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Mastering the Podcast Interview: Telling Great Stories Through Voice

Many bloggers and brands are turning to podcasts to expand their audience. Here are some tips for telling a great story and conquering the podcast interview.

Did Adnan Syed do it?

That’s what millions of Serial podcast listeners were asking themselves last year. I was addicted to Serial, tuning in each week for the next piece to the puzzle. Full admission: it’s not my only podcast vice. Podcasts are the soundtrack for most of my morning. I fit alongside the 39 million Americans who have listened to a podcast in the last month.

Perhaps you’ve been looking at using a podcast to reach a new demographic or experiment with a new content format. At WordPress.com, we provide all of the necessary tools to help you launch a professional podcast onto iTunes. The only hangup: figuring out what to say! Here are some tips from podcasting experts on how to craft a memorable story with your voice instead of your keyboard.

Find the format that works for you

Many podcasts have guests in one form or another, either as the main star in an interview (like The Growth Show) or as a commentator on a specific topic (like Radiolab). However, they’re not completely necessary. For example, Jacke Wilson runs a podcast called A History of Literature, taking “a fresh look at some of the most compelling examples of creative genius the world has ever known.” In many of these episodes, Jacke is the only voice you hear.

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Experiment with different formats until you find one that fits. If your podcast won’t feature a guest, that’s fine. Nail the sequence of your story so your audience stays hooked. Think about pulling in outside audio clips to provide some variety.

If you’re set on having a guest, don’t worry about only interviewing famous celebrities. Look within your network and find anyone with a particular area of expertise. Ask about challenges they faced and how they overcame them. Try to pull out advice that could be useful for others that might face similar challenges.

Figure out why your audience should care

One of my favorite podcasters, Tim Ferriss, has a wide range of guests, from Arnold Schwarzennegger to fellow podcaster Dan Carlin to Dilbert creator and cartoonist Scott Adams. With such a wide breadth of expertise on the show, it’s entirely possible that a listener would look at the guest and think, “Why should I care?”

During a podcast, it’s the interviewer’s job to answer that question for the audience. Jerod Morris, host of The Lede and The Showrunnerphrases it this way:

What knowledge or experience does the person you’re interviewing have that will most benefit your audience?

This question can be tackled in a few different ways.

First, you should have a deep understanding of your audience, including the things they struggle with and what they find important. Take a look back at your highest performing posts. What do they have in common? How does your guest tie into these topics/questions?

Second, you can openly ask them either through social media or a poll on your blog. Tim Ferriss regularly teases guests on Twitter and asks his audience to submit topics/questions.

If you’re trying to make something your audience will want, don’t be afraid to ask them about their interests directly.

Cut to the chase

Your audience might be loyal, but if your podcast starts to ramble and get off-topic, there’s a good chance they will tune out. Morris puts it succinctly:

Remember this when you are conducting an interview: your interview subject’s words are by far the most important part of the interview — not yours.

If you have a guest on the show, keep the intro short and sweet. Cover the topic at hand, any pertinent housekeeping notes, and maybe a sponsor or two. Then, get to the meat of the episode. Otherwise, you risk losing your listeners before you even get started.

Go off the beaten path

Whenever possible, find ways to explore a topic in a different light or ask your guests questions they’ve never been asked before. Then, you won’t be regurgitating the same kind of content that can be found elsewhere. There’s only one way to make sure you’re creating unique content though: research. Here’s Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads, on the importance of research:

Preparation is critical — getting to know your subject, reading everything you can about their work or area of expertise — because the more you know about a person in advance, the more time you can spend digging deeper into the questions that no one has asked.

Check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series to see examples of masterfully detailed research.

If you’re recording a podcast on a particular topic, read as many articles as you can handle and listen to other podcasts that have explored the same idea. Are there any gaps that you don’t quite understand? Was there a particular part that could have been explained better? Figure out the unique angle you can offer. David McRaney, the podcaster behind You Are Not So Smart, does extroardinarily deep dives on particular topics.

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If you’re interviewing another individual, you’ll definitely want to catch up on their other interviews as well. But, the easiest way to get original content is to ask the individual outright. When preparing for an interview, for example, Tim Ferriss sends his guests a quick email looking for questions they’re repeatedly asked. This way, he can stay away from those during his podcast.

Practice, edit, and practice some more

If you’ve listened to the Serial podcast, you understand how much detail went in to explaining the case, describing the characters, and laying the foundation for such an intricate narrative. The Serial crew had to do quite a bit of editing to find the right balance of details in each episode:

I’d say for at least the first five episodes, there had to be some housekeeping being done, and it was essentially trying to figure out how much was too much before someone was just going to cry uncle and say ‘I don’t care any more, this just feels like somebody’s telling me the most minute details about their dream.’

There’s absolutely no substitution for practice. Like anything else, interviewing is a skill that needs to be perfected over time. You learn what questions to ask, when to press deeper on a topic, when to switch subjects, and when you’re losing your audience.

The cast behind the blockbuster hit, StartUp, recently did a full podcast on their editing process.

After you record your interview, play it back and listen to the full episode. If possible, have a friend listen in as well. You’re paying attention for a few things:

  • Did your mind ever start to wander during the episode?
  • Were any parts unclear?
  • Did the story flow nicely or did it feel choppy?

If you’re feeling these things, you can bet your audience will as well.

Podcasts come in all sorts of flavors. They can be long or short, complex or simple, masterfully edited or recorded in one take. Ultimately, it takes time and experimentation to nail down the format just right. Use the tips above as a starting block and find out what works for you.

Now, I’ll pass the mic to you. What are your favorite podcasting tips? What podcasts do you particularly enjoy?

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  1. I’m reminded of a bygone era of communication from the early 50’s when the world was still in the infancy of radio. Music was on, and there were dj’s doing interviews and promoting concepts, ideas and good music, the term of communication just improved into a new term “podcast”

    Liked by 6 people

  2. So many different ways to market ones book, self, business. Good points about podcasting though. Not sure I’ll take the dive but hey I’m up for an interview – another great place to look for fans. Thanks for the ideas.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. So odd that you would have this post exactly on the day I put up my first podcast, which I’ve been contemplating for a few months now. I’ve already asked this in the forums, but I’m having a problem getting my podcast submitted to iTunes. As in the test is not working properly. The feed is good since the image displays on iTunes but the podcast itself is not there to listen to. I’ve embedded the audio via Audiomack into a post. Any help here would be much appreciated.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m glad someone from WordPress made a post on making podcasts. I was on the look out for some good podcast-making advice.

    I just recently started mine. The first one was so terrible I decided to make a script for the next one, which will be out shortly.
    I want to bring a personal touch to the science blog so the podcasts have been about me, but I was thinking of adding science-y stuff.

    Liked by 2 people