Why we listen to podcasts and what makes them different from radio and other forms of communication.

Podcasting is now mainstream and has just moved into a new phase. Let’s call it the 2nd Wave.

While most media content producers no longer need convincing that they should be doing podcasts, they’re also starting to realize that this medium is unique and that they don’t know how to make them.

Unique how?

– We’re the blue jeans medium: the most informal and intimate delivery system for compelling emotions and thought. Storytelling can take its natural course.

– Unlike video, ideas are delivered pure and without the distraction of a host’s unfortunate dress sense, wrinkles or bad teeth. There’s just that voice in your ear.

– Unlike radio and TV, which is often on in the background, podcast audiences aren’t usually distracted and don’t “tune in”. They’ve sought out your show, and are listening carefully at a time of their choosing. Parts of each episode may be replayed. Intimacy squared.

– Podcasts offer listeners more control. Episodes may be replayed. Many people listen on earbuds, encouraging a deeper connection than listening to the radio a speaker. The best podcasts are not passive and they often require listeners to bring something of themselves to the experience— their imagination and curiosity.

– Podcast hosts don’t have to “re-set” and remind the audience what they’re talking about. Listeners don’t tune in half-way through. They start each episode at the beginning, allowing for a more linear narrative.

– Unlike radio shows that have to conform to the clock (typically 25 or 50 minutes plus pledge breaks and newscasts), podcasts have no scheduling or timing restraints, and can vary in length. Episodes can be produced daily, weekly, monthly or in seasons.

– Podcasts can be made and distributed without the approval of an executive editor, radio program director, or some other gatekeeper. Many shows are produced at-home, without the need for expensive studio equipment. Creators have more freedom.

– While some podcasts are made with big budgets and are highly structured, with multiple layers of ambient sound or music, there is no single formula for success. This lack of established rules allows for a greater range of voices and subjects.

– Unlike broad-casts that must appeal to a broad audience, podcasts can target a much smaller slice of the population. With social media, hosts and producers have a direct dialog with listeners and can truly find what their audience wants to hear.

– Unlike radio, podcasting is rarely live. That may be a disadvantage, but many episodes are evergreen and have a long shelf life.

The requirements of doing a distinctive podcast require a different set of skills than its closest cousin. After decades in radio, I had to un-learn a great deal when we began podcasting during the 1st Wave in 2015.

“Serial” had just taken the world by storm, and the for the first time, many people had become dimly aware of online audio and were asking “what is a podcast?”

Over the next four years, as audience numbers zoomed steadily upward, almost everyone jumped into production— from individuals and celebrities to media giants, consumer brands and non-profit foundations. The result is a great big, glorious mess.

The 2nd Wave has arrived and to be successful at podcasting, producers must know why it is indeed like no other medium.

– Richard Davies is a podcast host, consultant and producer. DaviesContent designs podcast formats, edits and helps clients make excellent audio content.

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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.

Daily podcasts are booming. But here’s why some will fail…

In an increasingly crowded field of Monday-to-Friday podcasts, “The Daily” from The New York Times is still the most popular news show, with about 1.75 million downloads per episode. According to one estimate, the number of daily podcasts has more than tripled in less than two years. The competition now includes news shows by NPR, Vox, Axios, ABC News and The Washington Post.

Ever since its launch nearly two years ago, The Daily” has been my daily habit. Here’s why:

The host, Michael Barbaro.

He’s my pal. A buddy in my ear at the gym, in the car, or on morning walks with our dogs.

I’ve never met Michael Barbaro, but he sounds like a genuinely curious, charming and friendly guy. Writing in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead calls him the “winning, accessible interlocutor of his news-gathering colleagues.”

He has soul, and that’s surprising perhaps, because over the years The Times has been called “the gray lady”, and is widely considered to be a redoubtable pillar of the elite, mainstream media.

Unlike the newspaper, “The Daily” is informal, even intimate, with moments of spontaneity and humor, as Barbaro lifts the curtain on the bench strength of diligent, hard-working Times reporters who cover their beats with dedication, humility, and street smarts.

Unlike many radio or TV anchors, he never pretends to know what he doesn’t. “The Daily” host is also an ombudsman for listeners as he guides us through the latest perplexing twist of the Mueller investigation or the unfortunate saga that is Brexit.

