Prep, preview, pivot: How almost anyone can ask great questions and do a great podcast interview.

Despite many recent efforts to debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “10,000 hour rule”, there is a good deal of truth to what he says.

The New Yorker writer, author and podcaster claimed that the key to success in any field, is simply a matter of practicing a specific task for 20 hours a week for 10 years. In other words, bloody hard work for a sustained period of time can make you really good at almost anything.

“Achievement is talent plus preparation,” Gladwell wrote in his best-selling book, “Outliers”.

Oprah Winfrey, who has spent way more than 10,000 hours on the craft of interviewing, agrees. Her biggest frustration with young people today, she told a British magazine editor is that “they think that success is supposed to happen” right away. “They think that there isn’t a process to it. They think that they are supposed to come out of college and have their brand.” 

After more than 40 years of doing radio, print and podcast interviews, I’m generally on the side of my fellow media vets.

But they’re not 100% right.

Shortcuts can be taken to improve the odds that your podcast interview is excellent, exciting and of true interest to your listeners. Experience is important, but true curiosity, attitude and empathy are vital.

I come to each podcast recording prepared, but ready to pivot: Always aware that no matter how much research has been done, or how many questions are written on a briefing sheet, the conversation could fly off in a completely unexpected, wonderful new direction.

That is the joy of interviewing. Spontaneity, humor and passion are your best friends.

Yes, of course, podcast producers should think of the story arc of each episode. And they should prepare ahead of time. But if essential follow-up questions lead you down a brand new path, be prepared to tear up your script.

In addition to the pivot and the prep, another way to improve your odds of hitting the audio jackpot is the pre-interview.

This does NOT mean a set of email exchanges with your podcast guests in the days or hours before shows are recorded.

Instead, pick up the phone and chat with them one-on-one for at least 15 minutes. Listen to what they’re passionate about. How easily do they laugh? Do they like being interrupted? Give them a sense of who you are, so that when the interview begins, you’re more friends than strangers.

Once in a while, Malcolm Gladwell’s rule is wrong.

That’s the thing with laws of human nature. There are almost always some exceptions. Just because you do something all the time doesn’t necessarily mean that you are really good at it.

For many years, I listened to the lunchtime host of a daily public radio show. He often had great guests, who were either in the news or had just written an interesting book.

Sadly, the guy was a dismal interviewer and a show-off, who tried to impress listeners with his knowledge and personal experience. He often sounded bored as he read the questions prepared for him by a team of producers on his over-staffed show. He rarely asked follow-up questions and instead stuck with the list in front of him.

The guy didn’t pivot. And while his producers probably did lengthy pre-interviews, they were no substitute for enthusiasm and empathy.

With those fresh ingredients, even an amateur with an unpolished voice and a less-than-dynamic personality can cook up a great podcast interview.

Richard Davies is a podcast coach and consultant. His firm, DaviesContent, formats, produces and hosts podcasts.

The Michelle Obama Example: Why Book Publishers Should Make Podcasts With Their Best-Selling Authors

I’m listening to Michelle Obama read her audio book to me. I’m on my own with my headphones and so is she.

I picture the former First Lady sitting upright and calm, with good posture, in a small sound-proofed recording booth with a cool glass of water by her side, alone with her thoughts and carefully chosen words, as she tells a 19-hour-long story that lifts a curtain on her utterly remarkable life.

What a quiet contrast to that night in 2016 when she rocked the hall and wowed the crowd as she gave her electrifying speech to the Democratic National Convention.

During a 16-minute address, Michelle Obama’s short, clear sentences and confident but never cocky manner impressed the nation. She won a jump-off-your-seat standing ovation from the crowd.

It’s no surprise that in a Gallup Poll, released last week, she was named the woman Americans admire most.

Her critically acclaimed memoir, released in mid-November is a smash hit, selling more than two million copies in the first 15 days after its release. “Becoming” is the #1 selling book of 2018.

Sentence-by-sentence the story reveals much about her upbringing in “a family of strivers” in a working class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Shore. For middle-class white readers like myself, the book is a revealing, fascinating and also humbling glimpse at her family background.

“One of the great gifts of Obama’s book is her loving and frank bearing-witness to the lived experiences of the black working class, the invisible people who don’t make the evening news and whom not enough of us choose to see,”  wrote journalist and author, Isabel Wilkerson in her powerful review of “Becoming.”

“She recreates the dailiness of African-American life — the grass-mowing, bid-whist-playing, double-Dutch-jumping, choir-practicing, waiting-on-the-bus and clock-punching of the ordinary black people who surrounded her growing up.”

The audio version of the book has the added bonus of Ms. Obama’s voice. Unlike many book authors, who vocal professionals to do true justice to their words, Ms. Obama reads well, with relaxed polish and warmth. We can hear the passion, precision and humor in her voice.

But I wish that “Becoming” was also a podcast, because the curtain would have been lifted a lot higher on a life that many of us want to know a lot more about.

If pushed to choose between a finely-crafted, well-edited audio book and the spontaneity of an extended series of podcast interviews, I’d pick the latter.

They would have been even more revealing, more intimate, and perhaps more honest than the book. When a good interviewer asks questions there are unplanned for moments.

“Podcasting is the slow food movement of the media world,” says RadioPublic CEO, Jake Shapiro. Our medium “treats listeners with respect, gives publishers a direct relationship with audiences, and gives voice to new talent and communities long missing from the airwaves.”

Here’s hoping that in the new year to come book publishers and their best-selling authors will use in-depth podcasts to establish deeper, stronger and ever more personal contacts with readers and listeners.

Best-selling books need podcast companions.