A Trick I’ve Been Playing on Myself Since I Had to Make My First Business Speech

Last week Agora had its global publishers meeting in Dubai.

We chose Dubai because it was a compromise location for our publishers that travel from Europe, the Americas, and the Far East. And also because it is a destination that few of them had ever been to.

Dubai is worth seeing. It’s a glittering, ultra-modern city-state built mostly in the last 20 years. And it’s immensely impressive in many ways. Its hundreds of glass and steel skyscrapers are tall – very tall – and very attractive. (If you like glass and steel buildings.) It is incredibly clean. During the six days we were there, I spotted no more than a half-dozen cigarette butts on its pristine streets. It boasts all sorts of world records: the tallest building, the tallest hotel, the largest indoor shopping mall, the biggest aquarium, the longest automated rail network, and the largest indoor ski park, to name a few. And its best hotels – in terms of elegance, amenities, and service – are equal to or better than any that I have experienced.

I wasn’t able to do much writing during the week because the conference ran from 8:30 to 6:30 or 8:30 every day. It was not much fun for K, who had agreed to come along because I had agreed to spend the following week, this week, touring Jordan. The conference ended on Thursday night, so we had to see all the major tourist attractions on Friday and Saturday morning. That turned out to be enough time. Dubai’s attractions are the sort you’d find in Las Vegas minus the fun stuff – like gambling and shows.

And it was hot. Brutally hot. With temperatures ranging from 100 to 120 during the day and dropping to 90 at night. The air was so humid my glasses fogged up every time I stepped outdoors.

But I shouldn’t complain. I was there to work. Our global publishing groups have become a significant part of our business, representing more than a dozen countries and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues. Most of them face the same challenges we face in the USA: a competitive Internet publishing environment that is essentially ruled by the whims of Google and Facebook and the other large social media platforms.

Each of the publishers made a presentation about their significant triumphs and failures. What works in one country doesn’t necessarily work in another – but it can. And when it does, it can mean the difference between profit and loss, and growth and stagnation.

I made the final presentation: “10 Things I’ve Learned About Our Business in the Last 40 Years.”

When I submitted the title, I had no idea what those 10 things would be. Not the first time I’ve done this. I pick an audacious title – one that is likely to attract attention. Then I challenge myself to write something that measures up to it. This is not, however, a methodology that I would recommend. It can easily – at least theoretically – result in disaster. But it does raise the bar. In this case, given the fact that I was speaking to a group of very smart and accomplished senior people in our business, the bar was very high indeed.

What could I talk about? Sales and marketing techniques? No. They constantly come and go. My thoughts about current business conditions? No. They, too, would soon be passé. I decided to focus on something that never changes: the most important element of business success.

I once heard a TED Talk on this subject. The speaker posited that there are 5 major factors: ideas, management, timing, capital, and people. If I remember correctly, his choice for “most important” was timing. And although I understood his reasoning, I had a different perspective.

For me, the most important factor is people – the people you hire to make your business work.

Timing matters. But timing is something you can’t control.

Ideas matter. But without fantastic people making those ideas real, they evaporate like smoke.

Management matters. But management works only if you have good managers.

Capital matters. But much less than most people think. There is no amount of capital that will make a good business from a bad idea. And there are countless examples of poorly capitalized businesses that succeeded due to the intelligence and hard work of their employees.

To my mind, that makes hiring, training, motivating, and compensating extraordinary people the most important job of every one of our publishers. (And, by the way, of every CEO of every business.)

And once I had that nailed down, it wasn’t hard for me to come up with 10 bullet points for my speech.

In a future blog post, I’ll give you all 10. For today, I just want to emphasize one of the main points I made:

When you look back at a successful entrepreneurial career, it often looks like dumb luck. And many successful entrepreneurs, when asked about their success, often claim, modestly, that it was indeed luck. But if you ask them to elaborate, you’ll find (as Jim Collins famously said) that most of their “luck” had to do with putting the right people in the right seats.

