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. And interviewing is pretty much the same dynamic only with an additional person. As a stand-up your aim is to make people laugh but as an interviewer it’s to get them to 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. Why waste time researching the guest beforehand? It’ll sound more fresh to find out about the guest in the interview itself. 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 prepared material, trying to concoct new jokes from scratch in front of a crowd. The audience doesn’t come to see a joke writing workshop. This is a critical concept that applies to interviewing. The audience of the podcast interview isn’t interested in a fishing expedition for occasional good questions and exchanges.

So how do the pros do it? All those questions they ask that sound off the cuff… most are not.  The interviewers and producers spend hours mapping things out. It’s planned to sound as if it isn’t planned, as if it’s authentic.

Authenticity is ultimately a meaningless concept. True authenticity of an interview is essentially impossible to capture as a show—it requires that we be unaware we’re being recorded. What happens when we know we’re on camera or the mic is on? We all become self conscious of how we look and sound, and put on an act of what we wish the users of the media to believe about us. Creating this illusion is inescapable. That’s not a bad thing at all. The question is what illusion do you want to present?

Being unprepared is merely one kind of illusion. Another kind is talking with the guest beforehand, mapping out a story line, devising questions, and giving a good performance.

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, satellites, collaborators or editors to produce a show. 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 information. 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 questions to a guest, and then publish their reply. Why bother with the pain of creating a show, scheduling guests, and doing all that production? This is a question I have posed to corporate clients who want to make an interview podcast but only want it to be about experts talking about product features and benefits. Putting the text of marketing talking points in the mouths of people with titles whom we never really get to know isn’t going to make the information any more compelling.

So, why do people watch The Tonight Show? They’re drawn to the interaction of Jimmy Fallon and his guests. All of the great interviewers do it every time they open the mic: Charlie Rose, Larry King, Terry Gross, et. al. They bring out the drama of what their guests have to say. There’s a beginning, middle and end. 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 the dynamics.

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

It’s a weighty description, certainly, but don’t let that deter you. Approach your podcast as a performance rather than a perfect verbal power point presentation to disseminate information. A performance opens up a world of possibilities

Chasing the Squirrel

An interview show’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 its 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 how to put 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 human life given the profound 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.

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.

Am I splitting hairs? Absolutely. The effects of preparation, especially if you are starting at zero and are an unknown talent, won’t be felt immediately. It pays off over time.

Corporate Podcast Interviews

I’m not suggesting a compelling interview needs to contain spectacular stories of thunderous drama. The issue is framing things in stories versus delivering information. Take corporate podcasts, for example, which have the added task of persuading the audience to feel good about the company. They hit all the right marketing messages while the host and guests can even get personal and exchange plenty of pleasantries. And yet, it’s so often dreadfully boring. The conventional wisdom is people will like the company more if everything is perfectly in place. But, if anything, the opposite is true.

By default you have the ingredients to make a compelling corporate podcast: the human beings in the show. They have feelings, a history, and truth. The product is just the context. Granted, a corporate presence is inherently going to turn off some of the audience no matter what you do. Nothing you can do about that. But you can do something to maximize what you have.

YouTube is filled with corporate attempts to deliver information packaged to come off as not marketing. Audiences sniff this stuff out pretty quickly and when they don’t, sometimes feel they’ve been duped by fake media. As an industry, content marketing isn’t ready to let go of things like putting up appearances or using stealth to hide the producer’s intentions. But many marketers are seeing the value of simply being upfront, shifting from information to stories, and making real media. Tom Foremski pointed this out a decade ago when he said every company is a media company.

The Play’s the Thing

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, big and small, are your stock in trade. If you look for them they are everywhere. And once you see them they become the foundation of the story structures of your interview.

The story is what you use to get 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.”