Barbaro gives us this wonderful sense that he’s hearing each reporter’s insights for the first time.

Same thing with “Serial” host Sarah Koenig, who, despite all her research and carefully constructed scripts, manages to sound is if she’s uncovering the story with you right alongside her. At times we think she’s bemused or even a little surprised as she stumbles across another twist in a complex, tangled web of facts.

The journey is the thing. We know where Koenig’s coming from and that’s a huge reason why “Serial” continues to be wildly successful.

Podcast producers can put too much emphasis on building a show with interstitial music, sound effects, and a multi-layered story arc. But the best storytelling on earth can stumble at the final fence if the narrator or host doesn’t connect with listeners.

And so it is with daily news podcasts. Successful shows need heart and soul as well as a good elevator pitch or a sense of mission. Without them they will fail.

The same is true for small, independent productions who have limited budgets and a relatively small following.

“I cannot tell you how many podcasts I’ve listened to where the host rambles and rants on about their life, their misery, their week, or their kids and family,” laments John Dennis in his recent article in Podcast Business Journal. “You can’t expect to grow, or even retain, your audience if you’re wasting their precious time.”

In addition to adding value or benefit to listeners, podcast hosts must be willing to be vulnerable, revealing something of themselves as they answer the crucial question: “Why am asking you to share some of your precious time with me”.

Richard Davies is the co-host of the weekly solutions news podcast, “How Do We Fix It?” and a podcast consultant and media coach at DaviesContent.com.

Throw away the seatbelts. What I had to un-learn after a long career in network radio.

For more than three decades I spent my working life in network radio news, reading scripts and speaking to the clock.

As a journalist covering politics, wars and the financial markets, I had to master the art of the precis — telling compact, compelling stories using a minimum number of carefully chosen words. As a radio news-talk host, the “re-set” was a requirement. We had to remind listeners every few minutes what we were talking about and who we were interviewing. As a newscaster, I had to make sure that my four minutes at the top of the hour didn’t go as much as one second over.

However informal we tried to sound, there was a certain rigidity imposed by the strict discipline of the radio format. Podcasting is surprisingly different. There are so many radio lessons I had to unlearn.

First. Unfasten my seatbelt: replace the scripts with spontaneity. Many of the best podcasts are off-the-cuff and soulful, with moments of passion and humor. The best podcasters lift the curtain on their personal story and take full advantage of the medium’s extraordinary intimacy.

Second. The “clock” is gone and the need to “reset” also goes away. Instead of tuning in at random times, podcast listeners start at the beginning and usually stay with us for the entire show. Episodes can be as long or short as we want them to be. There is no ideal length.

Third. With other media, distractions are common, but podcasts are heard without the interruptions of timechecks, weather reports, pledge drives, and commercials. Most of our listeners are on their own and away from mobile screens with their instant messages and email reminders.

On our weekly solutions journalism podcast, How Do We Fix It?, my good friend and co-host Jim Meigs and I have found that the connection with our audience runs deep. And unlike TV and YouTube videos, audio listeners aren’t distracted by my crooked teeth, Jim’s beard, or our poor choice of clothing.

Another unlearning curve is that, as independent podcasters, we are the boss — our own program directors and content creators. There are no formats to worry about. Podcasters can develop deeper thoughts than broadcasters, and tell longer, richer stories. This leads to greater intimacy and allows for more innovation and creativity.

Who would have thought that four-hour podcast episodes told by a single-voice narrator could be a hit? With Hardcore History, former commercial radio talk show host Dan Carlin proved that a storyteller of great skill and knowledge can do things that are never allowed on radio.

Podcasts can also target niche audiences who are passionate about the topics being discussed. I am an art lover and one of my personal favorites, The Lonely Palette, lives up to its unusual promise of being “the podcast that returns art history to the masses, one painting at a time.”

While the entry barriers to podcasting are very low, and the equipment is cheap, all that freedom comes at a cost. It’s a bit like the Wild West. At last count there were more than 550,000 shows to choose from. Unless you are linked to a major brand, the challenges of attracting a sizable audience and finding sponsors are steep indeed.

Anyone with a new show has to learn how to be a marketer, come up with a 10-second elevator pitch, and in the words of social media marketing strategist Mark Schaefer, answer the “only we” of your brand — as in “only our podcast tells you this.”

