As a (soon to be graduating!!) medical student at a historically black college, I often came across African American professors and physicians with a wealth of knowledge, extraordinary experiences, and rich personal stories. These were people who faced enormous challenges, discouragement, and discrimination, yet still rose to the highest levels of their profession.
What made them persevere? How did they overcome the hurdles? Where did they find the strength?
I was genuinely curious about their lives, and I often asked about their path in medicine whenever I encountered them on the wards. But when two professors suddenly passed away, I realized that we were was losing an important and, often, untold history at my school.
So I decided to start a podcast, This Meharrian Life. And while I had no idea what I was doing at the beginning, I learned a lot of important lessons on conversation and interviewing throughout the process. It has made me into a better communicator and reminded me that even skills like talking and listening, skills we take for granted everyday, require constant, conscious practice to stay sharp.
Here are some lessons I learned through this project:
Seems straightforward, right? But it is not as easy as it sounds. When I first started recording interviews, I found myself losing track of what my subject was saying. I was too busy trying to think of a response or my next question. Instead of staying present and focusing on having a great conversation, I was preoccupied with the fact that I was being recorded. More than once I got caught off guard when a sudden pause forced me to realize that I had no idea where I was in the conversation. Talk about embarrassing…
In her TED talk, radio host Celeste Headlee speaks about the our problem with listening. Too often we are more concerned with what we are trying to say next rather than listening to what our counterpart is trying to communicate. We wait for our talking points and spit them out as soon as we hear the keyword that we are waiting for. That isn’t a conversation, it’s talking past one another.
Starting a podcast taught me to slow down, stay in the moment, and really pay attention.
2) Ask the Right Questions
We have all been in conversations that start to die the moment they begin. After a few yes or no questions, enthusiasm in both parties starts to wane and people start looking for the exits before the dreaded awkward silence arrives. But with the right, open-ended questions, a chat can suddenly be revitalized.
Who, what, when, where, and why questions are a great way to get your subject to start talking. Asking someone how they felt in a certain situation or what they learned is another great way to open someone up. More than once, I have had interviewees tear up when I asked them to reflect on their greatest accomplishments. Allowing them to bask in their achievements and giving them the space to reflect created wonderful, pure moments that I felt lucky to witness.
Focus on being curious about the other person, listen to their answers, and ask thoughtful questions. That’s how you can keep a conversation engaging and alive.
3) Speak Consciously
After spending enough hours listening to my recorded voice, I became painfully aware that I am not Robert Siegel, the man who co-hosted NPR’s All Things Considered for over 30 years. All my vocal tics, the ummms, ahhs, likes, and you knows constantly reminded me that I was not as smooth as I thought.
In order to improve my speech and cut down on these filler words, I have to consciously slow down and insert pauses whenever I feel compelled to fill the silence. The benefit of slowing down is that it offers listeners a chance to pay attention to the meaning of your words, gives you an air of thoughtfulness, helps you calm down, and allows your words to resonate.
In President Obama’s presidential acceptance speech in 2008, the opening paragraph showed this in action:
“If there is anyone out there / who still doubts / that America is a place / where all things are possible, / who still wonders / if the dream of our founders / is alive in our time, / who still questions / the power of our democracy, / tonight / is your answer.”
Talk about powerful speech. By slightly pausing at the end of each phrase, people can hang on to every word, and it can give turns of phrase that much more strength.
4) Use Empathy to Put People At Ease
For many people, speaking with a microphone attached to their person is a foreign experience. All of a sudden, I had interviewees sitting erect, enunciating every syllable, and acting like we had television cameras and were about to film Meet the Press. Beyond just telling them that the interview was just an informal chat, I had to show them, as well, to help them forget the microphone.
Body language is important. Making eye contact and avoiding the recorder or computer shows the speaker that “I am present and I am here with you.” Being authentically engaged in what they have to say and responding like a normal conversation is also essential. Terry Gross, the skilled host of Fresh Air, states that her show is about finding empathy with the subject and trying to imagine herself in their shoes and letting that guide the questions. Trying to connect with someone is a great way to get them comfortable.
5) Enjoy the Silence
Too often, we become afraid of the silence in conversations and we quickly try to fill it. But when you are attempting to get someone to reveal themselves, sometimes silence can be your friend. I have asked questions that are met with silence, and my mind begins to scramble as I wonder if I offended or confused the interviewee. But by waiting a beat or two longer than I am comfortable, the subject is more likely to fill the silence themselves. And by giving them space to think, they are much more likely to share something deeper about themselves.
