The Art of the Podcast Interview: What I’ve Learned from 700 Episodes

Srinivas Rao
Aug 20, 2018 · 12 min read

A couple of nights ago I was interviewing my friend Sarah Peck during a live taping of the Unmistakable Creative. She asked me what I had learned about conducting interviews. Below I’ll dissect the entire process of how I select guests, come up with questions for interviews, and get people to open up.

Guest Selection

Start with Curiosity and Develop a Set of Criteria

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 another person because of their perceived status, your questions will always come across stilted and canned. The person I’m trying to entertain most with my interviews is me. The result of that for us is a lineup of guests that ranged from bank robbers to billionaires.

When I asked Sarah Peck about how she chooses guest for The Startup Pregnant Podcast, she shared the following:

I’m evaluating a few things. Has this story been told before? Is there an interesting story we can talk about that’s not mainstream or typical. And can **this person** tell a good story?

I’m also not afraid to do things that would mortify a lot of people. I’ve scrapped interviews in the middle. I’ve asked people to do second takes. And I’ve even chosen not to publish interviews that weren’t up to my standards. Occasionally I’ve had people more or less tell me to go fuck myself. I didn’t air their interviews. The attention of our listeners is precious, and I do my best to treat it accordingly.

Landing Guests

Personal Interest

Referrals

They have all not only been guests on our show but know what I look for and every single guest they have sent us has been fantastic. Anytime they refer a guest it’s almost always a hell yes.

Cold Pitches

Occasionally I will choose a guest based on a cold pitch. But I say yes to maybe 1 out of 10 cold pitches. If you’re a publicist or you’re pitching yourself to a podcaster you don’t know, these are things that cause me to say no:

  • You mention the other podcasts you’ve been on. Sometimes those podcasts are nothing like ours. In some cases, I automatically delete based on that.
  • You mention all your accolades without talking about the value you can bring to our audience. Jordan Harbinger’s intake form is a perfect example of this. Even though we’re friends he had me fill out an extremely detailed form in which I had show the value i could bring to his audience.
  • There’s no clear theme to the story
  • It’s clear you know absolutely nothing about our show
  • You’re a book publicist that sends a copy and paste galley letter. Occasionally I’ve said yes to these. But it’s never because of the message. It’s only because I find the subject fascinating. I delete most of them. I recently received what was clearly a cut and paste galley letter. At the end of the message, it said: “would you be interested in an interview with x ?” It’s quite clear to me that this is a person who is just spamming a list of podcasts with the same letter.

Some podcasters completely outsource guest selection. Given that one of the things our listeners love most is the sheer diversity of people we bring on the show, that’s something we’d never do. Half the art of a compelling interview is selecting a compelling guest.

Research

Read the About Page

Read their book

Story

Entertainment

One of the reasons we start our podcast with seemingly ridiculous questions like “what social group were you a part of in high school” is because there’s no way someone can answer that question without telling a story. It’s 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 completely engaged in the conversation they’re having with you.

  • When I asked Dani Shapiro what her parents did for a living, she said: “nobody has ever asked me that before.”
  • When I asked Gay Hendricks what social group he was a part of in high school, he told me a hilarious story. He was in the chemistry lab at lunch, and three popular girls walked up to him and said “We have a friend who doesn’t have a date to the prom and we know you don’t. And we’re wondering if you’d take her.”
  • When I asked Cal Fussman where he grew up, I got a history lesson, a glimpse into growing up in the 60’s, and a perspective on events like the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

You want to create as vivid a picture as possible in the mind of someone listening.

Emotion

If you evoke an emotional response from a person telling a story, you’ll likely elicit an emotional reaction from the person listening.

When I spoke with Alex Banyan about how the most successful people in the world launched their careers, he commented on the full range of emotions in our conversation. We covered everything from the frustration of being premed to the grit to land interviews with people like Bill Gates, to the grief of losing his father. People called his mother and sister about the interview.

