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The Key to an Engaging Podcast Interview

Jenna Spinelle
May 6, 2019 · 4 min read

I love a good Venn diagram and often find that they are helpful for clarifying something in my otherwise-addled brain.

Since starting a podcast last year, I’ve seen countless threads on Reddit forums and Facebook groups from people looking for advice on how to do killer podcast interviews. Not everyone can be Terry Gross, but that does not mean that you can’t create an interview that provides value to the guest and to your listeners.

In my experience (both as a podcaster and as a listener), the best interviews come when there’s a healthy overlap between the guest’s expertise and your show’s niche or goal. Skew too far in one direction or the other and you risk sounding too self-referential or having an interview that sounds like every other that the guest has done.

Despite the simplicity of the diagram, this approach is easier said than done. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, and some shows I look to for inspiration.

What You Bring

Chances are you started your podcast because you had a particular niche you wanted to explore or an angle you wanted to cover. These unique angles are one of the things that make podcasts so great, and what separates them from interview shows on the radio or other media.

Your listeners are tuning into your show because they are interested in your topic (unless you’re someone like Marc Maron or Joe Rogan). It’s your job as the interviewer to relate each conversation back to this overall theme or some variation of it.

For example, my show is about democracy and every interview that I do is some variation on that topic. There are always questions that tie back to the notion of what it means to live in a democracy, which is the show’s central theme.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had guests tell me after the interview that I asked questions they’d never received before. I’m no smarter than anyone else doing podcast interviews, but I do put a lot of effort into considering the sweet spot between our show’s goals and our guest’s goals. If I can do it, anyone can.

What The Guest Brings

Hopefully, your guest is an expert in something related to your show’s niche. It might be tempting to jump at the opportunity for a big-name guest with a large social media following to boost your download numbers. However, if that guest can’t speak to your show’s theme, you’ll end up with an awkward conversation or another version of the same interview the guest has given a million times before.

I’ve heard big-name podcasters like Ezra Klein and Kara Swisher say that their metrics largely don’t change no matter how much of a following the guest has. Podcast listeners are driven by topics, not celebrity status.

All this to say that a popular guest who does not fit your niche is probably just as likely to cost you listeners as it is to gain them. The more time this happens, the more unfocused your show becomes.

The guest should also know what your show is about going into the interview. Consider creating a press kit or other overview materials that you can send along with an interview confirmation.

I rarely ever send questions ahead of time, but I will send an outline of topics I’d like to talk about so the guest can have a few things to think about and the conversation can flow naturally once we begin recording.

Putting It All Together

As you are selecting guests and preparing for the interview, focus on the area where these two elements overlap. You’ll probably need to ask some of the questions that the guest has answered before but aim to have at least half of the interview focus on questions that are unique to your podcast’s topic area.

If you have to work too hard to come up with those unique questions, then you might want to rethink whether that guest is a good fit for your show.

Start the interview with more familiar questions to build a rapport with your guest and give your listeners any necessary background. Move into the show-specific questions from there.

The result should be a natural and somewhat spontaneous conversation because your guest is fielding questions they do not often get. Your listeners will learn something new about a topic they care about, and you can take pride in knowing that your show is contributing something unique to the marketplace of ideas.

Some of my favorite examples of this technique are Longform, Think Again, and The Political Theory Review. Each interviewer talks with guests about themselves, but also about the show’s central themes (writing and philosophy, and politcal theory, respectively). The end result is nearly always in the sweet spot of the diagram.

Do you have an example of an interview-based podcast that combines the show’s theme with the guest’s expertise? Leave a comment so we can all learn from each other.

The Startup

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Jenna Spinelle

Written by

Writer, podcaster, and speaker in higher education. I love a good story and believe that everyone has one to tell.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +707K people. Follow to join our community.

Jenna Spinelle

Written by

Writer, podcaster, and speaker in higher education. I love a good story and believe that everyone has one to tell.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +707K people. Follow to join our community.

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