If you’re a podcast fan, you’ve probably heard at least a couple of bad interviews. Meandering tangents. Clunky segues. Boring questions. A host that won’t stop talking about themselves. You get the picture.
Done right, podcast interviews sound easy. Conversation flows effortlessly from one topic to the next and both the host and guest sound like they’re enjoying themselves. But that doesn’t happen by magic. Interviewing is a skill. And it takes practice.
It’s about genuine interest, digging deeper, extracting stories, defining the unclear, avoiding awkwardness, and being conscious of all that at the same time. If a guest isn't giving you much, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. As the interviewer, it’s your responsibility to create something worth listening to.
So here are 9 key tips for conducting better podcast interviews:
1. Find Guests You’re Really Interested In
Even David Letterman can’t do much with a guest who’s stiffer than a plank of wood. You can’t magically make someone interesting through the power of questioning alone. Your guests need to have some charisma to begin with. And not everyone has it. The reality is some guests are much better than others.
So half the art of recording better podcast interviews comes down to selecting compelling guests. And the number one guiding rule to follow is whether you’re genuinely interested in hearing what that person has to say.
Don’t interview someone just because they’re famous or have an impressive job title. If you don’t actually care about what they do, listeners will pick up the fake curiosity in your questions. They’ll come across rigid and canned. And the conversation won’t go anywhere interesting.
But finding the right guests is often easier said than done. Thankfully, MatchMaker.fm simplifies the process. All you need to do is sign up (it's free) and fill in a few details about your podcast. You’ll then be able to browse a database of thousands of guest profiles and book the most relevant ones to appear on your show.
2. Do Some Research on Your Guest
You need to be careful when researching your guests. Doing too much will make your conversations feel rigid. But not doing enough will come across as rude and disrespectful. You need to hit the sweet spot somewhere in the middle. Here are some of the basics worth checking out before you to sit down to record:
Read Their About Page
But don’t get bogged down in career history or lists of accomplishments. Awards and achievements are great, but that’s not what makes a great interview. Instead, when you read their about page, try to get a sense of them as a person.
Try to detect any aspect of their personality that shines through in the text. And keep an eye out for anything interesting or unusual about them. That’s often where the seeds of a great story lie.
Check Social Media
Are they active on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram? What topics have they posted about recently? Have they shared any interesting articles? These are often great ways to kick off discussion in an interview. For example, you can say “I noticed you were recently posting Twitter about X, why is that such an important issue for you?” Doing so demonstrates you’ve done your research and it gives your guest a chance to talk about topics currently on their mind.
Find Other Media Appearances
Look online to see if they’ve appeared on any other podcasts and listen to at least a couple of them. Just Google “GUEST NAME” + “PODCAST”. This will give you a good feel for the topics they’re most enthusiastic about and how they’re likely to come across on your show.
Pay attention to how they communicate. Do they generally give long answers or short ones? Do they go off track occasionally? These are helpful things to know in advance. If they haven’t done many podcasts, look on YouTube to see if they’ve given any talks.
3. Prepare and Ask Probing Questions
As you do your research, think about questions you could ask. Try to find creative angles. Because if you ask the same questions everyone else does, you’re probably going to get a rehearsed answer. Skye Pillsbury, host of Inside Podcasting recommends taking the following approach:
“I try to take the questions they’ve been asked before and take them one step further. For example, ‘I’ve heard you say X, but I didn’t really get a sense of Y. Could you talk a bit more about that?’
“Forming your questions in this way achieves two things. First, by conveying what they’ve already said elsewhere, you immediately move the conversation into more interesting territory. And second, you’re showing your guests that you actually pay attention to what they’re doing.”
If your show aims to help listeners learn, focus asking why and how questions. Try to get your guest to give concrete examples, anecdotes, tips, and case studies. These are much more meaningful to listeners than abstract theory. Always try to put yourself in the shoes of your listeners and ask the questions they really want answers to.
Drawing up a list of questions is a great way to prepare. But you shouldn’t stick to it rigidly. It’s important to retain a degree of flexibility and openness during the conversation. If all you do is read off your list, the conversation won’t flow naturally and the interview won’t get into any areas of real depth.
Start your conversation with questions and let your guest’s response dictate the direction you should follow. If interesting points are raised, follow up, dig deeper, and try to get more information.
