Better Interviewing – I. Winging It

Night club mic better interviewingMicrophone

Winging It

To create a memorable interview podcast there’s no escaping preparation.


Stand-up comedy is simple. It’s just you, a microphone and an audience. Interviewing is pretty much the same deal with an additional person. In stand-up the aim is to make people laugh, in an interview it’s to make them care.

There are a number of potential pitfalls on the road to making people care. The big one is winging it, a popular “stylistic choice” of many podcasters. They rationalize it makes interviews authentic, which is what audiences supposedly want. Additionally, why waste time researching the guest beforehand? It’ll sound more fresh to find out about the guest in the interview. Voilà, that’s a show.

But the interviewer pulling questions from you-know-where is like the stand-up comic taking the stage with no preparation, trying to think up new jokes in front of a bored crowd. The audience didn’t come to see a laborious joke writing process. This is a critical concept that applies to interviewing. The audience of the podcast interview isn’t interested in a long fishing expedition for occasional good questions and exchanges.

So how does Howard Stern do it? All those questions he asks that sound off the cuff… are not.  He and his producers spend hours mapping everything out. It’s planned to sound as if it isn’t planned, as if it’s authentic.

Let me address that briefly here. Authenticity is meaningless. Note that I’m not saying it’s unimportant. True authenticity requires that we be unaware of being recorded. But what happens when we know we’re on camera or the mic is on? We all become self conscious of how we sound. We put on an act. How authentic is that? Being unprepared won’t help it be more real. You don’t achieve an authentic sound by being disorganized. You get there by becoming a better actor (to be addressed later) which comes from preparation.

This was well understood before podcasting arrived in 2005. Show development, research, and planning were standard practices in radio and television. But podcasting shook things up. You no longer needed studios, transmitters, and satellites to produce a show. Nor did you need collaborators or editors. Recording equipment was cheap and distribution was free. To the podcasting community this was more than just a technological shift. It was power to the people, throwing old media and its practices over the ship of modernity into the waters of oblivion—or so they thought. There were a lot of godawful podcasts and still are.

But the medium is maturing. Winging it is still a popular approach but more novice producers are embracing best practices to attract and serve an audience. And broadcast professionals are taking over the space as advertising grows. Still, podcasting is wide open for anyone with a passion for a subject, a $99 recorder and an iTunes account.

How do you rise above the noise? How do you take an interview show beyond vanity project or infomercial to really build an audience? If you’re serious about making shows that move people, it requires an understanding that interviewing is essentially show biz.

What Is An Interview?

Asking questions and getting answers happens in the interaction between an interviewer and interviewee. But that in itself is not compelling. The mistake is to approach it as if it is, as if people are attracted to the information and the interview is merely a method to gather the data.

That’s not what gets the attention of an audience.

People don’t tune in to The Tonight Show to acquire information extracted from a guest. If that were the case, it would be easier and cheaper to email the questions to the guest, publish their reply and forego the cameras, studios and crew. So, why do people watch The Tonight Show?

They’re drawn to the theatrical performance of Jimmy Fallon and his guests. All of the great interviewers put on a show every time they open the mic: Charlie Rose, Larry King, Terry Gross, et. al. Their programs have beginnings, middles and ends. They bring out the drama in what their guests have to say. They tell stories.

The dictionary definition of “interview” is fine for everyday use: a meeting at which information is obtained from a person. This covers many kinds of interviews from journalists gathering comments for their news reports to employers talking with job applicants. In this article I’m only concerned with the interview as a show presented to an audience. I find the definition below more effectively captures its dynamics.

An interview is a two-person nonfiction play of impromptu dialogue directed by the interviewer.

It’s a weighty description but you’ll go further thinking of your podcast in this way as a performance rather than as a verbal power point presentation.

The Play’s the Thing

An interview’s capacity to attract and hold an audience comes down to human empathy. In this regard there is a format that reigns supreme: the story.

Why a story is so effective at conveying information is a vast subject. As early as Aristotle, philosophers delved deeply into it’s power. The historian Yuval Harari asserts all human thought from the hunter and gatherer stage until now is a narrative, whether it’s the politics of nations or something as mundane as putting on a shoe. He famously describes therapy as an attempt to stop believing one story about ourselves and start believing another.

People crave stories. When Jack Valenti (former president of the Motion Picture Association of America) was alive, he appeared on panels at media and tech conferences during the height of the Napster controversy arguing that stories are so vital to human existence more people steal movies than steal money. There’s no hard evidence to prove it, but it’s obvious stories are fundamental to society given the presence of movies, novels, social media, news, television, radio, and music in our lives.

Formal story structure has changed little, if at all, over thousands of years. It’s comprised of at least three elements: [1] exposition, the introduction to the character and the events leading up to his or her challenge; [2] conflict, the challenge itself; and [3] resolution, the character meeting the challenge.

Stories are always about people. Stories happen to people, but never to objects, ideas or products. An object can be in a story. An idea can be the meaning of a story. But objects and ideas cannot become, nor face a challenge and meet it. People can.

I’m not suggesting a compelling interview needs to contain spectacular stories of thunderous drama. No, the issue is telling a story versus merely delivering information. Take company podcast interviews for example. They tend to be so dreadfully boring because they lack conflict. The marketer’s knee-jerk wisdom is people will like the company more if everything is perfectly in place. But we all know, if anything, the opposite is true. No one is drawn to a saccharine interview of a subject matter expert, of whom we only know their name and title, commenting on the features and benefits of a product. In fact, most of us are repelled.

Like a squirrel to a dog, so is a story to an audience. It gets our attention. Conflict and how a person deals with it—no matter how trivial—formatted as a story appeals to human instinct.

Your quest as an interviewer is to find your subject’s stories. If the interview is 30 minutes long does that mean 15 minutes of exposition, 10 minutes of conflict and 5 minutes of resolution? Maybe, if you’ve set down a good plan. But a good interview is generally made up of many small stories, some of them lasting a few minutes.

Your guest probably won’t be thinking in terms of stories but you will. Here’s an over-the-top example I’m using only for stark illustration. Suppose you’re interviewing a runner who just won $100 million and bought a beautiful home on a private island and a Bentley. They achieved it by winning an arduous 1,000 mile race through the Himalayas up and down treacherous roads where they almost died.

Do people care what it’s like to have a private island or a Bentley? Maybe, some. But as an interviewer the treacherous roads are your stock in trade. If you look for them in what your guest says, there are challenges everywhere. And once you see them, they become the foundation of the story structures of your interview.

The story is what gets your audience to care. Your performance is how you deliver it. Hamlet knew this when he hatched his idea to write a play so devastating to the senses, upon seeing it his stepfather would involuntarily reveal his guilt over the murder of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet predicts:

“The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”