Podcast interview tips: 15 lessons from 100s of interviews

Podcast interviews are fun.

You get to learn a lot from smart people and also create content to put out into the world.

If you’re paid to do podcast interviews, you’re extremely lucky. But even if it’s a hobby, there’s so much value you can get from it.

Whether you’re doing a podcast to build your brand awareness, monetize and build a business, or just for fun, the art of the interview is a fun one to learn.

I’m approaching 100 recorded podcast interviews, and I’ve learned a lot in that time about how to structure an interview, prepare for an interview, and ask great questions that allow the guest to open up and give interesting and useful answers.

In this article, I’ll walk through my favorite 15 tips for a great interview.

Of course, your mileage may vary, so take these as mere suggestions and then craft your interview style to your unique personality.

15 Podcast Interview Tips to Create Memorable Content

Quick caveat: there are no rules. Before Joe Rogan did 3+ hour unscripted interviews, no one would have told you that was a good idea.

Half the fun is finding your own style and creating something new. So just because NPR does things one way doesn’t mean you have to.

These are only my tips and lessons I’ve personally learned from conducting interviews with business and marketing leaders. The interviews are usually 1-2 hours long and mostly via Zoom (though some in person). Your mileage may vary. Without further ado, here are my tips:

  1. Your guest mirrors your mental state
  2. The goal should be a good guest experience
  3. Don’t worry too much about your audience
  4. Research is fine, but scripted interviews are terrible
  5. Do pre-interviews (warm your guests up)
  6. Argue with people who like to argue
  7. State inaccurate opinions or numbers to trigger corrections
  8. Self-deprecate and ask dumb questions
  9. Ask a record skip question to get someone out of autopilot
  10. The thesis emerges via the conversation
  11. Open up and be vulnerable
  12. Don’t try to be someone you’re not
  13. Lead with your own curiosity
  14. Double click
  15. Be confident

1. Your guest mirrors your mental state

My main goal as a podcast host is to make my guests feel comfortable. I want to make them forget that we’re even recording.

There are many tactical ways to do that:

  • Do a pre-interview conversation
  • Tell them we can edit out blunders
  • Start with easier questions

These are all micro-optimizations, however. The biggest and most impactful thing is your own mental state and body language.

If you’re nervous coming into an interview, that will come across, and the other person may become rigid as a mirror.

If you’re coming into an interview apathetic, that will come across. Your guest will also tune out and give stock responses.

On the flip side, if you come to the interview well-prepared, confident, and curious, with the good intentions of producing great art, your guest will bring their A game as well.

My hacks for getting into a good state include:

  • Preparing well (obviously)
  • Ice bath a few hours before the interview (helps manage chronic stress response through the day)
  • Some banter at the beginning and intention setting for the conversation.
  • Lots and lots of practice. I no longer get very nervous before interviews because I know I’ve been there before.
  • Scheduling at the right times – I always schedule in the afternoon if possible, as this is most conducive to my “heads up” style of working (e.g. sales calls, podcasts, etc.).

Your mileage may vary.

2. The goal should be a good guest experience

Everything valuable about your podcast flows from a good guest experience.

If the guest has a good experience, the content will likely come out better. They’ll open up more. They’ll be more animated. They won’t give stock answers. This means the product itself is better.

Then distribution – if the guest has a bad experience, or even an average one, why would they be compelled to share the episode with their audience? Conversely, every time I’ve had an amazing experience being interviewed, I want to share it as much as possible.

Even if your goal with podcasting is to network, talk to your ideal customers, or learn from experts, a good guest experience is at the core of this. Guests that have a good experience are more likely to recommend your podcast and introduce you to friends of theirs that would be great future guests.

Basically, I try to make it super fun for them to do, not another chore on their to-do list.

Watch this clip where I interview Dan Shure, a fellow podcaster, on the idea of making your guest comfortable:

Also, don’t spend too much time asking your guests to introduce themselves. Do it for them after the show. You have their bio. It’s boring convo fodder that wastes key time.

3. Don’t worry too much about your audience

This one is a bit contrarian, but I don’t think you should overly concern yourself with what you think your audience wants.

First, there are tons of assumptions here. Very few podcasts hosts have good audience intelligence. Even if you do, the audience intelligence you can collect is typically qualitative, and therefore biased by the sample audience that *choses* to interact with your surveys, interviews, or feedback forms.

It’s important for me to be humble and admit that a) I don’t know what interesting things my guest is going to say ahead of time and b) I don’t know which parts of the show are going to resonate with my audience.

Second, the audience you currently have isn’t the audience you could have. Just because you know what your current listeners like doesn’t mean you should continue to pander towards that audience. It limits you. It bores them.

Finally, YOU should be the audience. If you’re having a conversation or conducting an interview, and you don’t talk about the things that are actually interesting to you, that will come across to the audience.

