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.

“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.

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.

On podcasting: the small picture

The other day a young man in his 20’s told me something very sad.

While he has a strong moral sense and believes in the necessity of profound political change, and would like to do something to make the world a better place, he doesn’t know where to start.

My friend sees no connection between his actions and how to be part of a movement to promote justice, trust and greater social harmony. He feels powerless and dispirited. Disconnected.

The best advice I could think of was to throw a pebble into the ocean.

Look at the small picture.

Do something— anything— I suggested, that might help someone less fortunate than yourself. For instance, it could be as simple as signing up for Reading Partners, a non-profit group that trains volunteers to give one-on-one tutoring for 45 minutes, twice a week, to school kids who are behind their grade level in their reading.

The experience of volunteering can change your outlook on life.

From church groups to social causes, there are countless local, neighborhood efforts happening now to knit together the social fabric that we need to build a more caring, sharing society.

Maybe this young man should use his own skills to teach others what he knows: Promoting their sense of curiosity and wonder.

For me it was podcasts.

After three decades of covering breaking news at a national radio network, I was also frustrated. For a long time I had found the fast-paced daily work to be fascinating and even at times, thrilling. My career had been a gift.

But a few years ago, it started to feel a bit routine. The hourly focus on clashes, contests, calamities and celebrities that is the stuff of broadcast news was becoming more of a grind than a source of fascination. Rarely did we cover those who were calling for constructive alternatives to what was going seriously wrong in our country.

We were not giving an accurate picture of the world. Civics and the critical workings of democracy were not part of the daily news agenda.

But I also wondered about myself. Was I becoming part of the problem— an old and weary grumpy guy, who was perhaps jaded?

I didn’t want to be that person.

My answer was to change careers and became a podcaster, and help others put their message across.

My own pebble in the ocean has been “How Do We Fix It?”— a weekly podcast that I make with Jim Meigs and Miranda Shafer.

On each episode we try to promote empathy, problem solving and constructive ideas aimed at bringing people together, rather than bellowing across the political canyon at the other side.

We also have fun doing it.

Instead of covering the who, what, when, where, why of news, we ask “now what?” Experts are challenged to come on the show and discuss potential solutions to problems that they’ve spent years studying or investigating.

Podcasts are ideally suited for this kind of experiment. They connect the the head and the heart. People usually listen when they are on their own, away from the distractions of their phone and computer screens, when they are likely to be a little more reflective and able to reconsider their view of the world.

Listening to podcasts can offer a way to open your mind.

No matter how small the audience, or simple the format, the best podcasts follow their own path, throwing caution the wind. As a lover of history, one of my favorite examples is the “fireside chat” 4-hour monologues on “Hard Core History”, hosted by Dan Carlin. Each one tells a carefully crafted account of the past. There is not a speck of fat on those shows. They are pure meat.

Anyone who watches TV, goes online or listens to the radio is exposed to a fire hose of information. We are subjected to a mostly negative and overly dramatic view of current events.

The intimate world of podcasting contains an almost infinite range of possibilities to bring us together. Here’s hoping that you will decide to take a dip and jump into the ocean!

Richard Davies is a podcaster and Podcast consultant, who helps people, companies and causes to tell their story through podcasting.

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.

How Do We Fix It? No. Never Make a Podcast Unless…

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I’ve been into audio ever since I was a little kid who slapped 45 rpm green, red, yellow and orange Disney discs onto the record player my parents gave me when I was six years old.

The stories, voices and jingles really were music to my ears.

Not long after college, to no-one’s great surprise, I landed my first job in radio. I spent well over thirty years at stations and networks doing the thing I loved.

Last year, with my pal Jim Meigs and producer Miranda Shafer, I started “How Do We Fix It?”– a weekly podcast.  We’re having a fun ride and I feel privileged to meet a lot of great people along the way.  Our 86th weekly show is currently in production.

At its best, podcasting is remarkably intimate and honest – without noisy distractions.  Just you and another human voice in your ear.

