“How do you feel”, “tell me more” and other smart interview questions.

How to answer questions. The second in a series on podcasting.

“It was 1992. The closing days of the Presidential campaign and I was beginning to get a name for myself.

Not in a good way.

During crowded press conferences with the candidates all that year, I was the network radio reporter who would ask: “How do you feel?”

Sometimes not-very-polite snickers were heard nearby from fellow members of the traveling press. “What a dumb question” they probably murmured under their breaths. They were far from impressed.

But more often than not a question about emotions or feelings — as opposed to something erudite about policy — resulted in one of the best soundbites of the day.

The point is simple. It’s not about you. Interviewers on podcasts, reporters at news conferences, or panel members at webinars shouldn’t try to make themselves look smart or impress colleagues. Instead, look for ways to engage others.

This is especially true on a podcast, when almost all listeners start at the beginning. They don’t tune-in half-way through, as so often happens during a radio show. A podcast audience is much more likely to stay with you for the entire episode when they’re hearing a lively conversation.

Hosts who are curious and honestly interested in what their guests have to say are more engaging and fully present than those who are merely clever.

Be direct. Keep questions brief, if possible. Humor works. So do challenging questions. But unless being obnoxious is part of your act, don’t try to show up the guest or be snarky. On the other extreme, avoid being a toady, who repeatedly flatters guests. “That’s so interesting” or “it’s such a good point you’re making” works once or twice during a twenty minute conversation, but no more than that.

Preparation is essential. Know your stuff. An interview should have moments of surprise, laughter and spontaneity. When the answer provokes a follow-up, don’t stick to a written list of questions. “Tell me more” is a gentle prompt that enables you to go a little deeper.

Two more ways to get the best from a guest is to make her/him feel comfortable before the microphone is switched on. If you edit your podcast before it’s published (you should do this), explain beforehand that a guest can “re-do” an answer. Second, put some energy into how you ask your questions. If you do, the answers are likely to be more animated.

Another way to improve interview technique is to listen to the pros.

We all have our favorite hosts. Mine is Terry Gross. For more than 40 years, she has been voice of the NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Next month in Philadelphia, she will be the closing keynote speaker at Podcast Movement’s annual get together. I’ll be on the edge of my seat, taking notes on what she’ll tell the audience.

Podcaster Marc Maron called Terry “‘the most effective and beautiful interviewer of people on the planet.’’ I love her infectious laugh and warm, deeply intelligent manner.

“Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy,” wrote Susan Burton in a lovely profile for The New York Times Magazine. “In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.”

Many podcast hosts who are relatively new to the game are understandably nervous. But some of the best interviews I’ve heard were by amateurs, speaking with friends or those they love.

Have you listened to “Storycorps”? This brilliant non-profit organization founded by radio producer Dave Isay has been recording and collecting conversations for years. “Our mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world,” Storycorps says on its website.

“Storycorps” has countless examples of loving, empathetic and surprising questions and answers. “Listen. Honor. Share” is their motto. Not a bad thing for us podcasters to include our own mission statements.

If Moms and Dads, sons and daughters and cousins can ask great questions, so can you.

Richard Davies is a Podcast host, consultant and media trainer. Learn more at DaviesContent.com

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“Thats a really good question” and other silly things guests say during podcasts.

This is the first of several blogs on making better podcasts. Today: how to be a great guest.

The other day I was interviewing a young woman who wanted to work on a podcast project with us.

About half of her answers began with the all-too-frequent comment, “that’s a really good question.” I wanted to reach into the phone, wag my finger and call her on it.

We all love compliments. But most of the time it’s important to mean what you say. Or, at least convince the person on the other side of the microphone that you’re sincere.

This is especially important when being interviewed on a podcast. Any experienced host can tell when you are using flattery to mask the truth.

Another frequent mistake made by podcast guests and panel members is giving long answers to questions. An interview should be a conversation, not a monologue. Keep you answer to less than 60 seconds. An interesting or provocative comment should invite a follow-up from the host.

One way for podcast guests to be more succinct is to avoid repeating their main argument twice.