Even more, choose to interview people that YOU want to interview, not just those your listeners suggest.

It’s why late night TV sucks and why people, conversely, love Joe Rogan.

Late night TV smells artificial. It smells like audience research. Rogan sounds like he’s just having the conversation he wants to have.

4. Research is fine, but scripted interviews are terrible

When I’m a guest on a podcast, one of my pet peeves is when the host sends me a list of questions and asks them verbatim in the interview.

I always feel like, “I didn’t even need to show up. I could have just emailed you these.”

The value of an interview lies somewhat in the serendipitous nature of the conversation. You don’t know what you don’t know, and there are often gems that you never could have predicted in advance.

Still, research is good. You don’t want to come in and ask ALL the basic questions that everyone else has asked your guest.

So here’s what I do:

  • Listen to all their previous interviews
  • Read their book if they have one
  • Read their blog posts
  • Read their Twitter and LinkedIn posts
  • Ask mutual colleagues or friends what I should ask them

Then I create a one pager with high level topic areas I want to explore as well as a few specific questions that I know I definitely want to ask. However, once the conversation starts, I rarely end up looking at this document. Usually it just serves to anchor the conversation, not control it.

For an example, watch this clip of me and Neal Schaffer where I ask about his punk runk influences:

5. Do pre-interviews (warm your guests up)

On the topic of preparation, something that helps many interviewers is conducting a pre-interview. Andrew Warner wrote about this in “Stop Asking Questions.” As he puts it:

“I tried something new while preparing for an interview. Before recording, I asked my guest ‘What’s a win for you?’ That did it. Asking someone about their goals reassured them that I cared about their needs and that I’d work with them to reach those goals.”

The purpose of the pre-interview is to warm the guest up so they feel comfortable chatting with you. It’s also to scope out potential minefields to avoid as well as topics that light them up.

For what it’s worth, I usually don’t do pre-interviews – I usually just book longer than needed and do my pre-interview right before jumping into the actual podcast. But I always keep recording just in case we want to kick it off early. Most of what I learn comes from a bit of background research on their bio and we jump right into the conversation.

6. Argue with people who like to argue

Dan Shure gave me a bunch of podcast interview tips when I chatted with him (very meta!). One amazing tip was to play the devil’s advocate:

This only works with certain personalities, but I’ve found it can create a much more interesting conversation than if you were to just agree with everything the guest says. Storytelling relies on tension. Good conversation and panel discussions also rely on tension. It’s interesting!

It also puts someone on a bit of a defensive stance, which usually causes them to better articulate contrarian opinions. And contrarian opinions are what people want.

7. State inaccurate opinions or numbers to trigger corrections

One way to pull out touchy numbers or topics from a guest is to deliberately throw out a number or opinion you know isn’t correct, and wait for them to correct you.

This was a podcast interview tip I learned from Andrew Warner’s “Stop Asking Questions.”

As he puts it:

“I threw out a number that was absurdly low for her. I asked, ‘Are you doing at least a million dollars in sales?’ Instantly I felt her aggravation. She shot back, ‘We’re doing 20 to 30 times that!’ That gave me my answer.

As an interviewer, I noticed that people are taught from an early age not to brag, so they resist talking about their achievements. Our job as interviewers is to encourage them to do it. The dramatic lowball does that.”

Sam Parr also does this frequently on the My First Million podcast. It creates a tension in the guest’s mind where they know there’s a gap between what you said and what they actually think. Thus, they tend to resolve that by giving the honest answer.

You have to be careful here because you don’t want to get the guest to share things they’re uncomfortable sharing. That’s why I always say we can edit things out afterwards. But my opinion is it’s better to get all the good stuff out during the conversation and only worry about editing later.

8. Self-deprecation & dumb questions

On the flip side, some experts you interview will have less experience on camera and in recorded conversations. In these cases, I like to underplay my own confidence in a subject and ask them to teach me what they know.

Basically, I take this approach: “I’m a noob. I know nothing about X. Can you explain like I’m five?”

Generally speaking, I like to ask “dumb questions.” If I don’t understand something completely, I ask the person to explain it more simply or more thoroughly. I assume that my audience is also probably thinking the same thing.

Your job as the host isn’t to sound smart; it’s to make your guest sound smart.

9. Ask a record skip question to get someone out of autopilot

Most guests get asked the same questions over and over on a podcast. This can lead them to go into autopilot, where they just give surface level stock answers without thinking too much about it.

This is the worst. It’s boring for the audience, and the longer the guest does it, the less fun they have.

To get out of that, I like to ask a “record skip” question; something that causes them to be a bit surprised. It might be a shift in topic, or it might be a weird way of phrasing something or a contrarian opinion I have.

