Engaged Listening: The Key to Great Podcast Interviews
It should go without saying that listening is an important skill for a podcast host.
The host asks a question, the guest start talking, and the host listens attentively, nodding intermittently to convey attention and comprehension.
Except that paying close, undivided attention isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be downright difficult. Because hosting a podcast comes with many responsibilities: setting the tone; making sure guests feel comfortable; nudging and shaping the interview to get the content you need; keeping track of time and adjusting on the fly as discussions develop in unpredictable ways. Consequently, it’s all too easy to hear what you guest is saying without really listening.
And especially these days, when most interviews are online and likely conducted from home, distractions are ubiquitous. Email, texts, kids, pets, keeping one eye on volume levels and the other on the clock to make sure you don’t run out of time … so many things are liable to distract you just long enough so that you miss at least some of what your guest is saying.
And that’s a problem, because if you’re not paying full, uninterrupted attention to your guest, you might miss a crucial detail or a comment that could prompt a key follow-up question or move the interview in an unexpected and interesting direction. Even worse, you may not notice that in answering one question, your guest has already answered—or partially answered—another question, allowing you to skip or revise it. Worst of all, your guest will know if you’re not actively listening, damaging any rapport you’d hoped to build.
Bottom line, anything less than fully engaged listening can throw off the vibe and pace of an interview, at best. At worst, it can derail the interview entirely, ruining your chance of producing great content and of developing a strong relationship with the guest.
The good news is that you can practice fully engaged listening by avoiding distractions and by using the following tips.
1. Be Prepared
The more confident you are going into an interview, the better able you’ll be to concentrate fully on the guest and not get sidetracked by distractions. The best way to feel confident is to prepare by doing a bit of research on your guest and on the topic you’re going to discuss. No need to overdo it. Spending even just 10 to 15 minutes on the guest’s LinkedIn or other bio will give you enough information about their work, education, interests, and things they’ve written or posted to have a strong sense of who the guest is and what they’re about. And reading a few articles or blog posts about the topic of discussion should be enough to enable you to come with strong, relevant questions.
Finally, consult with your guest on talking points they want to cover, then write out the questions and share them with the guest at least one day before the interview. That way, you’ll be on the same page and know what to expect during the interview.
2. Work with a producer or engineer
Whenever possible, have someone else engineer the recording session so that you don’t need to keep an eye on volume levels or worry about any of the technical stuff. The engineer doesn’t need to be a professional audio and/or video person, just someone with a basic understanding of how to monitor levels and solve problems if they arise. That said, the more your “tech” person knows about recording, the better.
If you don’t know anyone who can run the recording session and don’t have the funds to hire someone (or just don’t want to), then do your best to mitigate potential problems before you begin recording. Do a quick volume check by asking the guest to say what they had for breakfast or what they’re currently binge watching, or whatever. If their level is too low or too hot, have them adjust the gain on their mic or adjust the mic position. If there’s any buzz or interference, don’t just hope that it will magically go away. Have the guest check their cables and connections and, if necessary, log out and log back into the recording session.
3. Turn off your phone!
Don’t just silence your phone … turn it off! Or, at the very least, turn off notifications so that you’re not distracted by the buzz of an incoming text or email. Same goes for open tabs on your browser that might divert your attention. The only things open on your screen should be the recording session and the interview questions.
4. Review questions and talking points
Before the interview, take a few minutes to review the questions and talking points you agreed on with the guest. Having a clear picture of what you’re going to ask and what you want the interview to achieve will help you stay calm and focused once the interview begins and help you guide the guest during the conversation. To be clear, you want the interview to be unscripted and authentic, with plenty of room for free-flowing discussion and even unexpected twists and turns. But you still need to be in control. Allowing the conversation to veer too far off course raises the likelihood of losing focus and not listening as carefully as you should.
5. Use a video-enabled recording platform
Even if you plan on recording only audio, being able to see each other will help you and your guest focus on the conversation and on each other. After all, you’re much less likely to check your phone or email if the guest can see you! Plus, being able to read your guest’s facial expressions and body language will make for a more compelling and engaged conversation.
Bottom line, the more mindful and intentional you are about engaged listening, the better able you’ll be to achieve it. And it’s worth the effort, because practicing engaged listening will make you a better podcast host, create a better experience for your guests, and result in better content.