A great many professional speakers, professors and authors feel the need to make a point, then say it a slightly different way, and sum-up their long-winded answer with a third version! You’d think they’d know better. But surprisingly few publishers or public relations firms offer media training to authors and clients.

A few more do’s and don’ts:

– If you’re podcast or radio show guest, beware of tangents. When possible, make your main argument first, and then give an illustration or anecdote during the second half of the answer.

  • Be direct and avoid overstating your case with words such as “amazing”, “incredible”, or “that’s so important”. Avoid bravado. Be humble.

– Listen carefully to the questions and fully engage with the host. If it’s a face-to-face interview, use eye contact to establish rapport with others. Humor is also a highly effective and often undervalued way to break the ice and establish authenticity.

  • Before an interview, ask if the show is live. With an edited, prerecorded podcast, feel free to ask for a “do over” if you’re unhappy with your answer.

– Journalists — and podcast hosts — love people who speak in sound-bites. Prior to an appearance, write down three or four brief sentences that are core messages. Rehearse them.

Good prep before an interview improves your performance. As part of this, ask yourself what you really want to say. Skilled guests know all about framing. They also understand the difference between simple repetition and finding several different ways to make a similar argument.

One way to be the guest who keeps getting invited back is to remember how friends, readers or clients responded when you first discussed a project that you were working on. If they found one particular phrase to be of interest, so will podcast listeners. They are usually hearing your “pitch” for the first time.

Next: How to ask good questions.

Richard Davies is a podcast host, consultant and media trainer. Learn more at DaviesContent.com.

Sometimes I love riding with NYC subway…

A number one train in motion

…Yeah, I know it’s a pain— especially in rush hour, at the weekends when there’s limited service, or if the guy sitting next to me is manspreading.

But there are also times of unexpected delight on the New York City subway, when a stranger makes you smile.

Friday nights are often the best time, with trains full of happy young people, heading out on dates, parties or planning to start the weekend at a bar. Their laughter and energy are infectious.

Then there are those times such as 9:30 this morning on the number 1 train heading south, when a young woman in her mid-twenties, wearing a shiny light blue cloak with a Columbia University logo, hopped on.

This was her graduation day and she could barely contain her smile.

The people sitting nearby all congratulated her. “It’s a big day— a real milestone”, one middle-aged man said, perhaps thinking of his own kids.

The young woman with long blonde hair was positively beaming. Just before she left the train at W. 116th Street, I asked about her degree. “Masters in International Relations,” she said, almost embarrassed that she was smiling so much.

Someone else nearby said: “Go make the world a better place. I think we need it.”

So, best of luck to her and all graduates who are launching new lives in this commencement season of possibilities. May they find not only work and a way to pay the bills— and the crazy high costs of student loans— but also purpose and a belief in the abundance and blessings of life.

We need their hope, energy and optimism to make the world a better place.

And sometimes we also need the subway and other public places to introduce us to the unexpected.

Richard Davies is the co-host of the news solutions show “How Do We Fix It?” and a podcasting consultant. He tries to listen to at least one new podcast each week.

I swam with Muslims in The Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee at sunset…Looking west

Us versus them.

Right against wrong.

Accept the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Wag your finger and reject it outright.

Far too often in our beautiful, colorful, chaotic and profoundly interesting world, political and moral arguments are reduced to simple either/or choices. My side good. Your side bad.

In his White House address, President Trump used harsh words about the Iran deal. Instead of suggesting a way to work with European allies and craft something better, he called the deal “horrible” and “disastrous.”

No doubt Trump’s rhetoric will be matched by his opponents. The day after his brief address, members of the Iranian Parliament burnt paper U.S. Flags and chanted “death to America.”

Increasingly in our debates, nuance and compromise— all needed in any realistic or interesting dialogue involving different interests and points of view— are tossed out in favor of dogma and name-calling.

We are all the poorer for it.

Narcissistic name-calling from politicians, pundits and celebrities on cable TV, talk radio and in social media silos only reinforces this sorry trend and confines us to our information silos.

