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Interviews that Shaped My Podcasting Style and Approach

Mar 27, 2009 • general

At Podcamp SLC, I'm giving a presentation about how to interview remote and local guests for podcasts. Rather than going into the technical details of my recording process (which I would be happy to do), I've decided to share stories of memorable podcasts that changed my interviewing style and approach.

Of the 80+ interviews I've done, a dozen of them made me rethink my method in some way. The following are five principles I learned from these experiences.

1. Find Knowledgeable People to Interview.

In the Minneapolis STC Summit, I brought along my new H4 Zoom recorder and interviewed, at random, about twenty people. I chose my interviewees with the assumption that everyone has a story to tell (a common assumption writers have).

Unfortunately, none of these interviews lasted more than five minutes. Their stories remained buried. I had to push the interview forward, asking more and more questions to help the interviewee find something to say. Content just didn't flow freely. Here's an example:

Despite my long-held belief about unraveling hidden stories, I learned that it doesn't quite work when interviewing people for podcasts. In contrast, it's much easier to interview someone who already has something to say. Look for someone who recently published an article or book, gave a presentation, posted a long entry on a forum or blog, or did something notable. With these people, content is already on their mind. It flows freely when you ask simple questions.

2. Don't Give Questions to Interviewees Beforehand

As I did more interview podcasts, especially over Skype, I fell into the habit of always giving interviewees the questions beforehand. I feared they wouldn't feel prepared otherwise. But this resulted in stiff podcasts, where the interviewee would sound rehearsed and predictable. In some cases, the interviewee actually read a script. If I veered off the pre-stated path, they seemed a bit hesitant.

After some research, I decided to stop giving questions to the interviewees. To my surprise, even though I hadn't given interviewees any questions beforehand (just general topics), they answered flawlessly and intelligently. They were aware of the issues I brought up. And they already had answers. Here's an example of a question I asked Paul Pehrson:

If you find the right person, someone passionate and knowledgeable about a topic, you need only to let the interviewee know the topics you plan to cover. Then go with the flow. You're not locked in to a set of predetermined questions. You're free to go outside the path you planned. (If you do give the person questions, make it clear that you're not limiting the interview to those questions.)

As you go with the flow, ask questions based on the interviewee's answers, and don't fear that the interviewee won't have an answer. It might surprise you how prepared and knowledgeable he or she is (again, see principle #1).

3. Ask Questions in a Natural Order

Even though I advocate a free-form style of interviewing, this doesn't mean I don't prepare beforehand. I always prepare at least an hour before the interview, reading what the interviewee has written, or researching the general topic. I gather a list of questions I want to ask.

I may arrange the questions in a natural order, but once I start the interview, I completely scrap the order. In fact, I rarely even look at the questions. They're on my mind, and based on the interviewee's responses, the next question naturally comes to me. The flow of the interview determines the order of the questions.

For example, in my last interview with Richard Hamilton, I had read his book (most of it, anyway) and pulled together about 15 questions. When I started the interview, I jumped around, asking the question that naturally connected with his last answer. It worked well, and one listener later commented that the interview sounded more like a conversation than an interview. Here's an excerpt from the interview:

To be sure you ask questions in a natural order, don't be afraid to leave your questions folded in a notebook. The interview will take a shape of its own, a path based on the interviewee's responses, which you can't totally predict. If you force the direction of the interview, the result will be a less natural exchange. In fact, it may come across as more of a job interview than a podcast.

4. Don't Be Afraid to Ask Tough Questions

When you interview, it's important to ask the questions you want to ask. Sometimes these questions may be tough to answer, but if you skip them, you do yourself, your listeners, and the interviewee a disservice.

I once interviewed a vendor spokesperson about his product, and because it was a sponsored podcast, I refrained from a few questions I normally would have asked. I thought they would make him feel uncomfortable. Afterwards, I regretted omitting the questions. The interview came off as light.

