Tip 19: Five steps to great podcast interviews

Last time we looked at getting yourself set up for success with podcasting. This week we get down to the basics of making the podcast interview itself sound like…well, like someone might actually want to listen to it.

Prepare your questions

Even Paxman doesn’t go in cold, though it might sound like it sometimes. You need to think through what it is that you want to achieve in the interview, and ensure you achieve it. The key steps in doing so are:

  1. Always write questions in advance – don’t wing it, even if you know your subject well. Respect their time and know what you want to get from the session.
  2. Research your subject – are you aware of their views already? Do you want to cover points they’ve already expressed in other formats, or explore new ground?
  3. Think listener – what will be engaging? Are there points of controversy to explore? What are the absolute core messages that you must cover?
  4. Keep your question list to 5-7 questions, allowing opportunity to ask follow-up questions to pursue a topic further if a particular question merits deeper examination.
  5. Always submit your questions in advance and get confirmation that the subject is willing and able to address them.
  6. Open questions are your best opportunity to engage a subject – here are five standard journalist questions you can nearly always ask to elicit answers that are useful to your listeners:
  • What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in X…?
  • What’s your key piece of advice on X…?
  • How would you explain topic X to a newcomer?
  • What keeps you interested in X…?
  • What drives you mad about X…?

And the catch-all bonus question:

7. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to get across about X…?

Check your levels

We’re not going to get into the details about sound levels, but know this: There’s plenty of research (notably Clark and Mayer) that show that learners care a lot about sound quality. A great interview recorded poorly is not going to hit the mark. Here are a couple of points to bear in mind to ensure a quality outcome:

  • Get there early to check out the recording environment.
  • Check sound levels.
  • Monitor noise variations.
  • Air conditions, traffic, phone rings, footsteps.
  • Some ambient noise can be useful, too much is dreadful.
  • Keep headphones on at all times when recording – you’ll hear background noise that you would ignore if just listening normally.

Get recording

Your subject is in the chair and you’re about to hit record. A few key points to bear in mind:

  • Check questions with subject and ensure they’re ready and able to answer and that someone from compliance/marketing/the FSA hasn’t suddenly edited all your questions for you
  • Check your timing: do you have 10 minutes all of a sudden? Know what questions you’ll cut if you’re short on time
  • Record a sample, stop, playback, check levels, make adjustments.

As you work through your question set:

  • Start with an easy opening question.
  • Switch off your agreement voice (saying ‘yes, I see, ok, right…’, which are perfectly normal in conversation but are distracting when listening to an interview subject).
  • Know when to stop and redirect (if you’re not getting what you want, if the subject is going off track, if they’re answering a different question).
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for another take – save yourself pain in the editing process by trying to get complete answers to questions on the day, rather than assuming it will be possible to stitch together four sentences from three different answers, as that’s very time consuming and rarely sounds natural.

Cut it up

You’ve got your gold, now it’s time to separate it from all the rubble. Editing is made easy with free tools like Audacity. The basic functions you’ll need to get to grips with are:

  • Importing files
  • Cutting and pasting selections
  • Importing music onto a separate track (ensuring you’re not violating copyright)
  • Cross fading
  • Normalisation and noise reduction
  • Adding introduction and closing comments

We don’t have the space here to get into the how-to’s of using an editing tool like Audacity, but it’s a free download with plenty of well-written tutorials and supporting information.

When you’re editing:

  • Do it as soon as possible after the recording, otherwise you will forget where you asked for second takes
  • Listen to the whole recording through first and make notes on the timing ins/outs that you’ll want to use. Resist the temptation to start editing the answer to question 1, only to find that you asked the subject to do it again later (it’s amazing how much you forget when it comes to the edit, hence the point above about doing it as soon as you can.
  • Copy and paste your rough in/outs from the master into new files – don’t ever edit your master version as you never know when a subject might ask for the full version or you want to go back for a different take.
  • Get the ins and outs all sorted first, then come back and adjust levels, equalisation etc., once you’ve got a final take
  • If you’re using music, acquaint yourself with copyright laws of the land…there’s lots of rights-free music out there, just google it.
  • Output to MP3 for best quality. Experiment with Audacity settings to get the best

Get it out there

Finally, once your podcast is ready to be heard, you’ll need to set up an RSS feed so that listeners using podcast aggregators (or podcatchers) like iTunes, Doppler, or Juice can find your podcast and any new episodes.

The RSS feed itself is a piece of code (XML to be precise), but you don’t have to be a developer to write it.

Several free applications like Podifier can walk you through the process, or have a look at the iTunes site for information on how to assemble an RSS feed for more information. If you’re not going to set up an RSS feed, you can upload the files to your intranet, or onto your LMS. Moodle handles Mp3 files well and uses its own player, others do similar.