The difference between radio and podcasting may appear subtle. However, professional broadcasters who move into this medium not only have to unlearn old habits, but learn brand new tricks.

This requires a mix of humility, curiosity, and no shortage of energy.

Richard Davies is a media coach, podcast consultant, and co-host of the weekly podcast, How Do We Fix It? at daviescontent.com.

Marketers are listening. At last, podcasting is a thing at Advertising Week.

Finally it’s happening. Advertisers and marketers are waking up to the great potential of podcasting.

At this week’s Advertising Week conference in New York, there’s interest, even excitement, about audio– both music and speech. Unlike previous years, when our industry was virtually ignored at this annual event, an entire morning of panel sessions has been devoted to podcasts and audio.

“We view voice as the natural next step in technology’s future,” said Julia Chen Davidson, Head of Google’s Partner Marketing this week, at the well-attended Future of Audio Summit. “It’s still very early in the adoption curve.”

“Voice is the new touch,” enthused Pandora’s VP of Ad Innovation Strategy, Claire Fanning.

Podcasting is along for ride, with Anna Bager of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) forecasting 110% growth in annual U.S. podcast advertising revenue until 2020. Many podcast listeners like the advertising they hear “and see it as a service,” she told the audience of marketing, brand and ad professionals.

“These strong numbers speak to advertisers’ increasing recognition that podcasts provide a powerful platform for reaching and engaging audiences,” said Bager in a news release. They are “tapping into the medium’s highly engaged audience.”

Interest in podcasting is enhanced by three recent broader consumer/tech trends:

– Excitement about new research and development of Artificial Intelligence and voice-activated search.

– The explosive growth in sales and adoption of smart speakers.

– Innovation and expansion of voice-assisted technology (VAT) in cars and trucks.

Dramatic changes in automotive center stacks and consoles “is going to radically change media consumption,” Tom Webster, Senior Vice President of Edison Research told a breakout session at Advertising Week. “VAT will cause an incredible spike in podcast listening.”

And yet there are obstacles, despite steady gains in overall Podcast listening.

At Podcast Movement last July, Webster, Amplifi Media’s Steve Goldstein and others righty voiced concern about problems with discovery. While most Americans are aware of podcasting, many find it difficult to find shows, or even understand how to download or subscribe to podcasts.

One promising initiative discussed at Advertising Week is Pandora’s soon-to-be-launched Podcast Genome Project, designed our help listeners find shows based on what’s being discussed. Panelist Lizzie Widhelm of Pandora told a session that its Genome will be able to recommend other podcasts based on the content of an episode.

“There will soon be a time when our podcasts will find us, instead of the other way around,” says the online music and speech radio company’s Chief Product Officer, Chris Phillips. “If we know you care about a particular topic, we can find the podcast (the needle in a haystack), and put it in front of you.”

This project along with growth in voice search and AI could prove to be next big audience accelerator for podcasters.

Richard Davies is a podcast host, producer, consultant, and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.

Simple storytelling and the Radiolabification of podcasting.

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I hate to dump on “The Daily”.

Apart from editing and producing our own shows, this brilliant New York Times podcast takes up more of my listening time than any other.  For news junkies, “The Daily” is part of our weekday morning routine. The show’s genial and ever curious host, Michael Barbaro, is like a friend at breakfast time.

So I take it personally when something is not quite right.

Recently, on several “The Daily” documentary episodes, a bit too much production has been getting in the way of the narrative. The informal, often intimate approach that is unique to podcasting,  is occasionally replaced by a more careful and rehearsed construction.

One example came this week in an otherwise gripping episode about the chaotic Trump Administration zero-tolerance policy that led to 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents.

At one point, the sound of  the computer keyboard can be heard as New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson discusses her emails seeking information on the children from the Department of Homeland Security. To my ears, this was distracting, adding neither information nor enhanced atmosphere. Several other soundbites and mood music tracks also got in the way of the compelling narration.

On “The Daily”, the Times reporters are the stars. Let them unpack their deep understanding of the beats they cover without too many interruptions.

Perhaps you disagree with me or think that this is a trivial quibble. But it’s part of a broader trend in podcasts made by companies, where teams of producers and editors often spend many hours crafting a single episode.

Perhaps they take their cues from “Radiolab“, the critically acclaimed, two-time Peabody Award-winning science and philosophy podcast and public radio show that began life on WNYC in 2002. Over the years, Radiolab’s inventive, playful use of sound has been a delight to listen to.

