Interviewing: 8 Ways to Up Your Skills as a Podcaster

How to improve your podcast interview skills

One of my favorite parts of podcasting is interviewing people on topics that interest me and my audience. I’ve had the opportunity to interview people throughout my career, but I know if you haven’t had a lot of practice, this can feel a little intimidating. So on episode 10 of Podcasting Step by Step, I share eight tips to help you become a stand-out podcast interviewer.

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Have a purpose for each episode

What do you want your listener to get out of each episode? If you’re interviewing someone, there should be a point. Why them and what is the conversation you want to have? If you have a business podcast and you know your listeners want to become better public speakers, create an episode on that and then find a guest who can teach your audience those skills. On episode 9 of Podcasting Step by Step, I talk about how to find guests for your show.

Research your guest

Once you’ve found your guest and they’ve agreed to come on your show, spend an hour researching them and bulleting out some questions. There are some podcasters who say they like to show up to an interview with zero prep so they can have a ‘more authentic conversation.’ I completely disagree with this. You’ll ask better questions if you actually know something about your guest and their area of expertise. So read your guest’s website, check their latest social media updates. Have they been interviewed elsewhere? Read and listen to those interviews.

Ask great questions

During your research, write down questions you want to ask. When you’re done, rearrange the questions in an order that would make sense for the conversation to flow. This outline will be your guide during your interview. You don’t need to read the questions one by one, and probably should not do that. Your outline will help you structure the conversation but give you the freedom to follow your curiousity. Write down 10-15 essential questions. If you have 100, you’re not going to get to all of them. Pick the most important ones for your audience.

Alex Blumberg, founder of Gimlet media and longtime public radio guy, has some fantastic go-to questions he uses to pull good stories out of his guests. These questions are open-ended and elicit emotion. They are:

  • Tell me about a time when…

  • How did you go from being x to being y?

  • What would the new you say to the old you?

  • How did that make you feel?

  • What was the debate going on in your head?

  • What did you make of that? (If you notice they want to say more about something)

Set your guests up for success

Before the interview, email your guest a reminder about the interview. Let them know the format of the show and answer questions like: Is this live? Will it be edited? Is it audio only? My guests feel a lot more comfortable knowing I’ll be editing later. I also share questions in advance if I have questions that might put the guest on the spot. There’s a debate about whether you should send questions or not, I highly recommend it. Sending questions in advance makes your guests more comfortable and saves you from editing a ton of, “Um....I’ll have to think about that.”

Also, for remote interviews, make sure you remind your guests that they need to wear headphones to prevent audio bleed. Give them tips to get the best sound quality on their end, for example:

  • Do the interview on your computer in a quiet area with strong wifi. I usually restart my computer before an interview to give it a little refresh ;)

  • To avoid putting a strain on your Skype connection during the call, close any applications and windows you don’t need. Mute notifications on any desktop messenger apps (email pings and whatnot).

  • Wearing headphones that plug into your computer will help prevent audio feedback. If you have a microphone, using that is good for sound quality but it’s not a big deal if you don’t have one.

For remote interviews, I record using Skype along with Ecamm Call Recorder because I have a Mac. If you’re a PC user, you can use a program called Amolto.

Some podcasters like to schedule a pre-call with their guest before the interview to do a quick run down, dig a little for story ideas, and to find out if anything is top of mind for the guest. This isn’t an interview, you don’t want them to give away the whole story here; it’s just a high level introductory chat that could spark ideas, and can help build trust  between you and the guest. You might also learn that they’re actually not that great at speaking and might make a better interview for something written.

So those are some benefits of having a pre-call. Having said that, I never do these. I think people are busy enough without a pre-chat. But I do outline everything in email and make sure the guest is comfortable. And before the interview when I’ve got them on Skype, I’ll chat with them for a few minutes to warm them up. If you’re wondering what to chat to them about, that’s where your research comes in. You can bring up something they said on social media.

Always show up early

Before the interview, make sure you’re in that chair at least 15 minutes before your interview. This is perhaps the most important thing that people miss, and I’m guilty of it myself. You think you have all the time in the world, and then all of a sudden your interview is in five minutes and you’re scrambling to get your tech set up. Maybe your computer or software decides to update or something crazy. Do yourself a favor and give yourself the time to ease into the interview with calm, rather than showing up completely frazzled. And you never want to show up late to your own interview. Get your butt in that chair ahead of time!   

Slow down and listen

When the interview starts, your guest might be nervous. You could ask a few questions to get them talking, and then not use those in your final episode. It’s common for people to warm up as the interview progresses. You might ask, “When you were a kid, did you ever expect that you’d [insert whatever they accomplished]? What did you imagine you’d be when you were little?”

I personally like when a host interacts with the guest and adds their own stories to the conversation, though listener preference varies. But in general, it’s a good idea for the host to listen more than he or she talks. It’s ok to follow tangents, but use your outline to get you back on track if you start drifting too much. Sometimes you’re really enjoying a conversation and all of a sudden two hours goes by. That’s a lot of editing, especially if your show is usually 30 minutes and you want to keep it that way. The tighter your interview, the less work for you later.

Value your guests’ time

Before the interview, know what your interviewee’s time constraints are. Do they have a hard stop at the end of the hour? You might have amazing rapport with your guest and start shooting the breeze and think, “I could talk to this person all day!” And then all of a sudden they say, “Oh, I have a meeting in three minutes, just so you know.” And what if you haven’t covered half the questions you wanted to ask.

Listen to other podcasts

Final tip, listen to other interview podcasts you love with a more critical ear. What kinds of questions are they asking? How are they interacting with the guests? Find interview styles you like and incorporate them into your interviews. If you’re looking for inspiration, listen to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, who is considered among the very best.

Interviewing people is a skill that can be developed. The more you practice, the better you’ll get, and the more you’ll enjoy the time with your guest.