Continue Reading

My Very Anal Daily Routine – Just in Case You’re Interested

Every so often I get a letter asking about my daily routine. As if, I suppose, it would be useful to others. Everyone must find his own routine, but I do understand why someone would ask. I love reading about the daily routines of business magnates, accomplished writers, artists, etc.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s mine:

I wake up at 6:00 or 6:30. If I’m feeling tired, I stay in bed for 30 to 60 minutes. Along with my morning ablutions, I force myself to smile foolishly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I do this because I hope it will improve my mood. Then I do a minute or two of stretching, squats, pushups — something to get the creaks out and the blood moving.

Then I weigh myself. Drum roll. Euphoria or despair. I remind myself that I’m 68 and this is vanity.

My morning shower takes about 90 seconds. I lather up and rinse off twice. I once wrote an essay saying that I thought it was wasteful to spend more than 2 minutes in the shower. I got more hate mail from that than anything else I’ve ever written. Like I said then, I’m just telling you what I do and what I think. I’m not your role model. Do and think what you want.

I spend more than 90 seconds dressing because I want to look good. If K tells me that the outfit I’ve put on doesn’t look good, I am nonplussed. But I defer to her.

I’m at my desk 30 minutes after I get out of bed. I spend two minutes reciting a morning prayer and about 10 or 15 minutes updating my “goaltending” journal. Then I get to work writing. Writing is difficult but important to me. I want to tackle it when I have my morning energy. I set a 28-minute timer. When it goes off, I get up from my computer and move around for 2 minutes. Then it’s back to work.

Breakfast is the same every day: half of an egg-salad sandwich. After breakfast, I usually take a 40-minute walk across the street, along the beach, listening to an audiobook or a TED Talk or the like. Then I try to get to work on the next most important thing after writing. (It’s usually some sort of project – business or personal.)

At 11:00 or 12:00 (depending on the day), I drive to my office (a mile away) and train in Jiu Jitsu for an hour. After Jiu Jitsu, I spend a half-hour doing yoga and Pilates. Then I weigh myself again. I weigh myself a second time because I usually weigh between 3 and 5 pounds lighter than I did in the morning. So why not? Then I take another 90-second shower.

Lunch is a cup of tuna salad, eaten at my desk. I spend the next several hours working on routine business objectives, having meetings, critiquing advertising copy, answering questions. I work like this till about 5:00 or 5:30.

I go home and spend an hour reading in the pavilion in our backyard. Then I set the table, select a wine for dinner, and spend an hour with K, trying to get out of my head and be in the moment. After dinner, I sit on the front porch and smoke a cigar and sip cognac and do a crossword or play solitaire.

Then it’s upstairs for yet another 90-second shower and a couple of hours of reading or watching something on YouTube or Netflix. Before I turn out the lights, I spend another 10 or 15 minutes on my goaltending journal.

That is my routine on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Wednesday and Friday daytimes are the same, but the evenings are spent at my cigar club, writing and/or having meetings and/or talking with friends. I spend Sundays at what K calls our “swamp house” – a second home that’s about 20 minutes west of our main house on the beach. Friends and family members drop by to chat or take a tour. The swamp house sits on a small lake in 20 acres of what is becoming a pretty cool palm tree botanical garden that I will one day be opening to the public.

So that’s it.

Now you may be thinking, “How anal! How boring! I’d rather be in prison!” But keep in mind that I travel an average of 12 days a month – Baltimore, New York, L.A., and lots of foreign cities. I have a different routine (also anal) when I travel, which keeps things interesting. And like I said, you should have your own. This one works for me.

Continue Reading

I Finally Did it… I Picked Up the Phone!

I am phonophobic. No, that’s probably not right. I’m phone-o-phobic. Like many writers, I am scared shitless of speaking on the telephone. When email became ubiquitous 25 years ago, I felt like it had been invented just for me. I took to it like a fly to dog poo. Today, no one that knows me calls me. And anyone that calls goes through Giovanna, who tells them that I am not available to speak. By and large, communication with me takes one of two forms: Email for business. Texting for directions or scheduling social appointments.

But there are at least three kinds of communication that are better done in person or on the phone:

* Group conversations (like business meetings)

* Difficult two-way conversations (bad news or criticism)

* Analyzing anything complex

Thus, four or five times a year, I fly to some city – Baltimore, London, Sao Paulo, etc. – and spend a few days to a week in meetings with the many companies I consult with for my main client. And despite occasional bouts of jet lag, I find that those meetings are very valuable.

