Great podcasts often sound effortless. But that’s usually because the host has had hundreds of hours of practice.
Interviewing is the same as every other skill. The more practice you do, the better you’ll become and the more natural it will feel. There is no real substitute for learning by doing.
That being said, most world-class podcasters have similarities in their approach to interviewing. So we’ve tried to distill some of those techniques in this article and give our advice on how to capture the best content possible during your conversations.
Before we get into it, keep in mind the tips and suggestions outlined in this document are not rules set in stone. Interviewing is an art form, not a science. So there will always be exceptions to the guidelines presented here. But on the whole, they are broadly applicable to most interview-based podcasts. We’ve broken the tips down across 5 categories:
- Guest Selection
- Research & Preparation
- Formulating & Asking Questions
- During Recordings
- Learning & Improving
Creating excellent content is the only way to succeed in podcasting. And following these tips should help you establish your show on solid foundations.
When hosting an interview-based podcast for the first time, guest selection is particularly important. Here are some tips to help you make the right decisions for your first episodes:
1. Speak to People You Have a Connection to First
It’s generally a good idea to speak to people in your existing network for the first 10 episodes or so. If you feel more comfortable, it’ll help the recordings run smoother while you learn the basics. You can start reaching out to bigger name guests when you feel more confident in your approach.
2. Avoid Interviewing Close Friends
While it’s good to speak to people you’re somewhat familiar with, avoid speaking to very close friends. With close friends there is a natural tendency to make insider jokes and refer to other shared experiences. Without prior knowledge, listeners will struggle to follow and understand all parts of the conversation, which can be frustrating.
3. Let Your Interests Guide You
The best guests will be the people you’re most interested in. When your curiosity about another person is genuine, it’s much easier to ask interesting and provocative questions. But if you’re pretending to be curious about a guest because of their perceived status, your questions will usually come across canned. Without any genuine interest, you’ve also got nothing to fall back on if the conversation gets stuck.
Personal interest can act as your north star during interviews, keeping everything on track and moving forward. If you focus on entertaining yourself first with your interviews, listeners will be entertained as a by-product.
4. Don’t Feel Obliged to Publish Every Recording
Occasionally you might have a guest who’s isn’t a great communicator or doesn’t give you much in the interview. That’s fine. If a conversation feels dry, runs off the rails, or just isn’t up to your standards, you have no obligation to publish it. These scenarios will likely be rare. But just because a conversation was recorded doesn’t mean it needs to be published.
Research & Preparation
Research can be a double edged sword. Doing too much can make your conversations feel rigid. But not doing enough risks missing out on some great topics for conversation. With that in mind, here are some of the basics worth checking out before recordings:
5. Check Wikipedia & About Pages
Don’t get bogged down in career history or lists of accomplishments - that’s not what makes a great interview. Instead, when you read their “About” or wiki page, try to read between the lines and think about what their accomplishments suggest about them as a person. Also pay attention for anything that jumps out as being unexpected or unusual - that’s often where the seeds of a great story lie.
6. Check Your Guest’s Socials
What topics have they posted about recently? Have they shared any interesting articles? These are often great ways to kick off discussion in an interview. For example, you can say “I noticed you were recently posting Twitter about X, why is that such an important issue for you?”
7. Listen to Other Interviews & Media Appearances
Use Google and YouTube to track down other interviews they’ve done and listen to a few. This will give you a good feel for the topics they’re most enthusiastic about and how they’re likely to come across on your show. Pay attention to how they communicate. Do they generally give long answers or short ones? Do they go off track occasionally? These are helpful things to know in advance.
8. Give Yourself Enough Time Between Recordings
Don’t try to record more than two or three interviews in a week when you’re starting out. You want to avoid feeling frantic. Feeling like you’re short on time and still need to prep will inevitably affect your interview. So give yourself at least a day or two to do some research and gather your thoughts before the recording.
Formulating & Asking Questions
It’s a good idea to prepare some questions before your first recordings. There’s no need to write a long, exhaustive list of things to ask. Doing so will make your conversation feel rigid. Instead, try to come up with 5 - 10 unique questions that will act as a jumping off point for further discussion. When your guest responds, take their lead and reply back with a relevant follow-up question. This will help you get into areas of real depth and it’ll also give your interview a natural-sounding flow.
With enough practice, you might get to a point where you no longer need to bring pre-prepared questions into your interviews. But having a short list prepared will help keep things on track initially. Here are a few tips on crafting interview questions that will spark great conversation:
9. Don’t Ask the Same Things as Everyone Else
There’s not much point asking your guest a question they’ve answered many times before. If you do, you’ll get a rehearsed answer. So use your research to uncover more creative angles. One way to do this is start with questions they’ve been asked before and take them one step further e.g. “I’ve heard you say X, but I didn’t really get a sense of Y. Could you talk more about that?”
By conveying what your guest has already said elsewhere, you immediately move the conversation into more interesting territory. Plus, it shows your guest that you’re paying attention to what they’re doing and the projects they’re involved in.
10. Prompt Unique Stories
Human beings are hardwired to listen to stories. We can’t help but pay attention to a riveting narrative. And a good way to prompt interesting stories is to ask seemingly irrelevant questions such as “What did your parents do for a living?”, “What social group were you a part of in high school?” or “What town did you grow up in?”