Listening and Asking Questions

Having a list of too many questions prepared ahead of time prevents you from listening and causes you to focus too much on your next question. You’d never go on a date or meet up for drinks with a friend and show up with a scripted list of questions. For an interview to have a conversational tone, it has to be approached like a conversation, not an interrogation.

If you talk to a world-class interviewer like Cal Fussman, he’ll echo my sentiment above. When you don’t have a list of questions beforehand, you have no choice but to listen attentively to what someone is saying.

The question you want to ask next lies within the answer that someone is giving you.

People are like onions. They have many layers. The job of an interviewer is to keep peeling back layers, while at the same time not violating the boundaries of the interviewee. With each layer you peel, you make a person more comfortable; you build more trust. As you do this person’s defenses, come down, and they begin to share more. You should never do this with malicious intent or to make somebody share something that paints them in a bad light. Honor their willingness to be vulnerable and make sure you do it from a place of service rather than one of seeking a provocative response from the interviewee or the audience.

Silence is Golden

Humans by nature need to fill a silence. And if you give them the space to do it, they’ll fill it with provocative, riveting and beautiful words that resonate. While it might be a cliche, when it comes to interviewing someone, silence is, in fact, golden, because what follows it usually is pure gold.

Setting up the Environment for an Intimate Conversation

Reduce the amount of visual input, so your brain can focus entirely on the auditory information your receiving. This is one of the reasons I ask people to turn off video. I’d also recommend recording your interviews in full-screen mode. That way the only visual input you have is Skype in full screen, and the only audio input you have is the sound of another person’s voice.

Having Evernote open is my exception to this, and I’ll usually use it in full-screen mode when talking to someone.

Even when you interview a person, you want to create an environment for an intimate conversation. Even though it’s in front of a live audience, David Letterman creates a very intimate setting for his guests.

When my friend Evan Luth interviewed me for the Offshore Insights Podcast, we recorded the interview on top of a cliff overlooking a favorite surf spot in San Diego. Given that we’re both surfers, this was a perfect setting for our chat. It ended up being one of my favorite interviews to date

Becoming a Better Interviewer

1. Reviewing Your Work

Even though I don’t edit the podcast anymore, I go back and listen to everything that I’ve recorded at least once, if not twice. 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. I also make a note of questions I wish I would have asked.

When I interviewed James Clear in 2014, he told me about a horrific injury in which he was hit in the face with a baseball bat. When I went back and listened, I realized I had missed an opportunity to ask an emotional question instead of a logical one, which would have led to a better story.

By making a note of questions you wish you would have asked, you can use those questions in future interviews.

2. Discerning Feedback.

I have been listening to your podcast for several months and I love the guests you have on show and the discussions that you have. I feel refreshed and inspired listening to it. I wanted to let you know Srini… I don’t know if you would have noticed this, but you tend to start every question with “I’m curious,” and you say it at least once, sometimes twice per question. I think you bring up awesome thought-provoking questions with your guests but also wanted to make you aware of that pattern. I know I personally like to know if there a phrase I either overuse or rely on when I speak, so I just wanted to share that with you! Love the show!

When I went back and listened to the interviews, I realized she was spot on. Until somebody points out one of your tics, you’re completely unaware of it. Once you are aware of it, it’s all you hear. I was saying “I’m curious” so much it drove me crazy. Her feedback helped me make a conscious effort to stop doing that.

3. Listening to Other Interviewers

Every interview is an opportunity to learn what you did well and what you could have done better. My first dozen interviews were with up and coming bloggers. None of them were famous. But interviewing them turned out to be an invaluable learning experience as a beginner. Don’t underestimate the value of interviewing someone just because they are not famous. It will give you an excellent opportunity to practice.

Ten years later, some of my most informative and favorite interviews are with people my audience has probably never heard of until their interview on Unmistakable Creative. Ultimately, a great interview is the result of a great story.

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Srinivas Rao

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