Yet, given the choice, I’d always rather have business discussions via email.

However, when it comes to discussing what’s happening with the business as a whole (an international, billion+ dollar group of direct response companies), we are usually looking at spreadsheets. Such conversations, hugely important, consist of three to five people analyzing complicated problems. So email just doesn’t work at all.

But after years of trying – half-assing it with email strings that run on forever and never seem to reach a conclusion – I bit the bullet this month and had a phone conversation about our first-quarter financials with the CEO.

And to my surprise and delight, it went very well. In less than a half-hour, we were able to identify two or three serious concerns, go into them well enough to understand and even resolve some of the issues, and then identify a follow-up conversation needed to advance the discussion to the next level.

I’m writing this in the afterglow of having done something I’m uncomfortable doing and realizing how foolish that discomfort is. I don’t think for a minute that I’ve overcome my phone-o-phobia. But I’m pretty sure the anxiety I’ll be feeling about our next conversation will be a bit less.

Continue Reading

8 Other Things That Money Can’t Buy

”Money can’t buy happiness.” A cliché? Sure. But as is usually the case with clichés, it’s true. Problem is, because we hear them so often, the mind filters them out and we ignore them.

This cliché, in particular, deserves our full attention. So instead of ignoring it, let’s expand it… starting with the following list of 8 things – other than happiness – that money can’t buy.

  1. Love. When you attempt to buy love with money, you do not get love. You get someone who cares only about the promise you are making. Try as you might, you will never be able to make them love you for anything else.
  2. Trust. When you attempt to buy trust with money, you attract people that trust nothing but money. The moment your money runs out, or they find another source of it, they will betray you.
  3. Respect. When you attempt to buy respect with money, you attract people who respect your money. They will pretend to respect you – but behind your back, they will mock you.
  4. Self-respect. When you attempt to feel good about yourself by achieving a certain income level, you will be surprised to find that the good feeling you get when you achieve your goal will be gone the next morning.
  5. A reputation for kindness. When you attempt to acquire a reputation for kindness by donating money to good causes, you attract people that value their causes above all else. They will never give you the esteem you think you paid for.
  6. Success. When you attempt to accomplish anything whose value is measured by money, the pleasure you get from it – if you get any at all – will be temporary at best. Others may see value in your success, but you will know, from experience, that they are wrong.
  7. Admiration. When you attempt to win admiration or approval by displaying your wealth, you win only jealousy and resentment disguised in flattering terms.
  8. A meaningful life. When you attempt to give your life purpose by dedicating yourself to the pursuit of money, you will be sorely disappointed. Eventually, perhaps at the end of your life, you will realize that you have wasted your time.
Continue Reading

The New York Times Takes on CBD

Nearly everyone I know is taking some form of CBD. Jiu Jitsu athletes are rubbing it on their muscles before training to reduce soreness and accelerate heating. Executives are eating it during the day to calm themselves. Insomniacs are taking it to fall asleep. My coevals are using it in to ease arthritic joints. And my therapist is selling vials of it to her patients to cure whatever ails them.

So when I saw the cover of a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine promising to reveal the truth about this new miracle substance, I was interested. From what I’ve seen of its coverage, the NYT doesn’t jump on new health stories. It tends to wait 5 or 10 years until the story is practically a cliché. Then it features a long essay on it.

But here we were, just a year or so into the early findings, and CBD was on the cover. And it got the cover right. The headline: The ABCs of CBD by Moises Velasquez-Manoff. Below that: an image of a gummy bear surrounded by the claims being made for CBD, including…

  • lowers blood sugar
  • lessens arthritis pain
  • prevents anxiety
  • reverses depression
  • slows Parkinson’s
  • curbs anger
  • treats Crohn’s disease
  • promotes recovery from opioid addiction
  • calms dogs

The question is: Which, if any, of these claims are true?

In the cover story, Velasquez-Manoff, pointed out that we are years away from answering that. The problem is the scarcity of scientific research. And the reason for the scarcity is that CBD comes from the same plant (cannabis) that produces marijuana (a class I drug). As such, the medical community has been largely prohibited from studying it scientifically.

The best proof so far that CBD may actually be helpful in treating disease relates to childhood epilepsy. As for the rest of the claims, there’s been little more than anecdotal evidence.