But maybe the show’s influence on fellow podcasters has become too great.

When podcast creators lack the deep skills of Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, rich, textured sound can be turned into a formula. Some well-written podcasts are burdened by the overuse of ambient sound and music.

This school of complex, layered production can sound precious, and be a barrier to understanding. A podcasting friend of mine from South Asia, who learned English as a second language, calls it confusing. Perhaps that’s because she didn’t grow up listening to the distinct sound of American public radio programs and documentaries.

Usually, spare is best. What makes podcasting and audiobooks so penetrating and memorable is the presence of a single human voice in your ears, telling you a story.

Often that’s enough. Intimacy requires nothing more.

Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.

 

The f-word podcasters think the most about is….

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Friction is the thing.

It’s not as easy, convenient or simple as it should be to discover podcasts, or find shows that fit your range of interests. Confusion and complexity are holding us back.

The first barrier for wannabe podcast listeners is the prompt. iTunes and other platforms suggest that you “subscribe.” But this is a lousy name for it. Sounds like a loyalty program. Subscriptions involve paying for something, but podcasts are free.

That’s the first piece of friction.

Search is also a big problem. Our news solutions podcast, “How Do We Fix It?” is a show that asks experts about what works to improve civic and political life. But someone who searches for “how to fix it,” “solutions,” “fixes” or “what works”, won’t find our shows. Other podcasters have similar problems.

More friction.

Smart speakers are a huge thing these days. But the vocal prompts for podcasts are not as easy as they should be. Friction!

All this presents a problem and a great opportunity.

Podcasting needs its own industry association or trade group.

Investments should be made by Audible, Spotify, NPR and other big players to produce witty, creative and catchy public information videos and radio spots that would reach out to the tens of millions of people who engage online, but haven’t got a clue how to listen to podcasts. Facebook, where many non-millennials gather, is an obvious place to start. Then advertise on the next Super Bowl!

Big podcasters should launch a contest with an enticing prize for the best five YouTube videos that show folks how to engage with podcasts.

Fight friction with fun.

More than 550,000 podcasts are on iTunes– and the number is growing all the time. Two- thirds of Americans have heard of the term “podcast,” but fewer than one-in-five  are regular listeners. With nearly 50 million regular listeners, podcasting has come a long way in the past few years. But it’s time to take it to the next level.

The launch of the new Google Podcasts app may go a long way towards this goal.  Until now, Apple has been the dominant player. Google says its goal is to help listeners and make it “easier for them to discover and listen to the podcasts they love.” If the search giant uses AI to improve podcast script and voice search, this would be a major breakthrough.

At Podcast Movement in Philadelphia last week, Tom Webster of Edison Research said: “The key to moving from 48 million weekly podcast listeners to the 100 million mark is understanding why those people familiar with the term “podcasting” have never listened.”

48% the “I have’t heard a podcast” crowd say they’re not sure how to listen. A similar number believe, incorrectly, that podcasts cost money and suck up a lot of data. 37% don’t understand what they are.

The challenges are great, but so is the potential to reach into new, and often marginalized communities. Most early podcast adopters were white men. It’s time for industry leaders to be more diverse, and to reflect the country at large.

Fewer than one-in-four podcasts have a woman host. Thanks to Kerri Hoffman of PRX, Laura Walker at WNYC and others, positive, powerful efforts are underway to correct this.  Ethnic, racial, class, viewpoint and geographic diversity are also needed to boost the authenticity, reach and range of podcasting.

Nearly one-in-five Americans own smart speakers. They’re the fastest growing electronic devices since most of us got a smart phone. Smart speakers introduce a different way to listen. Others may be in the room with us. We are not on ear buds nor headphones. Podcast listening might become more social, and in some cases less intimate.

The future for podcasting may include more short quiz shows, games and drama.

How about a 12-minute soap opera with revolving characters that has audiences coming back for more every day? It’s already been tried in the U.K. “The Archers”  has been running for nearly 70 years, with nearly 19,000 episodes under it’s belt. It’s the world’s longest running radio soap opera.

With podcasts, what’s old can be new again.

“Can Podcasting Save The Planet” is the latest episode of “How Do We Fix It?’

Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.

 

The beauty of asking dumb questions.

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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

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