There are much better ways to move forward, have a conversation and learn from others. We’ve learned this on “How Do We Fix It?”, when my co-host Jim Meigs and I ask guests about solutions and what works.

Understanding begins with listening. Growth can come when we change our minds or at least challenge pre-conceived beliefs.

This lesson is almost always reinforced by travel.

During the past two weeks, on a trip to Israel, I was in the happy position of being the least informed person in the room. Normally talkative and full of opinions, I had to listen and ask questions.

What I learned surprised and impressed me. This determined, enterprising, dynamic, inventive and youthful country is far more diverse and pragmatic than I had expected.

Israel is a Jewish state, but it is anything but monolithic. While Orthodox sects play a prominent role in public life, especially in and around Jerusalem, secular Israelis are in the majority. People have come from all over the world. They’re confidence and pride in being Jewish is obvious, even to this first-time visitor.

Back home in the U.S. we hear only about the negatives: a frozen peace process and bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

None of this is to deny that the violence at the Gaza border or the yawning gap in living standards between the two peoples are distressing facts of life. But they are not the only factors to consider. The suffering of many Palestinians is undeniable, but so is the determination of people in all parts of the region to go to work, raise their kids and live their lives.

Arab-Israelis make up almost one-fifth of the population in this small country that is size of New Jersey. While visiting northern, western and central Israel, I saw prominent mosques and minarets, and heard the Moslem call to prayer.

Islamic and Christian religious sites and traditions are treated with respect.

During a brief stay at a resort on the Sea of Galilee (not really a “sea” at all—more like a medium-sized lake), not far from where Jesus started his ministry two thousand years ago, I sunbathed and swam next to a group of young Arab men and women, who, like me, were on vacation, enjoying the warm weather.

For most people normal life goes on. Weekends in Tel Aviv are celebrated on the beach, in restaurants and cafes.

The threat of war is no less real than I had imagined before my trip. And yet that possibility may well add to the appreciation of quotidian rituals.

At a time of ongoing tension, the flame of hope is not extinguished.

Richard Davies is a #podcasting consultant and host of the weekly solutions journalist Podcast “How Do We Fix It?“. DaviesContent designs, edits and makes podcasts for companies and non-profit clients.

Professors on Podcasts: A Rant.

It’s baseball season, thank goodness. So before I get into my windup and start hurling metaphors, let me say that I love interviewing professors on our podcasts .

These learned souls are almost always thoughtful, highly intelligent, and often funny. Their bases are loaded with interesting ideas. Professors understand nuance and are good at reminding the rest of the world (including Donald Trump) that most issues are far more complex, and indeed more interesting, than they first appear.

This is the nature of the human condition, and why it’s so difficult for data experts to design algorithms that take account of all the delightful complexity of human behavior.

The recent rush to judgement over self-driving cars, universal health care and privacy on Facebook are just three current examples of how so many current debates are poorly framed.

Professors have the luxury of escaping from the daily pressures of the business world, taking a long-term view of the subjects they study.

But they are usually different… especially tenured professors.

What is it about one-YEAR sabbaticals? Say what? For the rest of us workers, small business owners, gig economy freelancers, and salaried professionals, a one-MONTH break would be a total luxury.

And try interrupting professors. Good luck with that! The preferred platform for many university lecturers is neither a chat, seminar nor a brainstorming session. They speak from behind a lectern.

Before each episode with a professor on our weekly solutions news show, “How Do We Fix It?” my co-host, Jim Meigs and I do some podcast batting practice.

Jim starts the interview with a very polite warm-up, telling guests what’s about to happen.

“We’re a fast-paced show,” Jim explains in a somewhat professorial, yet almost apologetic tone. “We try to keep the answers to questions to under a minute. We may jump in.”

Sometimes, this approach actually works. We are able to ask lots of questions and enjoy bantering with our guests.

But in many cases, professors, who give “talks”, and “presentations” aren’t entirely comfortable with the back-and-forth of conversations. They’d rather give five examples than three.

But don’t get me wrong.

Before I get too deep in the count, let me say with as much force as I can muster: Academics are among our favorite podcast guests.