These kinds of questions act as a massive pattern interrupt for anyone who has done 100’s of interviews. They can’t reply with a canned answer, and it forces them to be more engaged in the conversation they’re having with you.
11. Draw on Emotion
If you evoke an emotional response from your guest, you’ll likely elicit an emotional reaction from the person listening. One of the most straightforward ways of doing this is to ask your guest “How did you feel when X happened?”
12. Ask for Concrete, Real-World Examples
If you want to help your listeners learn something from an episode, focus asking why and how questions. Try to get your guest to give concrete examples, anecdotes, and case studies by asking questions like “Tell me about a time when you did X”, or “Do you know of any others who did X?”. Real-world examples are much more meaningful than abstract theory.
13. Be Concise
Try to cut unnecessary fluff from your questions. Sometimes hosts will “circle around” a point several times before eventually asking a question. This is best avoided where possible. As a general rule, if a question can be condensed into fewer words, it makes sense to do so.
14. Follow a Logical Structure
Once you’ve drawn up a short list (5 - 10) of conversation-starter questions to ask your guest, arrange them in a logical order. You want each part of the conversation to lead into the next. So review your questions and order them in a way that will help you take listeners on an easy-to-follow journey. This is one of the key things to plan before each of your recordings.
One easy way to do this is to approach interviews in chronological order, starting with a guest's early days and progressing to the present day and plans for the future. However this is not always the best approach and decisions need to be made on a case by case basis.
When recording with your guest, make sure your phone is on silent or switched off and close down any apps on your computer / laptop that may make noises. That aside, here are some other points to keep in mind:
15. Don’t Get Hung Up on Your Next Question
Try to avoid obsessing over what your next question will be as your guest is speaking. The question you want to ask next almost always lies within the answer your guest is giving you. But you need to listen carefully to pick up on it. Getting this right is what will give your interviews a conversational tone. Even if your mind does happen to go blank, you can always refer back to your notes and any pause or silence can be edited out in post-production.
16. Don’t Interrupt When Your Guest is Speaking
Interrupting is one of the most common mistakes new hosts make and it can be irritating to listeners. After asking a question, try not to interrupt until your guest has finished responding. This makes for a cleaner, easier-to-follow listening experience. Sometimes interrupting is warranted, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
17. Avoid Vocalising Agreement
When a guest is speaking there is often a temptation to show your agreement with “uh huh” and other similar vocalisations. This is fine to do occasionally, but making too many “agreement vocalisations” clutters the recording and can distract listeners from what your guest is saying.
18. Use Silence to Your Advantage
In the midst of a conversation, five seconds can seem like an eternity. But you can use silence as a tool to draw out riveting dialogue. Humans by nature need to fill a silence. And if you give them the space to do it, they’ll often fill it with provocative words that resonate. While it might seem counterintuitive, when it comes to interviewing silence is often golden. So don’t immediately rush to fill it all the time. Letting a moment linger might lead to uncovering a brilliant story. And if it doesn’t, the pause can always be removed in post production.
19. Clarify Terms for Listeners
Listeners like to be kept in the loop. So be mindful of insider jokes or referring to things listeners won’t be aware of. If your guest uses technical phrases or jargon that’s fine, but as the host it can be helpful to clarify what they were referring to when they’ve finished their point e.g. “Just so listeners are aware, when you said [JARGON TERM], you were referring to...”
20. Use a Notepad
It’s often helpful to keep a notepad on hand during interviews. If your guest mentions something interesting mid-flow, you can quickly jot down a reminder for yourself to ask them about it when they’ve finished their point.
21. Dig Deeper When Appropriate
If you feel a guest hasn’t fully answered your question, or they glossed over something interesting, it’s fine to respond by asking them to elaborate or clarify e.g. “Could you talk more about what you meant by X...”
Learning & Improving
As you get more interviews under your belt, you’ll naturally start to improve and feel more confident. But you can also take proactive steps to further hone your interviewing skills. These include:
22. Listen Back to Your Interviews
Listening to yourself is one of the best ways to become a better interviewer. As you play back your interviews, listen with a critical ear. Could you have asked the same question in less words? Will listeners be able to easily follow the conversation? Were there any sticking points that broke up the flow of the interview? Did you manage to cover your key questions in the time permitted?
When you get in the habit of reviewing your work, you’ll start to notice subtle nuances like how you transition between topics and when you use filler words. As you listen back, it's also worth making note of any questions you wish you would have asked, as you can use those questions in future interviews with other guests.
23. Be Mindful of Vocal Tics & Filler Words
Even experienced podcast hosts have vocal tics or filler words that slip out now and again. Some common offenders include “like”, “you know”, and “I’m curious”. You’ll pick up your own filler words when you listen back to your episodes. As these tics are said out of habit, they’re virtually impossible to avoid at first. But it’s important to at least know what your own tics are so you can work on gradually phasing them out.
24. Learn From Master Interviewers
When learning any new skill, you should study the masters. Find an interviewer whose style you like and try to break it down on a more granular level. What is it that makes them stand out? And how could you implement some of the same techniques in your own interviews?
Be careful not to hide behind an imitation of someone else though. The best interviewers let your own personality shine in their questioning. Listen to others you admire, take notes on that, and then put your own unique spin on things.
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