4. Have a Pre-Interview Process
If you’re recording in-person, seat your guest, offer them a drink, and have a chat with them first. Making guests feel at ease is one of the keys to recording better interviews. This is especially important if your guest hasn’t done many podcasts before. It can be quite nerve racking!
Even if you’re recording remotely, there are some key bits of information you should let guests know upfront. Give them a brief elevator pitch for your show and remind them of who your target audience is. Having that fresh in their heads will help them tailor their answers more precisely to your audience.
You should also outline the next steps that will happen after recording. Where will the episode be published? How will it be promoted? When will it be live? If there is likely to be a significant delay before their episode is released, let them know.
Lastly, give your guest the opportunity to ask you any questions they might have before you start recording. If you’re dealing with experienced guests, this process usually takes less than 5 minutes. But be prepared to take a bit longer for those guests that need it.
Tip: If something interesting comes up during your pre-interview chat, you can always reference it again during the interview. But remember to keep listeners in the loop by saying “Before the mics were on, we were talking about X...”
5. Keep the Conversation Moving Forward
30 minutes might sound like a lot of time. But if you’re got a lot of ground to cover, it really isn’t. So don’t waste lots of time going over your guests background and covering basic information about the episode topic. That sort of thing is what your episode intro is for.
Don't’ be afraid to reel your guest back in if they go too far off topic.
As soon as you can, move on to the meat of the conversation. Keep your questions clear, concise, and direct. The less words the better. Your listeners want to hear from your guest, not you. So don’t ramble on at length about your own thoughts and opinions (this is something many podcasters are guilty of!).
If your guest goes off on tangents that’s fine. But only go with them if you feel it's in the interest of listeners. If you feel things are getting too far off topic, don’t be afraid to reel your guest back in with a prepared question. As the interviewer, you are the one who should be steering the direction of the conversation.
6. Don’t Interrupt
Avoid interrupting your guest when they are speaking. It can come across as rude and is usually very irritating for listeners. Of course, there may be times where it’s necessary to interrupt your guest to get the conversation back on track. But these instances are the exception rather than the rule. Your job is to tee up your guest with the right questions, and let them take it from there.
If your guest mentions something you want to dig deeper on, write it down on a notepad and raise it when they’ve finished making their point. Also, when your guest is speaking, remain silent. It can be tempting to vocalise agreement with noises like “uh huh”. But these clutter your recording and take away from what your guest is saying, so they are best left out. Of course if your guest says something funny, then by all means laugh! But other than laughing, stay silent as your guest talks. Doing so makes for a much better interview.
7. Practice Active Listening
Try not to obsess over the next question you’ll ask as your guest is talking. Listen. If you don’t, you’ll completely miss the point they’re making and your response will feel awkward and disjointed.
This can be difficult when you’re just starting out. Obviously you don’t want dead air after your guest has finished talking, so rehearsing your next question in your head can make you feel more prepared. But it will prevent the conversation from getting into a real flow.
As your guest talks, pay close attention. Try to visualise the things they are saying. Doing so will help you formulate a more natural response, and your interview will sound all the better for it. If worst comes to worst and your mind goes blank (it happens!), you’ve always got your question list to fall back on.
8. Listen Back to Your Own Interviews
Listening to yourself is one of the best ways to become a better interviewer. It helps you catch crutch words (“you know” “like” etc), you’re using without realising.
As you play back your interviews, listen with a critical ear. Could you have asked the same question in less words? Will listeners be able to easily follow the conversation? Were there any sticking points that broke up the flow of the interview? Did you manage to cover your key questions in the time permitted?
9. Learn From Master Interviewers
Listen to others you admire, take notes, then put your own unique spin on things. Don't imitate.
When learning any new skill, you should study the masters. Find an interviewer whose style you like and try to break it down on a more granular level. What is it that makes them stand out? And how could you implement some of the same techniques in your own interviews?
Be careful not to hide behind an imitation of someone else though. The best interviewers let your own personality shine in their questioning. Listen to others you admire, take notes on that, and then put your own unique spin on things.
This year, we spoke to Chris Williamson, host of Modern Wisdom. He grew his podcast audience on YouTube from 15k subscribers in 2020 to 215k in 2021. He's learned a lot about the ins and outs of interviewing in the process. And he's clearly getting something right. We recommend watching this interview below as a starting point if you're serious about becoming a better interviewer. The video has chapter markers on YouTube, so you can skip ahead to the most relevant parts if you'd like: