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 beauty of asking dumb questions.

img_0788

How to ask questions (2). The third in a series on podcasting.

As soon as I published some thoughts on how podcasters can do even better interviews than they record already (my previous blog), I started getting friendly feedback.

Some of it comes from close to home.

Miranda Shafer, the senior producer of “How Do We Fix It?” — our weekly news solutions show — has several smart ideas that I include here.

While editing and improving the audio quality of our podcast, Miranda excises the “ums” and “ahs” from each interview. So, perhaps this one is aimed at me! “Don’t make small affirmative noises like “uh huh” or “right.” Nod instead,” she says.

Agreed. The people you interview know that you’re interested in what they are saying. There is no need for affirmation from the host in the middle of an answer. More than one or two “uh huhs” during an interview can be irritating for listeners.

If you think a response from you is a good idea, follow up with another question. Or simply say, “tell me more.”

There’s this from our friend and podcast consultant, Donna Papacosta: “Have you ever experienced premature interview termination?”, she asked in a recent post. “At the end of an interview… you thank the subject, snap your notebook shut and switch off your recorder. In the chatter that follows, your interviewee utters the most quotable quote of the last half hour.”

Ouch. That’s happened to me more times than I can count. Donna suggests: keep the recorder running, unless you need to go off-the-record.

When planning an interview, podcasters should try to think of how each question can build a story arc. You might want to begin a podcast conversation with an anecdote or an amusing aside that warms up the guest, lifting the curtain on the subject for your listeners.

Or you could start out with a few basic questions on why your guests are interested or passionate about what they do and what they have learned along the way.

Ask dumb questions, especially if the guest uses acronyms, slang or fancy words. Ask him to explain or define any term that the audience might not be familiar with. During an interview the host should always be on the side of the listener. What would she want to hear? What subject interests him the most?

Brief questions are often best.

Don’t spend a lot of time with your opinions, because the guest may respond with a simple yes or no answer. Then you have to come up with another question right away!

Don’t be afraid to appear dim. Before the recording begins, you can say: “I’ve read your book and understand the topic, but I’m going to ask you some basic questions for the audience.”

One more tip from editor/producer Miranda: Record on two channels. That makes your interview easier to edit and often results in better audio quality.

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

“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

Like what you read? Give Richard Davies a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.

Responses
img_0788

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.