I want to believe that CBD works. But my own experience with it has been disappointing. I’ve taken it orally in two forms (oil and gummy bears) without any noticeable effects. And I’ve been rubbing a cream into my thumbs, again without any sign that it works.

Maybe it’s because the products I’m using aren’t good quality. This is apparently a real possibility, with thousands of vendors reselling hundreds of wholesale products, some of which are made in China.)

So I’m still hopeful. I haven’t entirely given up on it. I’m going to try some other brands and see if they work any better. If they do, I’ll let you know.

Continue Reading

Walking: Fast and Slow

K and I share many of the same interests. But moving, biped style, from one destination to another isn’t one of them. We can’t walk very well together because — despite her shorter gait — she outpaces me by about a foot every 30 seconds. So after just a few minutes, she is several yards ahead of me. She continues talking. I can’t hear a word she says. If she looks back at me, I nod as if I can.

Walking in the wilderness is even worse. It’s not just her natural speed. It’s the fact that she views such ambulatory experiences as a sort of sport, rather than relaxation. On flatlands, I can trail behind happily listening to TED Talks on my iPhone. But when we are in mountainous terrain, I’d get lost if I didn’t push myself. In her last life, she was a mountain goat.

This morning, I stumbled on the following quote from John Muir, the famous naturalist. I sent K a copy — hoping against hope that it will slow her down a little.

Continue Reading

The Last Quarter: a Delicate Conversation to and From a Sculpture Studio

The last quarter of one’s life is a time for – among other things – getting rid of non-productive assets.

When Suzanne and I started Ford Fine Art, I was very much aware of the nature of the business, having dabbled in it twice before. I knew, for example, that selling fine art (as opposed to commercial art) was a matter of developing relationships with a dozen or two wealthy collectors. I also knew that this was difficult because every wealthy collector is usually already “taken” by one or several other fine art dealers.

Still, I wanted to take a stab at it. And I had a secondary motive. In addition to running the business for me, Suzanne would help me develop my personal collection.

With that in mind, I told her that I thought it might take 5 to 10 years to make the business work. If she were up for it, she’d have lots of fun along the way. But if, after 10 years, we were not running profitably, I would shut it down.

Ten years had come and gone since that conversation. We had three galleries in operation and only one of them – a commercial gallery we’d set up at my resort in Nicaragua – was in the black.

My promise of fun had been more than kept. Suzanne had traveled all over the States and Central America – attending and exhibiting at shows, and meeting and befriending all sorts of important artists. But the cost of the enterprise was too much to carry into the future. And my secondary motive, curating my personal collection, had been given little attention.

I dreaded breaking the news to my partner of now 11 years, and had spent a lot of time thinking about how I could pad the blow. A good opportunity arose while we were driving to West Palm Beach to visit the sculpture studio of Luis Montoya.

I’d seen Montoya’s work at several local parks and museums. We have one of his bronze fruit sculptures in one of our galleries. But I’d also seen images of other stuff he’d done – really interesting stuff. I was looking forward to seeing it in person.

I think Suzanne might have intuited what was on my mind, because on the way there she talked excitedly about all the new ideas she had for finding new clients. I listened patiently, knowing they were too little and too late. In fact, all of them would have meant additional investment into the business on my part. (Suzanne got a share of the profits but was not required to put in a share of capital.)

When she was done, I paused, nodding thoughtfully, and said, “Tell me how you feel about your job.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean what you like and don’t like about it.”

She thought a moment.

“I enjoy the art,” she said. “And I enjoy getting to know the artists.”

“You’ve been lucky there,” I said. “You’ve met all the great ones that are still alive and most of the up-and-comers.”

“And I like the fact that I get to meet so many interesting dealers and collectors,” she said. “And good-looking strangers.”

I laughed. “What else?”

“The traveling is fun,” she said. “I’ve always loved Central American culture.”

I nodded.

“And what is it about your job that you do not like so much?”

“Well, I don’t like the fact that we have never made a profit.”

She was on to me. Good.

“I’m glad you said all that,” I said. “Because I have a plan – an idea for how you can continue to do everything you are enjoying without worrying about the profits.”

“I’m all ears,” she said.

