Podcasting Online: How to Get Through That First Interview

Recently, I was asked by a new podcasting client for my number 1 piece of advice for beginning interviewers. I replied, “Pretend like you’ve been doing this for 20 years.”

While admittedly this is a very simple tip that doesn’t exactly blow minds, I have to caution against dismissing something so basic as confidence. “Fake it til you make it” is not an easy thing. Why? Egos mainly. Everyone gets into a space that presents something of a challenge to them and the immediate reaction is to become nervous. If you’re not nervous, congratulations–your amygdala might not be fully functioning so try to avoid going near wild animals. Anyway, anxiety arises with any new project that’s undertaken. Your brain doesn’t know what to look for, what to expect, because you’re in unexplored territory. If, however, you can convince yourself to PRETEND that you’ve interviewed a hundred people and this guest–Elon Musk, was it?–is just another one for the proverbial books, then you will be better off.

Still, easier said than done. Relaxation techniques can help. Drinking vodka can help too. But getting into a space that’s quiet and peaceful and facilitates thinking–because interviewing requires a lot of active thinking–will be of greatest benefit. Of course, in a stay-at-home, work-online situation, this isn’t always possible, especially if (like me) you have kids around the house. What then? Well, it’s absolutely essential to get away from the fray, so if that’s not possible for most of the day, don’t agree to interview anyone when it simply won’t work for you. The last thing you want to do is impress upon your guest that the time they are giving you is of little to no value. Even at home where self-isolation is hardly a solitary business, professionalism is a must.

Do plan ahead, but be prepared to go off-script. As you improve and gain experience you might not need a cheat sheet or a list of pre-written questions, but in this first interview, you will want some kind of loose script or outline. Why? Peace of mind. A plan helps most, if not all of us, feel that we’ve eliminated some of those unknowns and we’re not completely surrendering to entropy, chance, and probability. You can grip that page or pages in your hands until your fingers are white and know that even if you’re scared stiff and can’t understand a word your guest is saying because suddenly everything sounds like Jabba the Hutt, at least when your guest concludes talking (i.e., closes mouth), you’ll have the next question to turn to, and hopefully you won’t stutter in the process. Now, maybe you’re Super Cool and Collected Joe from the start and eat failed podcasts for breakfast. Great. You still want to begin with a question you wrote down or thought of ahead of time. Now, as you talk with your guest, you might become engrossed in what s/he is saying and naturally questions start popping in your head. Oh my. You find yourself going off-script, and that’s great! But then the guest’s answer to your off-the-cuff genius question leaves you without a subsequent follow-up and egg possibly drips down your face. What do you do?

Don’t worry, be happy. The GREAT thing about audio in this format is it’s not live (unless you’re choosing to go that route, which I don’t recommend until you’re warmed up). If you make a mistake or two or your mind goes blank which leads to a deathly silence or a string of habitual umm’s, no problem. It can be fixed… in post. What you should do if that happens in the moment is stay calm, try to regroup (Houston, we do not have a problem), and just jump to the next question on your list. It’s okay if it doesn’t necessarily flow from what your guest was just talking about. This actually leaves a good opportunity for a music break or another mini-segment that you can add in post. But, the important thing is to keep going. And the more moments like that you have, the more teaching opportunities you give your brain to learn that when the flubs happen, it’s totally okay.

Be positive, assertive, confident. This goes for whatever you do in life, but definitely we can apply these action verbs to that first recording session. You never, never want to make it seem like you are intimidated by a guest. I don’t care what kind of amazing resume this god amongst people has, your job as an interviewer is to take it all in stride–it’s practically your responsibility to mankind. Your personal interest should be reflected in your voice, but when you are the interviewer, you are NOT the gushy fan. You have authority in your own right–this is your podcast!–and you need to own it. Don’t hem and haw or giggle obsequiously. Never say ‘um’ and never apologize for a question or a statement. Do be friendly. Do be straightforward. Do probe and prod. The guest is the specimen; the host is the eager scientist. As the scientist, you have the right to investigate.

But it’s hard to stay positive if the internet dropped the meeting. I know, and I fully empathize. Most of us podcasters have by now learned that Zoom/Skype/Zencaster is far inferior to being in a studio where sound can be controlled and live-mixed. I don’t care if you do have Google Fiber (the paid version), you’re just not going to be able to achieve studio-grade interviews online. But this is the way of the world right now and so even if your first interview is in-person (because you happen to live down the street from Michael Dell), at some point you will have to interact online. How can you ensure a good recording?

Here’s an example from my day today. One of the latest podcasts I’ve been asked to produce had their first recorded interview earlier this afternoon. There were two interviewers (at separate locations/computers/connections), and I was hosting the meeting as producer. The guest came on just half a minute after Interviewer 2 froze because her internet went down unexpectedly (is it ever expected?). But we still had Interviewer 1 with us so, no worries. She briefed the guest on the rundown of the show while her co-host reset and got back on. But then, once the dialogue was underway, Interviewer 1 shockingly started having troubles as well (again, separate computer/connection) and dropped out of the meeting not once but three times! My connection fortunately remained stable the whole time (of course I had turned off my video and hidden myself altogether on Zoom). It was probably one of the top five worst interviews I’ve recorded because of the technical difficulties, BUT the interview itself went reasonably well. How is that even possible?

The guest always had someone there to look at, to speak to, to receive questions from (the hosts were prepared with questions they’d pre-written and this turned out to be extremely important with the continuous internet problems). And by the end, it was actually a pretty solid product. These two hosts had never interviewed together before, but they exuded confidence even if technical issues had them rattled. They faked it very well. The big takeaway for both of them was that with the online setting, there’s strength in numbers. That is true. But my big takeaway, although I always host every interview I record and produce, is that having a third-party hosting or at least recording the meeting but not participating provides some sort of backup and stability.

Bottom line: do what you can to sequester yourself when you conduct that first online interview and, if you can, get a friend to be on the call too and record it on their end. If someone’s internet goes, there’ll be backup.

For more on podcasting, or if you’re still on the fence about launching yours, check out my previous post here .

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