We may even go down weird tangents. Like on this episode with Andy Crestodina, we talked for a while about Chicago architecture, despite the fact that my podcast is ostensibly a business podcast.

I talk about that technique here:

10. The thesis emerges via the conversation

You may have an idea as to what the conversation is going to entail, but most often you’ll be surprised at what the “hook” ends up being.

So write the title last.

I’ll often be midway through the conversation when a guest says something that perks my ears up. Instead of plowing through my list of questions and getting to the points that I think they should make, I stop. I lead them further down that path. This becomes the central theme, when before I didn’t even know we’d talk about it.

This has happened in almost all of my great podcast conversations.

11. Open up and be vulnerable

Don’t expect your guests to open up and be vulnerable if you’re not going to do so yourself.

It’s just like any conversation among two individuals. You escalate at each step and eventually get to deep topics. But it’s two sided. It’s not just one person pouring their heart out and the other nodding stoically.

Plus, despite the focus on the guest, the audience really does care about who the interview is. It’s the defining feature of many interview shows.

Think about the different styles of Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, and Jordan Harbinger. They’ve all got different approaches, but none of them are afraid to open up themselves about challenges, tribulations, stories, and experiences.

12. Don’t try to be someone you’re not

The biggest mistake you can make as a podcast host is to try to be someone you’re not.

This is the same with public speakers, comedians, or any sort of artist. However, most people need to go through a period of imitation before their true voice emerges.

You’re mostly likely to mimic those you already follow. Comedians tend to start out sounding like their own favorite comedians. But when they find their unique voice, that’s when their real career starts.

Marketing podcasts shouldn’t sound exactly like other marketing podcasts. You also shouldn’t try to be Tim Ferriss. There’s only one Tim Ferriss.

Again, you sometimes need to go through a period of time where you use imitation to get in the game. But eventually, trust that inner voice and develop your own interview style.

13. Lead with your own curiosity

Harking back to my point on ignoring what your audience wants, I like to just lead with my own curiosities.

When I interviewed Ross Hudgens, I asked a ton about early agency growth and what it was like leaving a full time job to start a company. Why? Because I was going through the same process.

I asked Dan Shure about how to run a proper podcast. I asked Andy Crestodina about scuba diving, Chicago architecture, pizza, and SEO.

The point is, if you’re genuinely curious, it will lead to better conversations. And better conversations are what your audience is looking for.

I heard that Jay Leno phoned it in on his show because he simply didn’t give a shit about many of the guests. Sometimes that can be played well, too, like with David Letterman.

But most of the time, interviews are best led by your own curiosity.

14. Double click

Most interviewers try to move on too quickly to the next question or topic.

As a listener, I’m almost always thinking “damn, I wish they would have talked more about that!”

It takes a long time before a topic is run into the ground. Most never get near that point.

So I follow up:

  • “Tell me why this is.”
  • “Oh interesting, can you explain more about that?”
  • “Do you have an example of that?”

I want to fully flesh out a guest’s story so I can get to the deeper roots of it, not just the surface level story they tell everyone. That’s almost always where the insights lie.

15. Be confident

You’re going to start out without much confidence, unless you’re a rare bird.

But being confident really is the way.

Andrew Warner puts it well in Stop Asking Questions:

“If you were going hiking with a guide, you wouldn’t want her to keep asking, ‘Do you want to go left or right?’ She’s the one with experience. It’s her job to know what’s down each path and to understand your interests well enough to pick for you. That’s what your interviewees need from you. Guide them.”

Listen back to all of your interviews and take notes where you can improve. Do you ramble on questions? Ask leading, weak questions? Say ummm, like, maybe, you think?

We all have those ticks. No one is a perfect speaker. But confidence is built through trial and improvement.

One easy thing you can do is rephrase your questions as imperatives. From Andrew Warner:

“I learned to rephrase my request. Instead of ‘could you tell me a story about that?’ I used phrases like the following:

– ‘Tell me about a time when you did that.’

– ‘Do you have an example of that?’

– ‘Tell me about the day you signed the agreement to sell your company.’

– ‘Take me to the moment you quit. What did you say?’”

Again, confidence is built through actual, proven experience. So don’t let a lack of confidence remove you from the arena.

Conclusion

A great podcast interview is a difficult thing to create, but the process of figuring it out is so rewarding.

Hopefully this list of tips to help you create a better podcast interview was valuable.

At the end of the day, though, podcasting is an art, not a science. There’s no single playbook to do this.

There are some universal principles. Like, you should be listening to your guest. That’s table stakes. Do a bit of background research, invest in a decent microphone (sound trumps all), and pick guests your listeners care about. Interviewing itself is a craft you can learn a lot about from reading beyond the podcast space (such as customer research and sales).

But past that, it’s up to you. Be your own unique voice in this space. We need more creativity and novelty, not copy cats.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

Comments are closed.