On June 4 2019, Federal News Radio released episode #600 for Federal Tech Talk. It is a weekly interview focusing on the $80 billion-dollar federal information technology market. There are lessons to be mined in those interviews that can help you improve your podcast.
Fire alarms have gone off during recording sessions. Call-in lines have failed. The recording studio was changed four times. The entire radio station was moved up the road two miles. One time I dragged a Zoom recorder to Congressman Will Hurd’s office for an interview. Earthquakes have canceled guest appearances. Files have been deleted accidentally. On two separate occasions, guests were fired the day after the recording. In this case, files were deleted intentionally.
What lessons can be learned after these adventures?
1. Teasers are tolerable; preambles are for constitutions
You will lose your audience if you begin with a rambling, self-absorbed rant. Nobody cares if you went to college with the guest; nobody cares if you live in the same zip code; nobody cares if you have the same kind of dog.
Some will say you have seven seconds to grab the attention of a listener; seems too generous to me.
In the world of business broadcasting, people want to have a problem presented and review some possible ways to remedy the concern. Start with what you will be discussing and let the listener decide if they want to continue.
Open with energy and excitement. Set the stage, present a business problem, open up the question.
Here is an example of an opening I used with Chad Anderson from Space Angels.
2. Mirror, don’t mock
In classic radio, a guest would speak into the microphone so the engineer would make sure the level was correct. This sequence is part and parcel of every interview, but the moderator should extend this verbal exchange to understand the verbal patterns of the guest.
Most normally socialized individuals know to make a statement and then pause for the other person to respond. However, many get nervous when sitting in front of a microphone. Asking innocent questions before the interview can let you know how the person responds. Use simple inquiries like: Where did you go to college? What did you have for breakfast?
A great moderator will be sensitive to vocabulary, diction, accent, intonation, speed, and grammar of the guest. One of the best videos describing vocal range is titled How to speak so people want to listen by Julian Treasure. The objective is to gain a deeper understanding of the guest so the discussion benefits the listener.
I once had Rebecca Cohen-Hirsch from Lockheed Martin in the studio and noticed an ever-so-slight British phrase. Instantly, I asked if she had been raised in the UK. She responded no, but she had a British nanny. Because I noticed the unusual vocabulary she knew I was listening and this recognition put her at ease.
Besides paying attention closely to your guest, go to YouTube to see if a guest has any recordings. You can listen to an interview and note speech patterns and favored phrases.
Linguists use the term “mirroring” when they talk about a person’s ability to listen and reflect tone and vocabulary. The subtle skill is used to put your guest at ease so they are not intimidated by a microphone.
3. To be terrific, ya gotta be specific
When preparing for an interview, take notes on specific individual facts which will be brought up in the discussion. These facts can include Twitter hashtags, company mottos, or even related data. I use 4 x 6 cards in different colors. I can write facts on the notecards and move them through the interview. Here are some sample facts:
- According to a survey from IDS, 60% of federal agencies reported they had been breached.
- Apple estimates there are 500,000 podcasts; why is Access Intelligence getting into the game?
- The Air Force is expanding the Wideband Global Satcom constellation from 10 to 12.
4. Questions in advance are a guideline, not a liturgy
Many guests will want a structure for the interview. It is perfectly acceptable to provide some general topics ahead of time. To prevent a complete “deer in the headlights” moment, always suggest five or six questions.
It doesn’t mean you will ask them, it just means the guest will have an idea of how you structure the conversation. These ideas ahead of time allow the guest to prepare as well as to make sure the interview doesn’t get stopped mid-stream.
When I interviewed the CEO of SonicWall, Bill Connor, we talked about cybersecurity and conventional wisdom. From there, the conversation jumped to the safety of the venerable PDF file. It was a natural flow. The job of the moderator is to skillfully relax the guest and ask questions the listener would think, “That’s just what I would ask.”
The guest’s job is to offer a solution and frame it as a possible avenue and offer details as to where the offering will be a good fit. Do not enter infomercial territory. List the business problem, review possible options, discuss where and why a guest’s solution may offer a good choice.
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Much like hot sauce, spicy questions are best in small doses. Nobody wants an episode of Jerry Springer complete with throwing chairs.
Embrace questions about pricing, competition, even changes in leadership at the company. If you are going into the hot zone, I suggest you prep the guest ahead of time. Don’t talk about legal issues.
6. Monologues are for stand-up comedians
Very few podcasts can have a moderator ramble. Dan Carlin and Joe Rogan have personality-driven podcasts with disconnected chatter. They are in the entertainment sphere and are the exception to the rule.'You may be entertaining, but you are not an entertainer' John Gilroy from 13 Ways to Improve your Podcast Click To Tweet
In the business world, monologues will drive listeners away. The best hosts set the stage, guide the conversation, and are gracious enough to allow the guest to use the microphone.