If you’re looking for someone to add intellectual heft, who could be better?

And in our age of distraction, we need to listen more carefully and at far greater length to deep thinkers.

Professors know their subjects inside and out. And many are happy to venture forth with contrarian opinions that challenge the dominant zeitgeist.

However, Jim and I agree: among our absolute favorite podcast guests professors who have also spent some time in careers outside academia— in business or journalism. Not only do they know their stuff, these women and men understand bullet points and deadlines. They tend to be both clear and disciplined in their thinking, and have learned the art of sound-bites and relatively short declarative sentences.

If you are a podcaster or broadcast host, before inviting a professor on your show, get ready to step up to the plate and take a few swings at interrupting your guest.

And also make sure you’ve taken some batting practice first. Read their book before you open the mike.

Richard Davies is a podcasting consultant, producer, interviewer and host. DaviesContent makes podcasts for companies and non-profit groups.

podcasts are so more than sound without the pictures.

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I’m an audio guy. Always have been.

One of my earliest memories was when I was five, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, loading a stack of orange, green and yellow 45 rpm vinyl records with a big hole in the middle, onto a kids’ victrola that my parents purchased to keep their easily distracted child busy.

The recordings were made by Disney. I still remember those wonderful, cheerful voices and the jingles of Jiminy Cricket, Uncle Remus, the Mickey Mouse Club, Brer Rabbit and many more. A little boy’s imagination ran wild.

Today, as in the days before television, there’s an audio renaissance once again. Millions of people are feeding their brains with a vast array of podcasts and audio books.

They know that listening to voices or music is about so more than closing your eyes and hearing sound without video.

But in our highly visual age of VR, digital billboards, 360-cameras, video games and super heroes — with so much emphasis on how things look — many brands, marketers, advertising agencies, and content producers forget this.

  • They don’t understand that sound can create a world that is just as rich, exciting and vibrant as TV or movies.
  • They devalue the potential of well-produced sound to inspire and motivate.
  • They fail to recognize that many of us often prefer audio to print, websites or video for stories and information.

Commercial radio is full of advertising produced by sponsors who fail to grasp the importance of well-produced sound. Those awful Cars4Kids ads are just one of countless, jarring examples of soundtracks that were produced for TV.

The problem has also spread to podcasting as well-intentioned non-profit groups, companies and trade associations, anxious to grow their reputation as thought leaders, slap together episodes with little respect for what made the medium so popular.

Just this morning after searching a podcast app for something to listen to on migration and refugees, I was subjected to a long and poorly produced recording of a webinar.

No, people!

Re-broadcasting webinars or conferences are terrible ways to use podcasts.

While they don’t have to be up to the excellent, groundbreaking standards set by “The Daily” or “This American Life”, podcast content, production and editing do deserve respect.

The opportunity to spread your message inexpensively with storytelling and interviews has never been greater than it is today. But the way we concentrate and listen to podcasts — usually away from our screens and on our own — is different than when we are watching something.

Thinking of podcasts as sound without pictures doesn’t cut it.

Richard Davies is a podcaster and podcast consultant. His firm, DaviesContent, makes digital audio for companies and non-profits.

Beyond outrage and anger… Solutions. A podcast for our times.

We’re gearing up for another great year with more independent-minded, contrarian guests — kicking off this week with Claire Cain Miller of TheUpshot, the New York Times and economics site.

After all the recent anger and outrage over sexual harassment our podcast team decided to do a show about how to reduce bullying and harassment in the workplace. What works? What doesn’t?

Employers are paying lip service to the need for change, but until now there has been little coverage in the media about solutions and training: how to make this a teaching moment.

At “How Do We Fix It?” here’s our un-resolution for 2018: What we do NOT want is the obvious: opinions you’ve heard a hundred times in other places and podcasts.

We’re fired up about solutions — ideas to make the world a better place, topic-by-topic.

Future episodes this month will include the well-known author and skeptic, Michael Shermer, who explains why pessimism is a threat to all of us. Michael also takes apart the human zest for utopia.

