say, simply Students. There’s nothing wrong with being a Good Student either. People find a comfort in the standard question, answer, maybe follow-up, answer, question, formula. Those people are more interested in the interviewee and not the interaction of personalities between the interviewer and the interviewee.
So decide which personality you fall under. Regardless of which, if you’re just beginning, you should follow the advice below and ANY other advice you can find. Try them all until you find what works for your personality. Interviewing isn’t as easy as it sounds and without a team of producers and researcher, like the professional broadcasters have, it’s up to you to do your own research and formulate your own questions. Here are just a few things to keep in mind.
- Remember your audience- When we started podcasting, a good week brought us 75 downloads. Hardly setting the world on fire. We did a weekly show and put out two episodes a week. We recorded at my co-host’s house back then and one time the issue of him going away for a week and a half came up. He was rather nonchalant about it. I nearly lost my mind. We had to be consistent in out releases for our audience. Not the audience we had at that moment, but the audience I was trying to build for today. While podcasting should be fun and satisfying for the podcaster, you really should be thinking about your audience. Does my guest make sense to my audience? Does he/she have anything to do with the subject matter of my show? Will he/she be an entertaining AND enlightening guest for my audience? While it’s good advice to think of your audience for everything you do on and with your show, you should especially keep them in mind when choosing guests. Your mom might be friends with Madonna and Madonna has agreed to go on your show, and, yes, your listeners will think it’s cool that you got Madonna. But your show is about crocheting. What does Madonna have to do with that? Oh who am I kidding? You’ll get huge numbers if Madonna came on and you’ll make the news.
- Pre-Interview- While I won’t for a second suggest that I am on Howard Stern level, I would argue that I have always fallen into “The Naturals” category. Everywhere I go, I interview people who I encounter and who I find interesting. And it’s hardly ever recorded! I have always loved to hear people’s stories. That’s what life is, really. One giant story with smaller, more interesting stories in it. Now I will sit down and do a cold interview on my show any time I have to, but, when possible, I talk to the interviewee before their interview on the phone. Usually within a half hour conversation I can get enough of a feel for them as I need. What I look for is something interesting other than what they’re known for! Let’s say you’re interviewing someone who just recorded his first album in a professional studio and paid $50,000 for it all out of his own pocket. That’s great! Very impressive. And super BORING! Even his music will be boring, even if it’s good (but still get him to perform if possible). Unless he’s famous, no one will care about his writing process. Even his small legion of fans. They will, however, love that you got him to divulge what makes him crack up or if he Dutch Ovens his girlfriend. These are human things and audiences relate to them. His fans will share your interview with him because you did something all the other podcasts he went on did not do: you talked with a human being. Still, you probably wouldn’t have done so well without a pre-interview. A pre-interview is a time when you can get the details about what HE wants to talk about, while fishing for something more humanizing that YOU want to talk about. This will create a better portrait of the person and, I guarantee you, a much better and realer interview than 90% of the podcasts out there.
- Be Prepared, Then Forget It- I forget who said it. It could be Eisenhower or it could be some ancient, but always remember this, the #1 rule of warfare (and show biz): “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. Who is the enemy in show biz? Everyone! Your equipment, your crew, your audience, and your guest! But for our purposes here and now, we’ll focus on the interviewee. So have a list of prepared questions (or bullet point notes) and then forget you have them. I mean it. Forget you have them and if you can’t, don’t hold them in your hands. Here’s what I mean: the act of writing them will reinforce the thought in your mind, especially if you hand write (who remembers how to do that these days?) them. Just doing that can help you go into the interview with confidence. Now, why should you forget them? Because once your interviewee answers the first question, your plan has gone out the window, meaning that list of questions is virtually worthless. The answer to question 1 might not lead to question 2 and, in fact, may be worthy of a follow-up, which will now take you off the course you think you’ve prepared. Don’t fight it! Ask the follow-up. If the guest is in studio with you, make eye contact. Staring down at a page while they speak to you is not only rude, but throws them off too. Engage them with your eyes. Show them they have your attention, tune out anyone else in the room (even if/when they speak) and let every word your guest says sink into your brain. Give them room to breathe. Don’t say “uh-huh” and yeah all the time. Interrupt sparingly. NOW! if the guest is so boring; so bland; so horrible at being interviewed, then you might need to revert to those prepared questions just to move the interview along and end the awkwardness. On the other hand, had you done a pre-interview, you would have already known that the guest is a snoozer and changed your mind. Don’t ever have a guest for the sake of having a guest if he or she will bore your audience to tears and away from your show.
- Don’t Phone It In!- I don’t actually mean don’t use the phone. I mean be present in the interview. I’m kind of repeating myself here, but it bears repeating. Don’t marry your eyes to the prepared questions on the page in front of you. You’re a human being. So is your guest. Connect with them like you would anyone else in any other circumstance. Converse!
- Don’t Act Like You’re Interested; Be interested- Not everyone is interesting. They may do interesting things that you want to expose your audience to, but then when you meet them, they are just as interesting as your 10th grade algebra teacher (and with the same coffee breath too!). But you’ve invited them and the show must go on. If your guest is boring, try to remember what was interesting about them in the first place that caused you to invite them on. Keep that in mind as they answer questions and let your own curiosity lead your follow-ups. Try to find something about your guest that interests you and then lead them down that line of questioning.
- Treat Them Like People– This seems obvious since they are actual people, but interviewing someone you barely know or don’t know at all can be a bit nerve-racking and awkward. An interview by phone/skype is a very popular way to do link-up with the guest and can take that interpersonal connection out of the equation. Whether in-studio or on the phone, try in whatever way you know best to make the person feel comfortable and on the same footing as you. Even big stars get uncomfortable when people fawn over them or act awkwardly. I’ve noticed that when I’ve addressed a celebrity as I would my oldest, closest friend, it throws them off and they let their guard down to talk to me person-to-person. Do you know why? Because they’re also PEOPLE! Understand people and treat them as such, and you will create a better environment for your interview.
Ok, those are six tips. I only planned on giving you 5. You’re welcome for the extra one.
Of course there are many more tips that I and other veteran podcasters can give you. I’ll occasionally do follow-up articles on this subject. Please like and share this article and comment below if you have more tips for newbies.