Unlike broadcast radio or TV, listeners are the programmers, deciding exactly when and what they want to spend their time with. They give us podcasters their pure, undivided attention. In every way they are our equal – never to be manipulated, pandered to nor shouted at.

Sounds like the perfect environment for a content producer.

But let’s face it: many podcasts are crap – weeds in the ever growing audio jungle.

And not just the two-guys-in-a-garage kind of spontaneous podcasts. Even well-made, sophisticated shows are often way too long, self-indulgent and without a clear purpose.

Your audience is busy and has vast array of audio offerings to pick from.  Many of us listen on the go – in the car or at the gym.  The average American commute time is about 25 minutes.  Most podcasts last at least half an hour. Mistake.

The first don’t of podcasting is never waste their time. Make a show with purpose that doesn’t last quite as long as you – the podcaster – want it to.  Don’t be afraid to slice out a few minutes.

Leave your listeners wanting more after each episode. Also answer this question: “Who is your audience?”

The second don’t:  Forget about making podcasts unless your brand, company or cause already has followers or subscribers.  This medium is a great way to forge deep, authentic connections with your people, but on its own – without a website, blogs and other forms of content –  you won’t make a splash. The only exception is if you’re already famous.  Anderson Cooper, Alec Baldwin, Snoop Dogg or Shaq can operate by their own rules.

Podcasting is special – different from radio and certainly not merely the audio track of a You Tube video.  Respect your audience.

Third don’t: making a podcast “live” or on the fly is rarely a good idea. Edit it and listen with a critical ear.

The fourth don’t is about lack of commitment. While podcast equipment is cheap and the launch costs are small, the process can be surprisingly time consuming. Unless you are prepared to go long and deep with your podcast project, don’t start.

A weekly show may not be necessary. You could release a new series every few months. But whatever the plan of action, successful podcasts require follow through.

Google “how to make a successful podcast” and you’ll get lots of enthusiastic ideas about equipment, theme music, social media and the need for passion. Much of the advice is helpful. But be wary of those who only explain the do’s and not the don’ts of podcasting.

Richard Davies is a podcast consultant and program maker. Find out more at daviescontent.com.

 

 

 

How Do We Fix It? After We Smashed the China

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Viewing art helps me take a fresh look at the world.

Painters do it all the time.  They deconstruct the objects, landscapes and people they see – putting them back together again on canvas. Reimagining the world. What a brave and profound thing to do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would do the same thing with the way we think about politics and culture? Question our identity or tribe. Take a fresh look at the views of those we hang out with.

After the dramatic results of the Trump election, Brexit in the U.K. and now this week the vote in Italy, it’s time for the chattering class to go back to the drawing board – especially those of us who were surprised or deeply troubled by the electoral eruptions of 2016.

Voters smashed the china. We have to find new ways to put it back together again.

That’s the starting point for “How Do We Fix It?” – our podcast about ideas and solutions. Jim Meigs and I are political independents, who listen to many different opinions – especially guests who are able to come up with creative, undogmatic fixes for the problems they’ve considered.

We have a lot of fun doing our show. Playing in the sandbox of ideas.

This playful abstract painting (above) illustrates the point. It was completed in the 1920’s after artist Stuart Davis spent a whole year focusing on three objects on a table – an electric fan, an egg beater and a rubber glove.

He observed them solely on the basis of color, plain and their spacial relationships (at least that’s what I’m told by curators who studied his work!)

These objects became flat plains of color. He mixed things up, creating a fantasy space. This painting – now part of an extraordinary retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – is the result.

“I see the artist as a cool spectator,” said Davis in 1957. A “reporter in an area of hot events.”

Isn’t it time for us adults to create our own fantasy space? See the world from different points of view? Right now, at the end of this crazy year is a great time to try.

 

The Best Argument I’ve Heard To Turn Climate Skeptics Into Believers


Looks pretty peaceful doesn’t it?  I love our part of the Connecticut shoreline.  On most days the waters from Long Island Sound are calm and there is a lovely balance between sky, land and sea.

