The Ultimate Guide To Being A Great Podcast Interviewer

Mitch JoelPosted by

Everyone wants to podcast. Everyone wants to be a guest on a podcast. Podcasting is the new content marketing.

I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve been involved with since the mid-eighties, but it is in the thousands. I’m not bragging or hyping here. My main podcast, Six Pixels of Separation, has been running since 2006 with over 700 episodes, and my passion project podcast, Groove – The No Treble Podcast (where I am trying to build the largest oral history of electric bass players) has been running for over five years with over 60 episodes. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time on either side of the mic. I’ve interviewed rock stars, business leaders, marketing experts, bestselling authors, and more for over thirty years. I’ve also been interviewed countless times for TV, print, radio, online, etc… The only thing that I love more than a great conversation is sharing that conversation with an audience. Now, it seems like everyone wants to create a podcast, be a guest on a podcast, get more media attention, start a YouTube channel and more. With that, everyone thinks that being an interviewer is easy. Just make a list of questions (or ask the guest what they want to talk about) and hit record. The reality? Being a great interviewer takes a lot of practice, research, knowledge and reps. It’s the type of work that looks easy to the audience, but it looks easy because the interviewer has spent many years (and countless hours) honing the craft.

So, what do the best interviewers do? 

  • They actually don’t interview anybody. Kill the word “interview.” You’re having a conversation. You’re connecting. You’re farming for a great story that the guest has yet to tell anyone. Think about it less as something that has to turn into a piece of content, and more like a coffee date. If you’re going to waste anyone’s time (including your own) for a coffee, make it count. Interviewing them won’t make it count. Having an awesome conversation will be memorable, valuable and something that everyone will want to make happen again. It’s also a first date. The idea behind a great conversation is to get a second date (because it was so engaging that the guest wants more – and so does the audience).
  • Create familiarity. Going in cold sucks. It puts the interviewer at a deficit. You always want equal footing (or a peer to peer conversation). Familiarity can be anything from a mutual friend to a shared hobby. It can be something as simple as their interest in a particular sports team or author. You have to dig a little harder to find out this information, but it’s usually readily available. LinkedIn can be a help if the guest is not a major celebrity (look at the guest’s mutual connections or other areas of interest beyond their employment).
  • Don’t waste the guests time. Do not ask for a pre-call. Do not send them questions in advance to accept (unless they demand it). Do not ask them to sign wavers and contracts to be a guest on your show. Do not ask them to share the pending show on their social media channels. Do not ask them to introduce you to other potential guests (unless they offer). Do not ask them to email their list about appearing on your show. Do not ask them for a testimonial. This is your content. You do the research. You promote them. You make them like being your guest so much that they offer do to all of the things above. The guest is not there to promote you. It’s the other way around.
  • You are the host… not the star. There’s this weird (and somewhat new) trend in podcasts, where the host of the show is the star of the show. The show’s content is all about them. Making them look smart… and smarter than their guest. Your show doesn’t have to be 101. Your show doesn’t have to be asking guests questions that you know the answer to (but the audience might not). Your show should be about the guest. If the host takes every opportunity to show how much smarter they are than the guest, or they have guests on to validate themselves, it’s sad (to me). It seems like this is the current trend with a lot of shows. I find it depressing.  
  • Don’t have any questions ready. This one really freaks people out, but I never have a list of questions. At most, I have a few lines written down (exact name of their books, company, etc…) and maybe some areas of interest that I would like to discuss/explore. It’s a blank sheet of paper that I fill with questions and thoughts as the conversation unfolds. Remember, it’s not an interview… it’s a conversation. Remember, it’s a coffee… not an inquisition. Your job – before the conversation – is to do the heavy lifting (aka – the research). Dig deep, read a lot, take notes and prep. Learn about them. Know them. Then, when it’s time for the conversation, be like a pipe that is about to burst from the pressure, and let that steam flow.
  • Take notes. Expanding on the last point: Whether it’s in person or remotely, I always have a large notepad right by my side to take notes. As the conversation blossoms, the guest provides new areas of conversation or concepts that need to be expanded upon. Don’t be afraid to take notes. But, do not have the notes as a barrier between you and your guest. Don’t refer to the notes and create moments of awkward pause (no second dates happen this way). By the end of a good conversation, I usually have a page (or more) of notes. Ultimately, that winds up looking a lot like a list of questions that most journalists use to guide the conversation. Ultimately, it provides a good reference when creating the content that supports the conversation. Beyond that, what the guest says always sparks new thoughts for me to write, speak or podcast about. They’re inspiring me with what they’re saying. There’s gold in those notes.
  • Never interrupt. It’s not what you think. This is, actually, a technical piece of advice – especially if you (or someone else) has to transcribe the conversation. Listening back and hearing all of your “ummms,” “ahhhhs” and “hang on a second…” will not only make it hard to transcribe the audio, but will also make you realize just how annoying we humans can be when we don’t let others finish their thoughts and sentences (and it’s tough for the audience). It’s normal to get excited about something that is said and jump in. Resist temptation. It will not only make the transcription better, it will allow your guest to finish their thought. It will also allow your guest to think and add even more color. It will be a much better audience experience as well.
  • Give it a beat. Most guests have been asked just about everything under the sun. The person leading the conversation may think that they have something new to ask, but it is rarely the case. So, where does the gold and unique aspects of the conversation come from? My experience is that the best parts of the conversation happen after the guest has said everything, and has a chance (moment of silence) to think about what they just said. Anything that comes after phrases like, “on second thought…,” “now that I think about it…” or “you know what…” is where the gold typically lies. It’s not easy to perfect this technique, and it can be awkward, if you don’t know how to pull it off, but try leaving a beat of silence after the guest has finished their thought. Priming it with, “is there anything else you would like to add?” might get the person leading the conversation somewhere, but it will be nowhere near as good as when the guest goes down that road on their own. A beat of silence is often the best lubricant.
  • Push back kindly. I don’t like aggressive conversations or those who are contrarian hosts just to get a rise out of their guests. For me, it often comes off as disrespectful. That’s a bad brand to have as a content creator (for the most part… but some journalists have made a living being that persona). Still, I believe that if someone has published a book, produced an album or put anything out into the world, that they should be able to defend their work. It’s fine to push back, but push back kindly. Don’t just provoke. If you have a reason to push back, make sure you provide it. Lines like, “in my experience,” or “in the client work that we’ve done” often sets the stage and enables the guest to understand that their insights may not be your experience, and you want your audience to know why. You’re not trying to have the guest validate their work, you’re trying to have the guest inspire those who are listening. 
  • Cover topics that you don’t understand. Guests or topics for content usually come from the same place: I simply don’t understand something, or I am fascinated by something. It could be a new book, an article, a type of technology, etc… If I am, personally, grappling with something, my assumption is that someone else out there is as well. From there, I find myself thinking: Who is the expert in this field? Those are the guests that I hunt down. 
  • Don’t cover the same topic as everyone else. Because of the proliferation of podcasting, it seems like everyone has a podcast. New authors need publicity, so they often appear on many shows. When they do this, they will often request that their show/segment run on the same week as their book launch, new company announcement, etc… Do your best to avoid this. It’s redundant and it’s (somewhat) boring when many podcasts all have the same guest within the same four week period. If you still want that author/expert on the show, try to get them published before the main deluge or long after. It may not be ideal for the guest, but it’s better for your audience.

Now comes the hard work: Interview a lot of people. Get in your reps. Keep at it. Time and effort will take you from here to there.

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