We were almost at Montoya’s studio. “Let’s talk about it on the ride home,” I said.

Luis Montoya’s place looked more like a museum than a sculpture studio. The architecture was Brutalism, with huge steel doors hiding the inner courtyard from the parking lot.

We knocked on the door. Nothing. We walked around the building. No other entrance. I fiddled with the chain that passed through an opening on one of the doors. It rattled. Then we heard someone approaching.

Her name was Leslie Ortiz. She told us that she was Montoya’s “partner.” I didn’t know he had a partner – but as he later explained, all the work he’d done since 1994 had been “a collaboration” with her. She was in fact mentioned in the brochures. But he was the headliner. And he might have been her mentor. I didn’t ask.

We’d been invited because I was a known collector and because we had three galleries. In other words, we were there to be sold on his product line.

The studio was enormous. The downstairs consisted of 6 cavernous rooms. The upstairs perhaps 8 to 10 smaller ones. Each one contained dozens of beautiful and inspiring pieces from 5 or 6 distinct periods, starting from back in the 1970s.

We spent several hours looking around, asking questions, and coming to appreciate the breadth and depth of Montoya’s talent.

I made mental notes of the pieces I wanted to buy. We thanked him for his time and promised to stay in touch, which I plan to do.

On the drive home, Suzanne and I talked about my plan.

I started by laying out the details. We would shut down the gallery in Miami, the one that was costing me the most. We would keep the gallery in Nicaragua, since it was profitable. And we would make the principal business, Ford Fine Art, virtual – closing down the gallery itself but continuing to buy and sell art through our website, at auction, and at shows.

I explained that the focus would be different, too. The goal would no longer be to make the business work, but to curate two of my personal collections: one that would stay in my family, and one that would be made into a museum funded by an endowment that I would establish.

As Suzanne knew, my personal collection is overcrowded as it is. Her job would be to lighten it up by selling the mediocre pieces. (There are maybe 500 to 600 of them.) My collection of Mexican and Central American art is about halfway done. She would help me complete it by buying about 200 additional pieces.

This isn’t something that we can do in a year. It is a 10-year project. It will allow her to continue to enjoy doing what she likes doing without worrying about the financial end of running an art gallery. Meanwhile, it will stop the losses I’ve been experiencing and achieve my goal of getting my two core collections ready to pass on to future generations.

Leading up to the conversation, I had worried that Suzanne would be very disappointed by my decision. And if I had simply shut down the business, I’m sure that’s what would have happened. But I’ve always believed that if you are flexible in your thinking, you can find win-win solutions when win-lose or lose-lose seem to be the only possibilities.

So Ford Fine Art continues. Suzanne makes the same or better money doing what she most enjoys. And I don’t have to eat financial losses in the future. Win-win!

Continue Reading

Saving Serious Money With Solar Power in Nicaragua

I asked Bismarck, the resident director of FunLimon, our family’s community center in Nicaragua, how that “whacky solar power experiment” was going.

He said the panels and related equipment were installed and that the system had been active for nearly two weeks.

“Do we know how well it’s doing?” I asked. “Like how much of FunLimon’s energy it’s going to be supplying?”

“I just got a report from Alan V,” he replied. (Alan V is Rancho Santana’s chief engineer.) “He said that it will be supplying all of it.”

“All of it? Really?”

My longstanding impression of solar energy was that it was costly and inefficient. I knew that progress was being made. But I never expected that these panels, located on top of the roof that covers the basketball court, would be sufficient to power the classrooms, administration buildings, gymnasium, and irrigation system.

Bismarck and I went over the numbers…

It cost $45,000 to install the solar system, including the panels and the batteries and all the equipment. We’ve been spending about $800 a month on electricity at FunLimon. So if the system does indeed provide all the energy we need, the payback will take about five years. After that, the cost of our power will be de minimus– only what it takes to maintain the equipment.

I contacted Alan directly, and he reminded me that the system he had installed a year earlier was now powering most of our company’s buildings at Rancho Santana, including the hotel, clubhouse, restaurant, and a dozen related structures.

I did more research. And it turns out that solar power has come a long way from its crude beginnings 40-odd years ago. Back then, it was, as is often the case with new technology, not just inefficient but very costly. So costly that many predicted it could never compete with fossil fuels. It took almost 30 years to bring the cost down to $8 per watt in 2010. Today, it’s dropped, on average, to about $3 per watt, with some systems producing energy at half that cost.

