When done well, a podcast interview is a thing to behold. There’s time and space for the guest to be entirely themselves, the conversation twists and turns in unexpected ways, and everyone involved can come out feeling that they’ve learnt something.
This is probably why interview series often do so well in the charts. From Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO and Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail to Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place and The Adam Buxton Podcast, the format has become one of the most prominent in the podcasting market.
It shouldn’t be a surprise: as opposed to, say, reporting and investigations, interviews are comparatively cheap and easy to produce. At the risk of stating the obvious, they can also be made about any and all topics - no matter your interest, there will be people willing to talk about their relevant experiences and expertise.
Sadly - as you may know if you listen to a lot of them - many podcast interviews often fail to reach their full potential. At worst, they can feel winding and pointless, like bad first dates accidentally caught on audio.
After all, the power of podcasts - the fact that anyone can make them - can also be their downfall. You may think that having guests popping over for a chat is a straightforward process, but getting something worthwhile out of them is another challenge altogether.
“What I don't enjoy is when there’s no sense of purpose, and hosts don't know why they're talking to the guest”, said Ed Morrish, an audio producer who has worked on dozens of podcasts including NonCensored with Rosie Holt. “They're talking to them because they have to have a guest on and so the questions are always a bit meandering and they put too much of themselves at the top.”
“If you don't have specific points of interest, then you're not going to get very deep into anything, because you don't know what to ask. People think, "oh, we'll just have a chat, and eventually we'll work out what their childhood trauma was". If you don't know which country they grew up in, or what their first job was, or whether their parents are still around, how are you going to ask the right questions?”
This is why the first step of any interview should - perhaps boringly - be proper research. Well, not quite the first. According to broadcaster James O’Brien, who has hosted guests from Lily Allen and Margaret Atwood to Tony Blair and Gary Lineker on his podcasts, there is an important question you should ask yourself before doing anything else.
“I only interview people that I like, or think that I will like. ‘Do I want to spend an hour in this person's company?’ is the first question I ask before deciding whether we're going to bid for them or not”, he says. “That narrows things down enormously.”
He isn’t wrong; the advantage podcasts usually have over more traditional formats is length, and there is little point settling into an in-depth discussion with someone you just do not want to know anything about.
Once that’s done, the real work can begin. For Kate McCann, the political editor of TalkTV and co-host of Times Radio’s Sunday politics show, it involves asking yourself several further questions. “I usually like to try and think about who the interview is for - so who the audience is going to be - and what the most interesting thing you think that person will be able to tell you.”
“All of that stuff is really useful, not necessarily to trip the person up but just because it gives you a much better understanding of how they're going to approach your questions”, she explains. “If I go into an interview and I'm really well briefed, and I feel like I know this person, I know how they feel about the subject, I have enough confidence to go off my own script.”
This last point is crucial. Interviewing someone for a podcast usually isn’t a confrontation, nor does it follow the tight scripts of, for example, radio news programmes. As Morrish puts it, “people almost like to feel like they're eavesdropping”. In short: the trick is to be as prepared as a traditional journalist but to make it sound like you’re merely having a friendly chat with an insightful acquaintance.
Structure is also key: if you would like a guest to open up to you (and your listeners), you shouldn’t expect them to do it straight away. To come back to the first date metaphor, you wouldn’t expect a prospective partner to reveal all their baggage over the first cocktail. Some small talk is necessary.
It may be anecdotes you’ve heard or read about before while doing your research but remember: not everyone has spent hours poring over the life of your guest before tuning in. Letting them settle into their comfort zone by sharing a few well-trodden stories will often be beneficial to you both in the long run.
“What I love about podcasts is that they're marathons, not sprints”, O’Brien said. “It's never going to happen in the first five minutes. 30, 40 minutes into it, if you've built up a real trust and a real respect from the interviewee, you can push on things.”
“When someone who probably was not expecting to confide - and this happens surprisingly often - says ‘crikey, this feels like therapy’, I love that. Those are the moments where I feel we're doing something you can't really do in any other format.”
This gets to the crux of the matter. If people want snappy gotchas, they usually won’t turn to podcasts. Depth and a sincere human connection are usually what they seek, as well as compelling new information about a person they’re interested in. It can be a thin line to navigate, as entirely aimless chatter shouldn’t be a goal either, but it is worth it.
“Ultimately, people like listening to interesting conversations. And that's really all you're aiming for: an interesting conversation”, McCann concluded. “It's not about winning. It's about trying to make something interesting for the listener.”