The Art & Science of Hosting a Podcast
The host is one of the most important elements of any successful podcast, whether you're talking about a podcast that's for entertainment or for marketing or internal communications. Why? Because the host is the main voice of the podcast. It's the first voice you hear and the last voice you hear.
The host gives any podcast structure and continuity. It's the host's job to not only engage but to entertain the listener. Think about some of the most successful podcasts … WTF with Marc Maron and the Joe Rogan experience. It’s not a coincidence that both of those podcasts have as their hosts professional entertainers.
Now, this doesn't mean that the host of a corporate podcast needs to literally be a professional entertainer. But it does mean that the host needs to be entertaining. Again, it doesn't mean that you need to be funny or profound or put on a show in the traditional showbiz sense. What it does mean is that you have to organize the podcast in a way that fosters open, honest, and engaging conversation. And the first step is thinking about your audience and what they're looking for. Who are you trying to communicate to? What are your listeners looking for? It’s crucial to start with these questions, because even if you are a funny person or you bring a lot of energy, if the things you're talking about aren't of interest to the audience, then the content isn’t going to engage. It's not going to entertain because the information is going to seem irrelevant to them.
Another important element is choosing guests carefully. The first thing is that they have to really know what they're talking about and bring depth to the conversation. But the best guests are those who can also talk about their area of expertise in a way that’s accessible to non-experts. Ideally, a guest should be a good storyteller and be able to present relevant examples. In short, you want people who are good at explaining things in a way that’s informative without being pedantic.
Now, you won't always be able to find the ideal guest. Sometimes you’ll have to settle for a guest who knows their stuff but is little long winded, or maybe they’re not great at explaining complex ideas to a lay audience. In that case, it’s the hosts job to minimize the guests’ weaknesses by putting them in a position to showcase their strengths. And the first step is preparation.
First, the host needs to do enough research to become conversant on the topic. Spending an hour or two online is usually enough for the host to get up to speed. Next, the host should connect with the guest before the interview to discuss the topic and to understand what the guest is more interested in talking about. The host should also have a sense of how to focus the discussion, always keeping in mind the needs of the audience. Together, the host and guest can find a sweet spot that will enable the guest to focus on things they’re most interested in and passionate about and that the audience is most interested in learning about.
Next, based on the agreed-upon talking points, draft questions and share them with the guest. Keep the questions short and to the point. If the guest has suggestions for improving or adding questions, the host should edit the questions to accommodate the guest, as long as the edits make sense and, again, will serve the needs of the audience.
In the course of all this back and forth, the host and guest will develop rapport and get to know each other a bit, which will help put the guest at ease and help facilitate a good discussion.
Going into the interview, the host should keep a few things top of mind. First, the host must have a clear sense of the purpose of the interview, that is, what the interview is meant to achieve. Ideally, pre-interview collaboration with the guest will bring that into focus, but it’s worth revisiting. In fact, it’s good practice for the host to take a few minutes before beginning to record to review the questions with the guest and to review the main talking points, to make sure that the guest is on point and focused.
Once the interview beings, the host has to perform a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, the host has to set the tone for the interview by brining energy and focus. But on the other hand, the host must take a back seat and shine the spotlight directly on the guest. The mechanics of this are pretty simple: 1) ask the first question; 2) shut up and let the guest speak without interrupting or interjecting; and 3) listen carefully to what the guest is saying. The last point is crucial. It might seem obvious that the host needs to listen to the guest, but it’s easy to get distracted and lose focus by thinking ahead to upcoming questions. And if the host isn’t listening carefully, they might miss opportunities for follow-up questions, or they might not realize that the guest has already answered an upcoming question.
Showcase the Guest
One of the most important hosting skills is learning how to take a back seat and let the guest shine.
First, the host should introduce the guest and give them a chance to introduce themselves. Doing this helps your listeners get to know your guests a little bit, and it also sets the groundwork for what's about to come. It provides a little context for their expertise.
When the interview begins, you start the interview, it's important to keep the questions short and to the point. And that's because people are not tuning in to hear the host asked long complicated questions. They're there to hear the expert guests respond to those questions and to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise.
That said, it’s not only OK but often necessary for the host to respond to the guest by offering a thought or comment on the guests’ answer. But this needs to be finely calibrated. If the host goes on for too long, it steals the spotlight away from the guest and disrupts the rhythm of the interview. The host should keep their comments concise and to the point.
Now, the overall your goal is to keep things light and conversational. And that means making you the interview sound like a real conversation. The good news is that if you do the preparation; if you work with the guests beforehand; if you come up with good questions and if you keep those questions direct and to the point and shine the spotlight on the guest, then a natural, flowing conversation is nearly guaranteed.
Think On Your Feet
Even though you've agreed on the talking points beforehand, in the course of the discussion the guest might go off on a tangent. They might bring up something that you didn't agree on beforehand. And so the host needs to be able to determine, in real time, if the tangent is worth perusing, or not. In other words, should I let the guest follow this tangent and we'll see where it goes, because it might take the conversation to a really interesting and valuable place, even though it wasn’t part of the plan? Or, is this tangent detracting from the main point? If so, the host needs to direct the guest back to the main path of the conversation.
So as you can see, there's a lot that goes into hosting a podcast. It's certainly more than just coming up with a list of questions and asking them one after the other. There's preparation, getting to know the guest, and coming up with good questions. And then in real time, as the interview is happening, being able to conduct and shape that interview in a way that you’ve determined is going to really engage the audience.
As the host, you don’t need to be a comedian. You don't need to put on a show and bring some kind of crazy, over-the-top energy. But you do need to do what’s necessary to mold and shape the interview to give the content the best chance to connect with and engage the audience.