This astonishing reduction is the result of making solar panels more efficient while, at the same time, reducing their costs. A parallel advancement was made with the batteries that store the energy produced by solar panels.

I saw a PraegerU presentation recently that argued against the effort towards alternative fuels. Fossil fuels, it said, provide 99% of the energy in the world today, and that percentage will not drop by more than a point or two over the next 50 years.

But based on what we are actually experiencing in Nicaragua, I find that hard to believe. If solar panels can pay for themselves in five years at FunLimon and at Rancho Santana, why can’t they do the same for millions of businesses all over the world?

If you are interested in an explanation of our system, you may find the following edifying:

Memo: 5/8/19
From: Alan
To: Mark and Michael

The attached picture is a screenshot of the solar system application at 9:25 a.m., local time.

As you can see on this picture attached the icon means as below:

1)     The solar panels are producing 6.91 kw at this time and delivering that power to the facility (FunLimon), see the upper left icon at the screen.

2)     The facility is demanding or consuming 10.39 kw of power at this time, see the icon at the center of the screen.

3)     The public power company is supplying 0.05 kw, see the icon at the right side of the screen.

4)     In order to minimize the utility power consumption, the solar system is providing 3.43 kw to the facility from the battery (see the lower left icon at the screen, the battery charge state at this time is 22%) at this time to compensate for the demand, so if we add 6.91 kw from the panels and 3.43 kw from the battery we get 10.34 kw plus 0.05 kw from the utility power company for a total of 10.39 kw (see item 2).

In other words, right now (at the time of the screen shot) FunLimon is only using 0.05 kw out of total power consumption of 10.39 kw from the public grid, that is only 0.48%.  The system is very dynamic and it changes slightly about every 5 seconds as the sun’s intensity and power demand varies….

The protocol is that when the solar panels are producing less than the power demand, the system uses the battery charge to compensate and minimize the use of the public grid.  When the solar panels produce more than the power demand the system takes that excess of power and starts charging the battery.  The idea is that at the end of the day on a normal sunny day the power consumption during the day from the public grid is going to be minimum and the battery state of charge is going to be 100% to be used at night until it gets 90% discharge….

Continue Reading

Competing for Eyeballs: An Alternative to Shock Tactics

The cover story of last week’s The New York Times Magazine featured this headline: “My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me.”

Catchy, for sure. But it’s a headline you’d expect to see in a tabloid, not The New York Times.  Was this an anomaly?

I don’t think so. The language of the most respected brands of mainstream media has been changing in recent years. It’s getting bolder. More sensationalistic. And more prone to exaggeration.

It happened first in the various supplemental services that so many newspapers and magazines offer online. In that arena, they have to compete with the alternative press for attention. And often the best way to get that attention is by posting sensational headlines.

Once they entered the competition, it was only a matter of time before their standards would adjust from traditional notions of propriety to “whatever works.”

I’m very aware of this pressure. As a consultant to the alternative media (which makes its money by subscription and not advertising), I’ve seen countless test results proving that provocative subjects and alarming and tantalizing headlines will beat the hell out of sober issues and sensible headlines every day of the week.

As a copywriter I know once said in an interview about his own sensationalistic copy: “At one point, I came to the conclusion that what I was doing was slightly manipulative. And yet it was working so well and making me so much money. I had a choice: Change the copy or change my ethics. I decided to change my ethics.”

Is this a bad thing?

I don’t know. On the one hand, I like the idea of having standards – for the sake of the writers as well as the readers. It has a civilizing effect. On the other hand, once the advantages of monopoly disappear and a publisher must compete in an open market, it’s going to be very difficult to stay profitable unless you are able to use the same techniques and strategies as your competition.

In the long run, I don’t think it will do much harm. Writers will become more pragmatic in choosing the topics they want to write about. (They will move to what’s hot, topical, and controversial.) At the same time, they will get more skillful at writing headlines. As a result, readers will become accustomed to hyperbole and sensationalism and thus become less responsive to it. When that happens, perhaps there will be a growing market for serious topics and sober headlines.

Perhaps.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading