Killer Interviewing Tips for Podcasters, Part 1
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

The Main Course

With the hardware set up and the guest all prepped, it's time for the main course—the interview. I like to start the recording as soon as possible. There are two reasons for this: First, it will get an ambient noise sample from the room that I can use in editing. (I'll say more on this in the second installment of this article.)

Second, it allows me to loosen up the person before asking the first official question. Talking into microphones, with the monitor headphones on, is alien, no matter how you cut it. So giving people a little time to settle in with you, your setup, and your style will take the edge off.

There are several different types of interviews:

  • Informational interview. The goal here is to have a key player in an event walk you through the event, step by step. Example question: "What tools did you have when you started on the Mars Rover project?"
  • Interpretive interview. You present the interviewee with some scenarios and ask them to provide insight and perspective. Example question: "How will Apple's new 800GB iPod change podcasting?"
  • Emotional interview. This is the storytelling type of interview. You walk through a real-life story with the person who lived it and attempt to evoke enough detail for the listener to feel as if they are there. Example question: "What was the first thing you thought when you saw your husband doubled over on the ground?"
  • Documentary interview. In this style of interview you set out a timeline of events and walk the interviewee along that timeline in a linear fashion. The point is to glean as much insight as you can through your questions. Example question: "So you were all assembled 100 feet underground in the Situation Room. Who was the first person to say something after the President made the decision to fire the missiles?"

This a fairly formal breakdown of interviews. Your interview may have components of each. But it's interesting to think about these different forms of interview and the types of results they can create. Then think about the interviews you have enjoyed to see if you can use one of these styles to structure your interview and shape the questions you will ask.

Stoking the Controversy

Controversy is a very good thing in an interview. It gives the listener a reason to show up. And controversial comments can be used in promos for the interview, which can drive up the audience size.

To be controversial, either you or your guest have to say something outrageous and noteworthy. That can come either from asking the guest for their opinion on a topic, or by aggressive questioning where you take an obvious side.

Of course, this comes at a risk. Here are some tips to help you walk the controversy razor without getting cut:

  • Keep it fair. Don't turn the interview into a shouting match. Keep it in control by giving your guest the respect they deserve and enough time to present their argument. If your interview isn't fair you will appear to be a bully and lose the audience.
  • The audience starts at neutral. You have no idea what the disposition of your listeners is towards the guest. Don't assume that they share your position. Start off with some questions that let the guests establish themselves with the listener. Then, once the groundwork is laid, you can get into the controversial questions. If you start swinging too soon, you can lose the audience.
  • Ask the follow-up questions. Don't let a controversial answer hang out there on its own. Once you have something exciting, dig into it with a few more questions. Get some additional background or further explanation. Find out why the guest holds that opinion.
  • Avoid hidden vendettas or agendas. If you take a position, it should be obvious to both the guest and the listeners. I watched a low-budget documentary recently in which the filmmaker interviewed his high school principal. It was clear about two minutes into the film that the filmmaker was using this as a way to exact revenge for past grievances and that we as the audience were only a means to an end. It was uncomfortably embarrassing. The interviewer's viewpoint, which I actually agreed with, was totally lost.

Try to find the controversial subjects in every interview. These topics will create compelling interviews that engage the listener and grow your audience.

Tips from the Pros

In my research for Podcasting Hacks, I talked with a lot of interviewers, both amateur and professional; listened to their work; and read a few books on interviewing techniques. Here are some basic rules that I learned along the way:

  • Nobody likes a kiss-ass. Even if you're meeting your idol, you need to play it really cool. Interviews generally start with a few pleasantries, but you need to leave the psycho-fan stuff at the door. The "we are not worthy" genuflecting in Wayne's World worked because, well, it's a comedy. In real life, it's embarrassing.
  • Don't be a know-it-all. Even if you know more than your guest, it's not a good idea to turn it into an "I know more than you" session. As an interviewer, you are there to act as a proxy for the listener. You need to put yourself in that mindset and ask the questions the listener would ask, and forget about yourself. On the other hand, an interview is conversation, not an interrogation, so it's good to offer something of yourself occasionally.
  • Keep the train on the rails. You are the driver on the interview train. You know the questions you want to ask. You know the time frame. And you need to deliver. If that means stopping someone to get them back on track, you need to do that. This is particularly important in an interview with more than one person because those setups tend to create side conversations.
  • Watch the clock. Respect the interviewee's time. If you requested a 30-minute interview, ask the interviewee around the 25-minute mark how they're doing on time. Often they'll want to go longer, but don't put them in the uncomfortable position of having to end the interview themselves because you rambled on.
  • Record it all. Don't be too quick to turn off the recorder at the "end" of the interview, especially on telephone interviews. You might miss a great sound bite.
  • Keep it loose. Remember what I said about staying on the rails? Forget that—at least a little. Conversations do have a natural ebb and flow, and you might need to let the person run a little in order to find the best answer. It's important to strike a balance between a rambling interview and something with hard cuts where you follow a question on one topic with a question about a completely different topic. Cutting a guest off also makes it more difficult to edit the interview later.
  • Don't script every question. Script a couple of questions. Or keep a list of a few key points that you want to get to. Sticking with the script makes it sound as if you aren't listening to the interviewee.
  • Amateurism can be good. Your status as an interviewing amateur is something that you can use to your advantage. Play with it. Let the listener know you are making mistakes. Don't expect to be as smooth as the professionals right out of the gate. A casual attitude will make for a comfortable and fun interview. It's OK to laugh, joke, and share an experience or two as the interviewer.
  • Use visual prompts. In a normal conversation we often use words like "right" or "Mmm-hmm" to indicate that we are listening. These are annoying if you leave them in the interview. If possible you should use hand or head signals to indicate when you think the guest should continue on that line, and when they should wrap it up.
  • Bring in a "third party." If you're interviewing someone famous, often they'll have heard the same questions hundreds of times before—and will start giving you stock answers. (You can usually hear the excitement drain from their voice when they switch to automatic mode.) One effective technique is to quote something someone else said about them or their work and have them react to it.

Interviewing is something you learn by doing. If you're nervous about a big interview coming up then ask a friend for an interview or two to try it out. Get the full setup going and go through your whole routine. It's worth your time to practice to where you feel comfortable.

More to Come

In the second half of this article I'll cover technical tips for editing the interview on a computer and give some additional tips from the pros on how to produce the killer interview.

Jack Herrington is an engineer, author and presenter who lives and works in the Bay Area. His mission is to expose his fellow engineers to new technologies. That covers a broad spectrum, from demonstrating programs that write other programs in the book Code Generation in Action. Providing techniques for building customer centered web sites in PHP Hacks. All the way writing a how-to on audio blogging called Podcasting Hacks.

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