The Art of Interviewing — 10 Tips for Perfecting the Most Important Element of Podcasting
Interviewing experts is one of the easiest and most practical ways to generate material for your podcast. Although many people think the difficult part of podcasting is the audio setup and production, actually pulling off a good interview requires more art and skill. I know I'm not the best interviewer, but I've learned at least 10 tips from the 60+ interviews I've conducted for my Tech Writer Voices podcast.
1. Do research beforehand.
Research is the single most important preparation you can do for an interview. If you're familiar with the subject, you'll be able to naturally follow up the interviewee's answers with relevant questions. You'll have an informed starting point that will lead to a more natural exchange about the topic.
The most important preparation [for interviewing] I've found is to read all the time. We need to be information sharks; either we're moving and feeding, or we're dying. ("The Art of the Interview")
Even if you've only glanced at the person's articles, blog, or presentation slides, the information will present itself to you in the moment you need it. The interviewee will mention a keyword or topic that will trigger your memory (“hey, there were 10 slides on that topic ….”) and help you know the direction you should go.
2. Ask questions based on the interviewee's responses.
The best interviews resemble natural conversations. If you watch Jay Leno interview his guests, it doesn't appear as if he has prepared a script of questions or practiced with the interviewee. In fact, it doesn't even look like an interview — it looks like a spontaneous and natural conversation.
Jim Short, a seasoned reporter, stresses the importance of this type of free-form interview:
If there is an "art" to the interview, mine is free-form. I can't remember how often, in more than 30 years of reporting, I've gone into an interview with one idea or plan in mind, only to come away with something entirely different — and usually more entertaining.
That's probably my number one rule. Let the interview write the story instead of doing the interview to support your own theory or viewpoint. Obviously, it's necessary to have a story idea as a jumping-off point, but that shouldn't be so restrictive that the finished story has an unwarranted slant or offers an inadequate picture of the subject. (“The Interview as Free-Form Art”)
One way to create a free-form interview is to ask questions based on the interviewee's responses. Exchanges built from answers usually lead to more natural conversations. This will help you move in a direction of discovery rather than proceeding through a list of pre-written questions (which can be stiff).
Joe Hamlin, another journalist, also stresses the same free-form technique when interviewing. He says,
Unless you have an agenda, have three to four questions prepared to get things rolling. Then follow where the subject wants to take you. (“Interviewing Techniques”)
Think of the list of questions you've prepared as one possible route through a city. It may not be the best route to take, and there are dozens of different roads to get to your destination. Take the route that attracts you the most. If you get lost, fall back on your original map.
3. Find people who have something to say.
I learned a lot when I interviewed 20 people at the STC Conference in Minneapolis last year: people who don't have much to say don't say much. An amazing revelation, I know. But I've always held the idea that everyone is interesting, everyone has a story to tell — you just have to find out what it is.
Well, sort of. Everyone may have an interesting story inside, but can you dig it out in 5 minutes? Will they tell it (assuming they know what it is)? I'm still pursuing that ideal, but in the meantime, I look for people who are experts on a topic. Usually they've written an article, or presented, or are forum moderators, or hold some leadership position. When you ask them questions, they have something to say. It makes the interview go a lot easier.
Anna will pick out interesting quotes her and use them as prompts to initiate conversation. She's an informed interviewer, but her guests are also informed experts on the topics. With that combination, good content flows naturally.
4. Pick topics you're interested in learning about.
I'm selfish when it comes to topics for my podcast. At least every week someone recommends a topic for the podcast, but if I'm not interested in the subject, I never get around to scheduling it. I use the podcast to learn and interact, and I'm assuming others are like me.
Some topics just don't excite me —project management, networking, e-learning content management systems. Ouch, you say. Well, those are all interesting topics I'm sure, but right now I'm not focused on any of those things, so I'd rather not go through the hassle of scheduling someone to interview, and then the tedium of processing the audio recording.
I don't try to find podcasts that are interesting to my audience — I'm trying to find podcasts that are interesting to me. My audience will naturally follow. That's the cool thing about podcasts — you can tap into a niche audience because the globe is your soundboard.
Doug Kaye, founder of IT Conversations, explains that all content is valuable to someone, even a podcast on the school board of Kuala Lumpur. Whatever your topic, you'll attract an audience of listeners somewhere.
5. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions.
Although I shouldn't, sometimes I refrain from asking a certain question because it might make the person feel uncomfortable. I suspect he or she will regret coming on the podcast. This stems from some kind of indoctrinated politeness. However, it's bad interviewing practice.
