Conducting an interview

10 Rules of Successful Podcast Interviews

The weirdest interview I’ve ever given happened to me while I was traveling in Asia. A reporter smiled, handed me the microphone and said, “Could you please just talk for a few minutes? Thank you.”

I don’t know any podcasters who would approach an interview quite like that. But I do know that, for a lot of people, interviewing is a dark art.

It doesn’t need to be. It’s just a technique, one that’s based on a simple set of rules and best practices.

Here are 10 do’s and don’ts of interviewing, which have worked well for me throughout my 25-year career as a journalist.

1. Decide exactly what you want to hear from your guest and make sure they say it

 This may sound like I’m asking you to manipulate your interviewee into delivering the perfect soundbite. No, far from it.

But, even before you press “record”, you should be exceedingly clear about why you’re interviewing this particular guest, rather than chatting to your cat-loving neighbor from across the road.

Some people write down a summary of what their guest has said in the past, - perhaps as bullet points. Others come up with a fictitious tweet summarizing the interview, and then work to make sure they get the content to fit the tweet.

You will find your own pre-interview technique, - but it’s crucial that you do the research.

You should be able to say: “I’m interviewing X because in the past they’ve said Y on this subject; and my audience would benefit from knowing their views”.

2. Stick to your guns

Members of the Buzzsprout Facebook group recently discussed what to do with an interviewee who rambles on.

The answer, I think, is directly linked to my previous point. As long as you remember what you’re trying to get out of the conversation, you’ll be able to steer your guest. 

Don’t follow - lead.

There is no problem in interrupting them (politely, unless you’re interviewing a corrupt politician who is trying to wriggle out of answering your questions).

3. Never hand over the microphone

Personally, I prefer to work with a handheld microphone which I hold throughout the conversation. A microphone in your hand is like a monarch’s sceptre. It very clearly shows who is in charge. If you hand over the mic, - as many people do, - you’re inviting your guest to ramble. Some interviewees will try to grab the microphone as soon as you’ve finished your question. Smile and resist.

4. Keep your questions brief

The reason why you’re asking your audience to listen to the interview is, generally, because the guest has something interesting to say. The guest - not you. As a rule, questions should be no longer than 15-20 seconds. Any more than that, and it may sound like you’re showing off. Key to achieving this is doing the research and knowing what you want to ask.

5. The best questions are stupid

Ali Ward, the presenter of Ologies, a hugely popular podcast about science, finishes her shows by saying, “Ask smart people stupid questions”.

I agree.

Undoubtedly, you know more about the subject of the podcast than your audience does, or else you wouldn’t be doing the show. Also undoubtedly, your guest knows more than you do, or else you wouldn’t have invited them.

So position yourself as somebody who knows just a bit more than the audience, but quite a lot less than the guest.

Asking what may come across as a stupid, basic question may be difficult; it may be brave and daring; but such questions do tend to generate the best answers.

The simplest – and the most powerful – of all questions is simply, “Why?”

6. Listen actively: you are more than a microphone stand

There are countless books and articles on active listening. In very basic terms, they all say that you need to concentrate on what your guest is saying, and adjust accordingly.

Just ticking off questions on your list (remember my earlier point?) will make you sound like a robot.

While your guest is talking, you may well notice yourself considering your next question, or fiddling with recording levels, or even putting together a shopping list for tonight’s dinner. This means that you’re not listening actively, and you’ll miss the best bits of the interview.

Snap out of it.

It also means that you’ve allowed your guest to ramble. If you’ve become bored and drifted off, so has your audience. Go back a few steps and steer the conversation back on course.

7. Never underestimate the ignorance of the audience

I do a podcast about general aviation. I’m a pilot; I talk to pilots; most of my audience are pilots. We speak the same language. We could all talk forever about drag curves, non-precision approaches and gyroscopic drift.

But, to a non-pilot, that would make the podcast sound like absolute gibberish.

So whenever my guests use a technical term, or an abbreviation, I interrupt and ask for an explanation.  Which takes me back to active listening: if I’m not switched on, I’ll miss things.

I try to warn my guests before the interview that I’d like them to keep things simple. But, invariably, they forget. So, remembering becomes my job.

8. Be human

Everything I’ve said so far works in all forms of media: TV, radio, newspapers, even.

But podcasts are different. Our medium is very intimate, very individual. So – be friendly (unless your guest doesn’t deserve friendliness). Be human.

If you interrupt, do so with a smile. You’re a podcaster, not the presenter of The Ten O’Clock News.

If you can relate to what your guest is saying, jump in to offer your experience. Most good podcasts sound like a conversation between friends, over a coffee.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The parts you don’t see are rigorous research before the interview, active listening during the interview, and, most importantly, my next point.

9. Edit ruthlessly

Unless I have a fantastic guest, who is very experienced as an interviewee, I tend to record at the ratio of about 3:1 (three minutes of raw material to one minute of broadcast interview).

Here’s what I leave on the floor of my virtual cutting-room:

  • Repetition of points and thoughts, even if worded differently
  • Deviation from the main thrust of the interview (I don’t want stories which are broadly related to the subject matter, but are really quite optional)
  • Imprecise language (“It’s, like, you know, sort of a bit like”) – unless it’s necessary for a more accurate portrayal of my guest
  • Small talk (“Hi Bill, great to have you on the show! – Yes, glad to be here. – How’s the weather where you are, Bill? We haven’t spoken forever – I remember last time I interviewed you, we discussed how hot it was” etc, etc).
  • Technical faults and so-called “fluffs”, mispronounced words which then get corrected.

I tend not to remove all “umms” and “errs”; I get rid of some but not all. They lend the interview authenticity. But if I ever find myself thinking, “Oh, get on with it!” as I listen back to the interview, then I return to the edit and de-umm it.

10. Let it sit

Like good wine, an interview needs to age.

If you have the luxury of time, edit your interview and then put it to one side for 24 hours. When you listen to it again the next day, you’ll be surprised how much sloppiness and unnecessary rambling you will find.

Go back to your editing software and cut it all out.

I know that 10 rules are a lot to remember, - research shows that most people can only keep three things in mind. So here is the definitive summary:

  1. Know what you want to hear
  2. Keep control of the conversation
  3. Edit ruthlessly

Getting a good interview requires a lot of work. But it can also be a lot of fun. Good luck, - it’s not rocket science.

Artyom Liss

Artyom Liss

Artyom Liss has worked as a reporter, producer and editor for the world's leading media. His career spans 25 years, and he's covered everything from wars, to human stories, to global politics. He now runs Flying Fox Media, which focuses on media training and the production of branded podcasts