How to Conduct Professional Interviews
Among the millions of podcasts out there in podcast land, a large percentage of them are interview-based. That’s partly because producing interview-style podcasts is relatively simple. But it’s also because a well-crafted interview is one of the most engaging types of audio content.
Now, you may wonder at the word “crafted” … How is an interview crafted? Isn’t it supposed to be a spontaneous, free-flowing discussion between the host and guest? Yes … but in some obvious ways, the engaging interviews you might listen to on NPR or any number of podcasts aren’t completely spontaneous. The host and producers craft questions. The host, producers, and guest agree on the topic of discussion beforehand. And during the interview, the host uses subtle strategies to give the discussion shape and substance.
In this post, we’re going to take a close look at those strategies and how you can use them to level-up your interviewing skills.
Professional interviewers spend considerable time preparing before sitting down with a guest. First, the interviewer--often with the help of their producers--research the guest to learn as much as possible about them, including their professional and educational background, other interviews they’ve done, things they’ve written and recorded, and so on. Doing that sort of digging gives you a sense of how the guest thinks and where they’re coming from and provides examples of their conversational style.
Next, the interviewer researches the topic to be discussed. This might mean reading a book or articles the guest has written and/or learning about the topic generally. You don’t need to become an expert on the topic; after all, it’s the guest who’s the subject matter expert. But you do need to have enough familiarity with the topic to write relevant questions and to ask follow-up questions during the interview.
Finally, to really go the extra mile, you should collaborate with your guest. This might mean scheduling a pre-interview call to discuss the topic and go over the questions. Or it might be as simple as exchanging email. Either way, looping the guest in before the interview builds rapport and paves the way for a relaxed and engaging conversion.
There’s an interesting dynamic between the host and guest that shifts over time. During the pre-interview stage, the host is dependent on the guest. The flow of communication depends on the guest’s schedule and willingness to respond. The specific talking points depend mostly on the guest’s preference. And scheduling the interview depends entirely on the guest’s availability. In short, the guest is pretty much in charge.
But once the interview begins, that dynamic flips. Now, the guest depends entirely on the host to guide them and put them in a position to shine. In other words, you now wield control and are responsible for putting the guest at ease, shaping the tone and rhythm of the conversation, and making sure that the conversation yields the desired content.
Making the guest feel comfortable is key. Before starting to record, I like to take a few moments to go over the interview “script” and to review the questions. And I give the guest a chance to ask any last minute questions or voice any concerns. Some guests may worry about how they’re going to sound or worry about saying the wrong thing or sounding stupid. Reassuring the guest that the interview will be carefully edited is usually enough to dispel those concerns. But it’s worth keeping in mind that some guests are genuinely nervous and need a bit of reassurance.
The good news is that once the interview begins and the guest starts talking, they tend to relax and get into the conversation. At which point it’s the host’s job to listen carefully. Which might seem too obvious to even mention. But it’s all too easy to get distracted. Especially if you’re recording remotely--which is more and more the case these days--you need to keep an eye on the recording platform to make sure it’s working properly; you need to think about upcoming questions; you need to monitor the audio and deal with any interruptions or noise that disrupts the interview. And so, even though you’re hearing what the guest is saying, you may not be fully paying attention. And so, you may miss important details that require follow-up questions. Or you may not notice that the guest’s response to your question also answers--or partly answers-- an upcoming question that you may be able to skip.
Plus, you need to listen to make sure that you’re getting what you need. Even though you worked with the guest before the interview to agree on talking points, the guest might go off on a tangent or otherwise deviate from the main point. And it’s your responsibility to decide on the fly whether to follow the guest down the side path or to guide them back to the main path. Maybe the tangent will yield important comments and insights that are even more valuable than the agreed-on talking points. Or, maybe not. It’s up to you to decide. And, keep in mind that the guest is relying on you to make these decisions and to guide them through the interview process. If you’re not getting what you need, you need to let the guest know and redirect them.
Finally, keep in mind that it’s your job to feature the guest as the “star” of the show. And that means keeping your comments to a minimum. You may very well have all sorts of insights you’d love to share, and while it’s OK and sometimes even strategic to offer some, keep them short and to the point. Same goes for questions. Keep your questions clear and concise, then let the guest take center stage and interject only when it adds to the flow and value of the conversation.
Practice Makes Perfect
As with most things, the best way to improve your interviewing skills is to do as many interviews as possible and--this part is crucial--listen to your recorded interviews and learn from them. This can be painful … believe me, I know. When I listen to some of the first interviews I recorded, it’s hard not to cringe. But if you’re willing and able to listen carefully and critically, you’ll start to hear what’s working and what you need to improve. And that includes everything from the tone of your voice to the length and quality of your questions to your success in giving the guest room to shine while keeping them within the boundaries of the discussion.
The good news is that if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes and dedicate yourself to improving … you will improve … and your podcast will be all the better for it.