You'll notice that my interview with RJ was pretty tame. I left out some of the big questions. Part of the reason was that the podcast was sponsored by Adobe. But I've found that when I listen to podcasts, I want the interviewer to ask the hard questions.
Ask the questions you want to ask. Your listeners want to hear them, you do too, and most likely the interviewee has the best responses for them. One interview where I did ask the hard questions was with Anne Gentle on wikis. To my surprise, she didn't choke or stumble on the answers.
If you do have tough questions, Hamlin recommends saving them for the second half of the interview (“Some useful interview techniques”).
6. Let the interviewee speak most of the time.
Even if you have a lot of theories and ideas about the topic, remember that you're interviewing someone. As I mentioned previously, I come to the interview to learn, to absorb the other's knowledge. If I'm constantly explaining my own viewpoint and perspective, I might as well deliver a monologue instead. A good rule of thumb is to let the interviewee speak at least 75% of the time.
Actually, when I find myself commenting a lot in the interview, I get the impression that the interviewee has absolutely no interest in what I'm saying. I'm stealing his or her spotlight. I hear a silent voice in my head projected from the interviewee — “Why'd you invite me on the podcast if you just wanted to lecture me.” This shuts me up.
7. Give the interviewee 10 questions to prepare, but don't limit yourself to those questions, nor the order.
I find that people are more agreeable to a podcast if you give them a list of 10 questions to get started. It's easy for me because I can think of 10 questions about almost every subject. And it's easy for the interviewee because they have a starting point to prepare. In fact, giving them questions often piques their interest in doing the podcast.
Based on the person's answers, you may decide to ask follow-up questions that aren't on the list (the free-form method described in tip 2 above), or you may ask the questions in the order most relevant to their answers.
The 10 question trick also doesn't intimidate the interviewee. If you were to give someone 25 hard-to-answer questions for the podcast, they may back out before the interview or continually postpone it.
8. Avoid commenting on their answers.
After the interviewee finishes responding, avoid making empty comments on their responses. Don't say things like “That's great,” or “Exactly, so true” or “That's nice.” Although this may sound innocent in writing, in an interview it can sound stiff. You don't have to follow up their responses with anything, actually. Just move on to the next question. Or move into your next question using a segue from their response.
9. If interviewing in person, don't let the interviewee hold the microphone.
Rookie mistake: never let the interviewee hold the microphone. They'll move it around as they gesticulate. If you listened to my last podcast (with Paul Pehrson), You'll notice I made two mistakes. First, I held the mic closer to my mouth than his. The Shure SM58 creates a great deep sound when you speak into it one inch away from your mouth. No interviewee lets you do that, unfortunately. Most people have a one-foot safe space with the microphone. Violate it and they move back. The trick is to match the same one-foot distance when you speak into the mic as well — otherwise the audio will be unbalanced.
Second, hold the mic really still. Don't try to inch it closer to the interviewee, hoping to get better sound. The mic hears every miniscule sound your moving hand makes, and embeds it permanently within the audio recording.
I have a lot of post-production tricks that I do to level and balance the sound, but I'll save that for another post.
10. Keep everything informal.
As a final note, I hear of some people requiring interviewees to sign contracts related to copyright of their material. For example, Joseph Humbert from the East Bay STC chapter wrote an article in the Dec 07 issue of Tieline describing the need for a written contract:
Besides the hardware and software needed to produce a podcast, we knew we needed a written agreement or contract for both parties—the chapter and the speaker—to sign. Initially, we set a time limit of one year and provided that no money was to be exchanged for the podcast rights. (“Podcasting Speaker Programs for STC Communities”)
I think that's ridiculous. I do everything on a virtual handshake. There's no money involved, and if the person ever wants me to retract a podcast, I'd simply do it.
I have edited out parts of a podcast before (insignificant sections based on people's obsession with sounding right about things). If you whip out a legal contract, it will probably frighten people away. I have more than 80 podcasts on my site and I've never had anyone complain about copyright or legal matters.
I'm interested to hear your tips. Am I doing anything radically different from you? Do you have any advice for me?
On a closing note, if you're nervous about the interview, remember that it's fun to be interviewed. Sure people may feel jittery at first, and postpone or reschedule the date, but if you've ever been interviewed before, it's an exhilarating feeling. It makes you feel important, an expert. It makes you feel like the whole world is listening to you. It's an experience people never forget. (Except Thom Haller, who I interviewed once for 45 min, met him at a conference several months later, and learned he had no recollection of me.)
If you want to learn more about interviewing, I recommend that you read the Neal Conan essay, The Art of the Interview, which I quoted earlier. It's an excellent read from a veteran interviewer.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.