During my next interview, I asked the hardest questions I could think of (and which I wanted to ask). Here's an excerpt:

I was a little surprised at how well the interviewee handled them. Difficult questions, it turns out, aren't always so difficult. Sure, you may want to ease into them, saving them for the latter half of the interview. But give your interviewee some credit. These questions are often what your listeners want to hear. It's what you want to hear. And it shows your confidence in the interviewee's subject matter expertise.

5. Get the Best Possible Audio Quality

Shortly after I moved to Eagle Mountain, a little community tucked in the West bench of Utah Valley (where the bandwidth is limited), I recorded a podcast with someone in Michigan. The Skype connection was terrible, and we had to reschedule. The second time I called, we continued through the interview, but the audio fluctuated. At times it cut out and then came back. Here's an excerpt:

After the interview ended, it was a nightmare to post-process the audio. I postponed it for weeks. It took me hours to salvage it. At that point, I knew that I couldn't count on Skype for the recording. Some conversations would go well, others would be sketchy. I needed a more stable platform, especially if I was setting up interviews with well-known experts.

As a solution, I turned to a technique called the "Double Ender," which I read about in Tricks of the Podcast Masters. The Double Ender technique involves both you and the interviewee recording on your own machines. You ask the interviewee to download Audacity and press Record, and you do the same -- then you have the conversation over Skype. Afterwards you sync the two separately recorded tracks together.

The Double Ender Technique
The Double Ender Technique

The effect of using the Double Ender technique is that you seem to be in the same room. If the interviewee has a good mic, it can sound as if you're in a studio.

Here's an example:

At first, I had hesitations about this method. I thought it might be too technically challenging, or too much of a hassle. But it turns out this isn't the case. Almost everyone has a headset and can download Audacity in a few minutes.

Before launching into the interview, I ensure the interviewee's Audacity project rate is at 44100 Hz, that the right recording device is selected in Preferences, and that sound waves appear as they talk. Then I tell them to press the red button to start recording, and I do the same. After the interview, I send them the LAME codec so they can export the recording as an MP3 (I walk them through this on the phone). They then send me the file through a generic account on yousendit.com.

I do apply some post-processing to the file they send. If their audio has any background noise, I run it through Soundsoap to clean it up.

Here's a file that has a lot of background static.

Here's the same file after cleaning it up with Soundsoap.

I then balance both audio tracks with the Gigavox Levelator, which increases, balances, and enriches the sound. I then sync the two tracks together and voila, magically we sound like we're sitting right next to each other.

Here's another example of a successful double-ender recorded podcast.

If you try this technique, I highly recommend using Soundsoap from BIAS. The Levelator increases the volume and richness of the voices, but also increases any background noise as well. Soundsoap allows you to remove most of that background noise so that your podcast doesn't have sounds of rushing static.

A Few Other Notes

Finding Your Natural Podcasting Style. As I was interviewing people for podcasts at the STC Summit, someone pointed out that I had a knack for approaching people, that I was personable and not shy. I've since reflected on this. Maybe it's a style I learned from my two years as a missionary in Venezuela. I don't know. But interviewing, I've decided, is my natural podcasting style. It's what I do best.

Interviewing isn't everyone's style. Some people find co-host shows more natural. Others find it natural to deliver the entire show themselves. Others are excellent at bantering with a group of people. Although I've tried these formats, I always come back to the one-on-one interview. That's me. That's how I function best. It's important to embrace the style that comes naturally to you. Those are the best podcasts you'll deliver.

Being Interviewed Is Exhilarating. Although I had recorded more than a dozen podcasts, it wasn't until I was actually interviewed for a podcast myself that I realized what an exhilarating experience it is to be interviewed. Being interviewed is fun. It makes you feel like an expert. The interviewer listens intently, asks follow-up questions, wants to know your perspective and opinion. It makes you feel important.

Here's a podcast in which Alistair Christie of ITAuthor.com interviews me:

When I realized how fun it was to be interviewed, it made me less shy in asking to interview others. I knew it made them feel knowledgeable and important, even honored. It's an experience people never forget.

When I meet these same interviewees in person at conferences or other events, we have a connection. I can see that the interview made an impression. It's an experience people highly meaningful. Because of the value of the exchange, I approach people with more confidence and enthusiasm when asking to interview them.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.