Stanford University Politics professor Mo Fiorina is also on our dance card. He will tell us why Americans are less partisan than many think — Fascinating subject for discussion and debate in this time of political flame-throwing.

Please weigh in with your ideas, responses and suggestions. And if you have the time, spread the word about our show with lots of likes, shares and retweets on iTunes, Stitcher and social media.

Here’s hoping that 2018 will be the best year every for humankind and that more of us will throw our pebbles into ocean of progress.

FixIt: Abolishing Unbelievable.

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We live in an age of hyperbole. “Amazing”, “incredible” and “wow!” are among the most glaring examples of over-used words.

“Great” and “fantastic” are proclaimed when “good” would do nicely. “LOL” has replaced a smiley face, and “thank you” usually comes with “very much” attached, even if the sender doesn’t (really) mean it.

But nothing is worse than “unbelievable”, because in most cases the thing described as impossible to believe actually isn’t. At all.

From play-by-play announcers describing a great catch or a homer deep into the bleachers, to friends and relations talking about the silly things their pets do, we are surrounded by “unbelievable” from all quarters.

Unbelievable is used as click-bait. As in “The unbelievable reasons why your posts aren’t popular” or “The unbelievable reasons dog owners give up their pets revealed.”

The unbelievable number of times that “unbelievable” is mentioned in conversation is part of a larger problem. Simple, plain speech has been replaced by words that often come in CAPITALS or with an exclamation point attached.

We are shouting at each other rather than speaking softly with modesty and simplicity.

The first senior editor I worked for in a radio newsroom decades ago told me to avoid using overly-inflated words. Write in short sentences, using clear and concise language. Watch out for unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, he told me.

It was good advice then and now. (Here’s a good source for writing and speaking tips).

Let’s hope that 2018 turns out to be a year that we can believe in.

Image: Credit Typorama.

 The F… Bomb Has Become a Filler Word. How Do We Fix It?

The jump the shark moment for the F-word may have come and gone. Even the erudite David Brooks of the New York Times used it recently in his otherwise uplifting book on self-discipline and modesty, “The Road to Character.”

A four letter word that once caused shock – or at least embarrassed giggles – has become a filler word.  Something you say to fill the space between the stuff that actually matters.

It’s lost the power to shock.  Everybody says fuck.

Other filler words include “meanwhile, “like”, “basically” – and the very worst and most frequently heard –  “you know”.

Many thoughtful, well-educated people punctuate their sentences with  “you know”, you know?   The term has become the new “um”.

Those who use it in serious conversation dilute the meaning of what they are trying to say. I have a highly articulate, smart, funny friend in the financial industry who uses “you know” in virtually every sentence.  It drives me crazy. She’s probably unaware of it and I’m too chicken to say anything.

Guess I haven’t walked too far on my road to character. Sorry, David Brooks.

When hosting a talk radio show years ago, a program director pulled me aside. “You say um a lot,” he told me.  “Don’t do it. In between thoughts, stay silent. It can be kind of powerful.  People will listen more carefully to what you’ll say next.”

Great advice –  especially for a guy who loves to talk and trips over my words in a rush to say the next thing.  A little pause sounds so much better than filling in the time with meaningless filler words.

Easier said than done, you say?

Actually, no.  As soon as I became aware of what I was doing,  it was surprisingly easy to cure my verbal tic. It’s a little bit like weeding.  Almost everytime time I noticed an “um” forming in my brain I would pause and pick it out of my speech pattern.

Another tip: speak in short sentences. “Structural filler-word patterns are triggered because of the way you structure your sentences,” says writer, Anett Grant. “Using oral bullet points gives you time to think about what you’re going to say while reinforcing your main point.”

Clarity is the best friend you have when speaking.  Especially when you are serious. Weeding out the filler words is a great way to sound smart in business meetings, sales presentations and at the dinner table.

When you don’t have much to say, remain silent.

Richard Davies is a podcaster.  Hear his “um” free show, “How Do We Fix It?” with co-host Jim Meigs on Acast, iTunes and Stitcher.  He also runs DaviesContent – a podcast production house.