“You can hold someone with silence and make them go on. You tend to feel you need to fill all dead air. There are times when if you just say no more than “uh-huh,” and pause, they’ll add something out of a kind of desperation that turns out to be pretty good. Let them sweat a little and then they’ll come up with something that they were perhaps not going to say. Because they too can have a sense of “time’s a-wasting here.” You’re supposed to fill that time with talk, but there’s no law that says you can’t stop every now and then and let a strategic silence fall.”
So give it a shot. Let them sweat a little.
6) Give Gifts
There is a danger with starting a project and letting it slowly become all about you. Resist that temptation. Focus on the subject and celebrate their achievements and their projects. Looking to insert yourself and your “wise words” to seem like an equal with the subject can seem forced and incongruent. Yes, it is your podcast, but you are offering a gift and should not expect anything in return.
By offering my time and services, I have seen my relationships transform and others appreciate my work more. Author Seth Godin is a big fan of giving gifts, especially of one’s art. In an interview, Seth Godin stated in an interview:
“I’ve found that giving gifts is transformative. It makes me better. It clarifies my thinking and allows me to do better work. I see things differently when I’m focused on opening doors for other people, and more often than not, my doors are opened as well.”
Give and then give some more. This is the interviewee’s time to shine. Just by giving them a platform, you are showing your worth. Don’t try too hard. This is their time.
7) People Love to Talk
As an interviewer, I have an important responsibility in making sure that I protect my subject. Although I give the interviewees the final say on what ends up on the podcast, if they are not accustomed to giving interviews, they often don’t realize what they are saying as they are saying it. The microphone just brings it out of some people.
I have had people mention the names of former rivals, express controversial opinions, and air out their grievances while the tape is recording. While I can generally recognize the moment as it is happening, I must make a mental note to cut the segment out or divert their train of thought. I am not in the business of doing a “got you” interview. I want to celebrate, uplift, and support my subject and the work they are doing. This requires me to be very cautious with what makes the final cut.
8) People are Less Judgmental Than You Think
Being involved with the entire process of producing the podcast, from finding and inviting guests, to recording the interview, to editing the episode made me painfully aware of my shortcomings. Sometimes the audio was not ideal. Other times the interview did not go as I planned. Or maybe my editing was not as tight as it could have been. It was clear to me that everyone knew what a terrible job I have done.
Yet when I spoke to people who listened to my podcast, across the board I was told what a great job I did. Whenever I asked for feedback to improve, whether it was out of politeness or because they were genuinely impressed, most people told me that they had nothing that came to mind. Mainly they just wanted me to keep up my good work.
I am sure my listeners realize when the audio quality is not great or when I stumble on my words, but I have realized that people are way more generous and less judgmental than I previously thought. People gave me compliments for taking a risk and putting myself and a podcast out there. I might be making mistakes, but at least I am trying. And this subtle encouragement is all I need to keep creating.
9) Turning Acquaintances into Mentors or Friends
One of the pleasant surprises of my podcast project was learning what I had in common with the interviewees. As the conversation shifted from interview to meaningful exchange, we found ourselves earnestly bonding over a shared experience or feeling. Not only was I talking to someone that I admired, but now I felt we were speaking as friends. But this can only work if you enter into the conversation with the honest intention of getting to know someone without expecting anything in return.
Many of the physicians I spoke with never received the major acclaim their stories warranted. These doctors are trailblazers, often becoming the first African American in a residency program or chair of a department. As I coaxed their story out of them, and as the challenges of their life drew me in, I asked for advice on decision-making, leadership, and overcoming challenges that I anticipate I will encounter in my career. To their credit, they were happy to share. It makes for a great interview, but more importantly, I developed a relationship that I can return to the next time I need guidance.
10) Forgiving Myself When Creating
At the beginning, every episode I released created anxiety inside me that was fortunately quieted when I received feedback. How will people react to it? (Apparently, they love it.) Did I do my subject a disservice? (I prepared, so no way.) Is this really worth it? (Yes! Totally!)
But, let’s be real. The podcast will never be perfect. No matter how hard I try, the episode will always need work. Something can always be improved. And that is okay. When it comes to making, building, or creating, there is no such thing as perfection. I forgive myself for the weaknesses and I am grateful that I tried my best. I’ll be even better the next time because I am always looking to learn.
Producing anything, taking an idea from concept to reality, takes a certain amount of risk. Putting yourself out there is scary. But creating something that has never been done before? Being a trailblazer? Well, from what I learned from these amazing doctors, being the first and opening the doors for those that follow is priceless.