How NOT to Do an Interview

If you have any ambitions of doing a podcast, you will eventually need to learn how to do a good interview.

Of the many skills involved in podcasting, you’d think interviewing was the least difficult:

  1. Pick a topic (question/argument/myth) your audience cares about.
  2. Invite an expert on that subject to talk with you.
  3. Ask him questions.
  4. Publish the podcast.

If your goal is to publish ordinary interviews that are pretty much guaranteed to bore your audience, this formula is sufficient. But if you want to use the podcast to grow not only your immediate audience but your brand in the industry, there is one more step you must take: You must learn how to conduct a GOOD interview.

Think about all the podcast interviews you’ve listened to over the years. What percent of them were really good? A third? A quarter? My answer: less than 10%.

Recently, I was copied on an exchange between Master Copywriter Bob Bly and JB (an entrepreneur whom I don’t know). The subject was a series of interviews Bob had conducted as part of the Gene Schwartz Graduate Course on Marketing.

JB said:

I loved the course and I think a big reason was the way you conducted the interviews. 

I’m used to modern podcasts where the hosts ask uninteresting questions and then butt in right when the guest is about to say something interesting. You were the exact opposite. You asked interesting questions, let the guests speak when they had something good to say, and followed up when there was more for them to say.

So I wanted to say thank you. This was a great course, and you helped make it happen.

JB is right about Bob Bly. He’s an expert interviewer. And as an expert, he does indeed ask interesting questions and let his guests speak.

But what, exactly, is an interesting question? I’m sure that all of those mediocre podcasters out there think their questions are interesting. How are Bob’s different? And better?

And what about this idea of letting your guests speak? Who doesn’t do that?

This isn’t going to be a full lesson on how to conduct a great interview. Nor am I going to answer those questions fully. But I’d like to give you a few of my thoughts on this topic that may be helpful if and when you have the opportunity to interview someone for publication.

Don’t Be Stupid!

Whenever I mentor writers, I give them a little speech about “the three deadly sins of creativity.” These are three common human frailties that, when given into, make otherwise good writing mediocre crap.

The first deadly sin is ignorance – writing on a subject about which you know very little. You might understand it superficially, from the outside. But the most important aspects of anything worth studying are usually internal things hidden from superficial analysis.

When it comes to conducting interviews, writers often act like ignorance is perfectly okay. “I may know very little about this person or what they do,” they think. “But that’s okay. In fact, it’s good, because I’ll be able to get clarification on everything simply by asking questions.

We all know what happens when a writer conducts that sort of interview. She asks the most obvious questions and gets the most obvious answers. After two or three Q&As, the reader senses that he’s hearing nothing new and stops reading.

To ask the sort of “interesting” questions JB was talking about above, the writer must have a fairly wide and deep understanding of both the interviewee and the subject matter before he turns on the microphone.

How does he do that?

Don’t Be Lazy!

The second deadly sin is related to the first. It is the sin of laziness. It is probably the most common sin of not just all writers but all creative workers in every field. It’s the deadly sin I’m most guilty of. And it’s the most common deficiency I see in the writers I coach.

When it comes to interviewing, being lazy is about research and preparation. When preparing for an interview, for example, it’s not enough to speed-read the interviewee’s latest book and a few online critiques. You have to read other books and research her biography and speak to a few friends and colleagues.

To put a number on it, you should be prepared to put in about five minutes of research for every minute of the interview. And unless the interview is live, you should spend two to three minutes talking for every minute of the final product. Lazy writers won’t do this. If they are smart and quick thinkers, they can sometimes get away with their lack of preparation. They are able to produce B-level products by being clever and avoiding the obvious questions. Natural intellectual gifts can get you a passing grade in life, but if you want excellence, they are inefficient.

Don’t Be Prideful!

The third deadly sin for writers is pride.

Thomas Merton, one of my favorite poets, said that pride makes us “artificial” and that humility makes us “real.” When I first read that, I didn’t understand what he meant. Now I think I do.

Being proud of what you have or what you’ve accomplished seems like a perfectly natural and even healthy emotion. But life teaches us that these possessions and accomplishments are ephemeral. Standing on your pride may provide some temporary feeling of self-worth. But when pride takes its fall, and it always does, self-worth crashes down along with it.

The purpose of an interview is to discover secrets, stories, and life lessons from a conversation with the interviewee. To get beyond the surface and be able not only to ask interesting questions but to get honest and interesting answers, the interviewer must do three things.

First, he must demonstrate to his interlocutor that he has done his homework in terms of researching his background and his accomplishments. This signals that the interviewer cares enough about the subject to put in that work.

Second, the interviewer must spend some time thinking seriously about the subject’s background and accomplishments. His thinking must be focused on trying to understand the subject’s particular genius and his ethics – what he thinks is important.

Third, the interviewer must find something in his research that he genuinely admires about the subject. And he must tell the subject that – genuinely – in the beginning of the interview.

The combination of doing all three things demonstrates, quite clearly, that the interviewer appreciates the interviewer’s background and his accomplishments. The interviewer indicates that he is a sympathetic listener.

All of this amounts to one thing: In preparing for and conducting the interview, the interviewer must put himself below the interviewee. He does not have to artificially pretend he’s a fan if he is not. But he must be wiling to subsume his pride. To humble himself. To be able to ask the sort of questions that will make the subject feel he is at least understood and appreciated, if not admired.

One very popular podcaster is virtuous in regards to ignorance and laziness. He knows his subjects and their work and it’s clear that he’s done his homework. But when it comes to the third deadly sin, he fails. He seems unable to ask a simple question. He must pose it two or three different ways, as if he thinks his audience enjoys hearing him say the same thing over and over again. The other thing he does is interrupt the subject constantly. As if, again, he feels like his audience is more interested in his ideas than the subject’s. I actually find myself embarrassed as I listen to him. “I don’t care how smart you are,” I find myself thinking. “I want to know how smart the subject is!”

So these are some quick thoughts on how to prepare for and conduct good interviews. Put in the work needed to understand the subject’s background and his accomplishments at a reasonably deep level. Spend some time thinking about what matters to him. And all the while, and especially during the interview, keep in mind that it’s not you that the audience has come to learn about, but the subject.

Work hard to be knowledgeable. Be humble. And you will find that the audience will be truly interested in both your questions and the subject’s answers. Your podcasts will rise above the mediocre. They will be genuinely GOOD.

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Nocuous (adjective) .- Something that’s nocuous (NAHK-yoo-us) is harmful, likely to cause damage or injury. As used by the Indian spiritual leader Guru Nanak (1469-1539): “[The king] shall use his utmost exertions to remove those men who are nocuous like thorns. [He] shall cause a goldsmith who behaves dishonestly, the most nocuous of all the thorns, to be cut to pieces with razors.”

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James Altucher’s “Ultimate Guide to Going Broke”

James Altucher is not only a good interviewer (see today’s Journal), he’s a great writer. I’m trying to learn from him. You can tell that he writes his blog posts in less than half an hour. He uses a free form of logic… which helps. And he doesn’t “teach” as much as “tells” – i.e., a journalistic approach.

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