But what if this picture were to change in the years to come with dramatic sea level rise and climate change?

I’m no alarmist. In fact, it’s quite possible that over the next one hundred years, the average increase temperature will be relatively modest.  Scientists don’t know exactly what will happen. But that’s not an argument for doing nothing.

Quite the reverse.

Environmental economist Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, co-author of the book “Climate Shock,” says “first  and foremost, climate change is a risk management problem.” Even if you are a climate skeptic and believe that the possibility of a global disaster is minimal, consider this: “Most of us have auto and home insurance to cover us in the event of a disaster.”

“If you had a 10% chance of having a fatal car accident, you’d take necessary precautions. If your finances had a 10% chance of suffering a severe loss, you’d reevaluate your assets. So if we know the world is warming and there’s a 10 percent chance this might eventually lead to a catastrophe beyond anything we could imagine, why aren’t we doing more about climate change right now?”

I don’t believe our house here is likely to be flooded or damaged by fire anytime soon, but I still pay a lot money each year for coverage just in case. Shouldn’t we be doing the same thing to deal with the risk of global warming?

Gernot makes the case for an insurance policy. A price would be placed on carbon emissions,  either through a tax or a system of cap and trade.

This would mean ending subsidies for fossil fuels and boosting incentives for renewable forms of energy. “We need new technologies. We need energy efficient technologies,” Gernot said this week on the “How Do We Fix It?” podcast.

“You set the right incentives and get out of the way.”  Use the market to reduce the CO2 emissions. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley will do their thing.

Before the Industrial Age began in the late 18th Century, carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere were roughly 280 parts per million for thousands of years.  Today the level is 400 parts per million and rising. Even if emissions were stabilized tomorrow the carbon number would continue to rise.

Scientists first made the link between greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures in the 19th century. Today, all but a handful of climate scientists say there is an urgent need for action to reduce carbon dioxide levels as soon as possible.

“We know we need to act,” says Gernot.


Gernot Wagner (right) and Martin Weitzman (left), authors of “Climate Shock.”

Top photo by Linda Jessee.

Why You’re Crazy To Panic When The Stock Market Drops

  
The stock market has gone wobbly again with more dire headlines about quarterly losses and worries over  the state of the global economy. 

But how much has really changed in the past few months?  Not much. Our knowledge of the world is pretty much the same.

The U.S. economy is still in better shape than most of the rest of the world.  Commodity prices are still low (a plus for consumers), and there are still plenty of good companies to invest in.

“The media is out there hyping the activity in the market,” says equities expert Susan Schmidt of Westwood Holdings in Dallas.  “They’re focusing on what’s happening during the day, but investing is really about focusing on the long term.”

I’m a journalist and I have an ego. I know that she’s right.  It’s fun when your story is the lead item on the network news. 

Newspapers, radio and TV cover what changes from one day to the next, but Susan says that should be of little concern to the 55% of Americans who have money in the stock market.  Think decades not days should be their mantra.  Over decades your retirement savings nearly always do better in stock funds than in cash or bonds.  Especially in this very low interest rate environment.

  
Susan Schmidt.

 “It’s a lot about keeping your cool and looking for the long term and keeping keeping your eye on the bigger picture… Be the cool customer and don’t panic,” Susan told us on the latest How Do We Fix It? podcast. 

“No investor is right 100% of the time and if they say they are! they’re lying.” Listen to what she said here.

If you’re scared that Wall Street is nothing more than a giant casino, here are some fixes.

–  Look at the stock market’s performance over the long term. Ignore the noise of daily news coverage.

–  Diversity your investments and spread risk. Consider low-fee large and small stock funds as well as US and international investment products.

–  Learn the language. Investing basics are easier to grasp than you may think.  Big investment firms can help you take the first steps. Find out what you need to know at at fidelity.com, TDAmeritrade or Vanguard

–  “Morningstar is the equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes,” Susan tells us. “Morningstar gives stars to mutual funds.” From one to five stars – “the more stars the better.”. 

Top photo from the front page of the Financial Times. September 30, 2015