With more people starting podcasts and many of those individuals turning to interview shows, whereby a host talks to another person or people about a particular topic, I thought maybe I’d share my lessons learned in my two years of hosting an interview podcast.
Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. I have a little more experience than that. Before starting COVERED, I hosted 100 episodes of a weekly 30-minute tech podcast called inThirty. On many occasions, we had the privilege of talking with some really wonderful guests, including Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak. I didn’t know it then, but that experience of asking questions and extracting information from someone else would come in useful when it was finally time to go out on my own.
My tips aren’t magic. You’ll probably read them and say, “That makes sense,” but I had to learn them by doing. I didn’t have a guide or a mentor, unless you count hours of listening to All Things Considered and watching Charlie Rose.
As with calculus exams and school plays, you have to study. On my show, I talk to authors about their books, the writing process, and their literary influences, but it’s about more than simply reading their latest best-seller. When I’m preparing for a new episode, I scour the Internet for as much information on a guest as I can find. Some of my first stops on my research tour are:
- The guest’s website
- Reviews of the guest’s book(s)
- The guest’s social media account(s)
- Other interviews with the guest
I don’t limit my conversation to talking about the book. My show is for readers and writers. I want to know how they wrote the book, what other authors made them want to become a writer, what they thought of a particular reviewer’s opinion on a theme or motif within the work. I have to go into an interview understanding as much of an author as possible in order to present them as real people to the audience. They’re not just authors. They don’t sit around in tweed blazers with suede elbow patches, puffing observantly on a pipe with a copy of Suttree tucked under their arm while tendrils of steam from a cup of black coffee float into nothing before them. They’re human beings with families and lives and interests.
Writers are more than their books. Your guest is more than what you’re bringing them on to talk about. Present them as such and do your homework.
I always go into an interview with a list of questions. Many are absurdly common:
- Tell us a little about yourself.
- Please read a passage from your book.
- Where can people find you online?
That doesn’t mean I adhere strictly to this list throughout the interview. I’m conducting a conversation. Topics shift organically and there’s always a thread that comes loose during the conversation that begs to be pulled. Part of the fun is seeing what you can unravel. Go into your interview knowing what you want to talk about, but don’t adhere so closely to your list that you stifle what could’ve been a thorough and enlightening discussion of something you hadn’t even considered.
Interviewing is a lot like jazz — you’ve got the chart in front of you, but you’ve gotta be ready to improvise over the changes.
3. One at a Time
I have to admit — I kind of borrowed this one from public radio host and interview expert Celeste Headlee. In an interview with Adam Ragusea for The Pub podcast, Celeste let Adam and the audience in on a wonderful tip for hosting an interview: Ask one question at a time.
I’m guilty of asking multiple questions at once. For example, I used to ask something like, “Can you tell me about your book and how the inspiration came to you?” Those are two separate questions. By asking them together, I’m inviting the guest to only answer one, as the second question gets lost while they answer the first.
By going in with a prepared list of questions, I now know to split these off and ask them separately, getting the answers I want without having to ask a question twice, or worse, letting it slip by unanswered.
Celeste’s book, Heard Mentality: An A-Z Guide to Take Your Podcast or Radio Show from Idea to Hit is a must-read for anyone looking to start their own interview podcast.
4. Lead, But Don’t Control
Guests are like horses — they tend to wander off the ranch on occasion. Sometimes, they can lead you to amazing places, but you still have to reign them in when they veer too far off.
If there’s something you feel you need to talk about, for your benefit or the benefit of your audience, don’t let your guest take control of the conversation. It’s your show. Pull them back onto the trail if you find they’re taking you too far out. You brought them on for a reason. Remind them with a simple, “I’d like to talk about…”
Great example: Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast. Gilbert is hilarious, but even he can let things go too far. That’s where his co-host, Frank Santopadre, comes in to reel Gilbert and the guest back into the main discussion.
5. The Show is Not About You
Remember when I said, “It’s your show?” Yeah. Well, it is and it isn’t. You’re having other people on for a reason, right? Ask the questions, carry on a conversation, but remember who the focus is on. This isn’t an opportunity for you to unload your personal baggage and insights on the world. If it was, you’d be hosting by yourself.
Marc Maron handles this well by getting his personal stuff out of the way before the guest even comes on. The first several minutes of WTF are all his. Once his guest arrives, he rightly turns his attention to where it matters most.
I almost always talk about myself on my own show. I feel I have to in order to show the guest, “Look! I’m just like you!” When it comes time to edit, however, I cut almost all of my audio away, leaving only my questions and the guest’s answers.
Here’s a sample screenshot of one of my episodes of COVERED. Notice how little of me (top) is in the final product vs. my guest (bottom).
My audience isn’t there to listen to me blather on and on — they’re there to learn from my guest.
Like I said, nothing here is ground-breaking. There’s no big secret to conducting a successful interview. It takes preparation and practice, like most things in life. I still have a lot to learn before I become the next Terri Gross, but two years in, I feel I’ve learned so much by hosting COVERED and by listening to lots of other terrific interviews, both on terrestrial radio and podcasts.
Hosting an interview is an art. I may not be Van Gogh, but I’ve definitely graduated from finger paints. Hopefully this gives someone else thinking about starting their own podcast the head start I never had.