Please remember human conversations are bi-directional and weaving. The moderator’s job is to be the rudder in a meandering conversation. You can direct if the person goes down the wrong road. Keep the listener in mind, ask yourself, where is this going?
Go for a face-to-face interview. 99% of my interviews are sitting across from the guest. This adds incredible depth and nuance to the conversation. Hints, signals, and intimations are conveyed subconsciously when sitting across a table.
Everybody knows about the advantages of visual communication. One great perspective on this is from a retired FBI agent named Joe Navarro.
When he questioned suspects, he relied heavily on visual clues. Joe gives credence to the often-repeated phrase that humans primarily communicate non-verbally.
Just using the phone limits the discussion. Hand gestures from the moderator can help guide the guest when they a going down the wrong path – especially if you have several guests in the studio.
8. Editing: Danger, Wil Robinson, Danger
People go to concert halls for a perfect audio experience. They don’t listen to a podcast with the same exacting demands. Today’s listener needs FM quality, not second row at the Kennedy Center.
Everyone loves NPR-edited content. However, most people don’t know how expensive it is to produce one of those shows. One award-winning NPR audio editor I know charges $2K for one-hour editing.
Spoken interviews are best when viewed as pouring concrete – talk and then move on. Do not waste hours on editing. Nobody cares about a gap or “ah.”
9. Avoid the “stick” bonus
Classic radio shows would have listeners hang onto every word of the show and then, in the end, have a giveaway. In some circles, this is called a “stick” bonus. They would offer an incentive, like tickets to a concert, so that the listeners will stay around to the end.
In my experience, listeners on podcasts jump in and out of an interview. They may listen to the first twenty minutes, then ditch. They may fast forward to the middle or end. The “stick” bonus may come across as deceptive.
There is nothing wrong with saying what you will talk about later in the interview. For example, I interviewed Chris Blackerby from Astroscale about collecting debris in space. I mentioned a new technique called “harpooning” space junk. I said we would mention it later in the interview. This colorful word added life to the interview.
10. Make sure the guest knows the rules of the game
Who owns the audio? For a radio show, the radio station owns the audio. You are permitted to link to the recording. Similar rules for a podcast, you can link to it but not own it. Please make sure the guest understands this basic concept. Some will want to host the audio at their site.
11 Use #hashtags
You should have 65 different Tweets using hashtags and images for every show.
When it comes to hashtags, don’t guess. There are plenty of places you can go to see what are the popular hashtags for your topic. The idea is someone is searching for #SpaceDebris, and you want them to arrive at your Tweet and go to the podcast. RiteAid and Hashtagify.me will show you popular hashtags in the area of discussion.
Another source of hashtags is your guest’s Twitter account. Search for the company name and scroll through the past 100 tweets – you can see what hashtags they use and confirm they are popular.
12 Leverage LinkedIn
One can derive a tremendous amount of information from LinkedIn. You are not stalking anyone; this is information businesspeople have made available to the world.
For example, when interviewing Tom Kaye from Authentic8, I looked at his LinkedIn profile and noticed he had contact with Abe Usher, a previous guest. During the setting of the tone, I mentioned this and immediately got a response from Tom. Acknowledging these connections can make the guest relax for the interview.
13. Combine facts with storytelling
Robot-like language turns off listeners. Although you can precipitate a conversation with a startling fact, it is always best to balance this approach with a story.
For example, artificial intelligence can be applied to managing data centers, to understanding network authentication, and even for getting insights into large data sets. Because everyone tries to apply it to everything, it can get confusing. You may start the interview with facts about artificial intelligence, perhaps “Just did a Google search for the term ‘artificial intelligence’ and got 600 million hits, looks like there is some interest here.”
One way to make the conversation come to life is to bring in noteworthy stories. The best hosts read and listen for interesting anecdotes and quotes during the regular course of living. You can note these down and use them in an interview.
After the facts have been laid out, you may want to transition to an entertaining story. For example, “Artificial Intelligence is like teenagers having sex. Lots of people talk about it; few do it. Those that do it aren’t very good at it.”
Everyone is shaky when they start interviewing guests. The more you do it, the better you will get.
- Limit your opener, or hook, to a few sentences.
- Guests are wary they will freeze up or not remember what to say. Before the interview, give your guests a general outline of how the interview will proceed.
- Best practice is to have the guest sit across from you. An informal conversation before the interview will help your guest relax.
- Do your research and write it down. Specifics tend to be centerpieces for the discussion. Include stories and anecdotes to carry the conversation.
- A professional moderator guides a conversation; a professional moderator does not ignite screams.
- Comedians spend thousands of hours honing their craft. You have not. Stick to short and direct questions.
- Don’t over edit, nobody cares.
- Some radio techniques transfer to podcasting, the “stick bonus” does not.
- Newbies don’t know who owns the audio. Let them know.
- Social media is your friend for research and promotion.
I’m looking forward to sharing new lessons after the next 600 episodes.
What tips do you have for improving a podcast?