Podcasting 101, Part Four

by Larry Matthews

Over the course of a thirty-five year career as a broadcast journalist, I interviewed thousands of men, women, and children. Some interviews were conducted on the street following horrible tragedies; others were conducted in a studio where I was hosting a talk show. Still others were a complete waste of time no matter where they were! Over those years, I learned some helpful interviewing basics that have been useful in my podcasts too.

The first lesson I learned was: It’s not about me. Everyone has seen or heard interviewers ask sixty-second questions to get five-second answers. Such questions often begin with an assumption followed by an extended (and unsolicited) opinion, and concluding with an invitation for the interviewee to simply agree with the interviewer. Lawyers call this “leading the witness.” Instead of leading your interviewee, ask concise, open questions that encourage the interviewee to share their opinions and expertise in response.

The second, closely related, lesson I learned was: Know your interviewee. There are several categories of interview subjects. At the top, so to speak, are the professionals who are well rehearsed and aggressive, and who take delight in humbling the questioner. Politicians are a classic example of this breed. They have a message to deliver, and they want to drive it down your throat. On the other end of the spectrum are the “newbies” who have never been interviewed in a public forum. These folks need to be brought out of their shell and reassured that they won’t be eaten alive in front of your audience. Aspiring and emerging writers often fall into this category. Because authors tend to be introverts (why else would we spend endless hours by ourselves making up stories?), most of the time the gentle approach works better with them. Someone like Ernest Hemingway, however, would be an exception — given that he might be loading a firearm during the interview!

Don’t laugh; that actually happened to me (not with Hemingway, though; I’m not that old). I was once interviewing a physician who was being charged with drug crimes, and as I set up my recorder and microphone, he pulled out an Army .45, set it on the desk pointing at me, and said, “Now, what would you like to know?”

At that moment, what I really wanted to know was how long it would take me to get out of his office.

Fortunately, most author podcasts are much less dramatic. I prefer to start with opened-ended questions to allow the interviewee to go where they want and to have time to get comfortable talking with me. “Tell us about your book” is a good opening. “How did you get into writing?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” are also good. The goal is to get the interviewee to talking about him- or herself and their writing process, their books, their philosophy, and so on. If, along the way, the author says something provocative like, “And then I shot my third-grade teacher,” I’ll focus on that and pursue it.

The important thing when conducting an interview is to actually listen to what the interviewee is saying. How many times have you seen or heard interviewers miss an opportunity to explore an interesting or provocative point, only to follow up with a completely unrelated — and utterly trivial — question? Your mind should always be a little bit ahead of your interviewee, but never so far ahead that you miss a golden opportunity to ask a question that would “make” the interview.

As a reporter, when I was interviewing someone who I suspected was probably lying or misrepresenting an issue, I would challenge them on certain points. In my podcasts, I don’t worry about that, however. If I ask an author to tell me about their book, I assume that the author is not lying, so I can relax. I don’t have to challenge one point or another in an effort to prove that I know more than they do.

Finally, it’s important to make an interviewee feel comfortable and relaxed. Tension leads to stilted answers and misstatements.

And even more finally, the purpose of an interview — whether in a podcast, on the radio, or on television — is to sell the author, not the book. Let the back-cover blurb sell the book. The author is there to sell the person behind the book. You are doing a service to the author by helping that person express and present him- or herself in the best possible light.

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One Comment to “Podcasting 101, Part Four”

  1. Larry,
    Thanks for taking the time to share what you know about radio and podcasting. I know that I will return again and again to read and digest the information you share here as I work on my own podcasts.

    One thing I am wondering about–perhaps you will cover it in a future segment–what are the characteristics of a good interviewee? What should authors keep in mind when preparing for an interview?

    Looking forward to Podcasting Part Five–I hope you’ll keep going.
    Alix

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