An interview podcast — a host speaking with a guest or two, over Zoom or in-person — is the easiest way to start building your authority, and get to grips with the medium of podcasting. In the countless hours of podcast editing I’ve done, hearing the work people want me to advise on, and being a rabid listener with a large backlog, I’ve found some common principles, tips, and mistakes that will apply to just about any podcast in the genre.
These tips will apply to you whether you’re the host of a podcast, someone who helps in pre-production, or a podcast editor at any level. When I refer to “you”, I’m talking about anyone with ownership over the success of the podcast.
How to conduct a podcast interview
The person conducting the interview has essentially one job: set the guest up for success. That means making them feel comfortable beforehand, ironing out any pre-production issues, and confirming how much time they have available.
PROTIP: Contrary to the title of this piece, you’re not conducting an interview, but more a conversation: an exchange of ideas, knowledge, viewpoints. The host isn’t pumping the guest for information, there are no consequences for giving the wrong answer, other than it being cut in the edit, so loosen up.
Some other things to consider:
- Be communicative over email or DM in the days running up to the interview.
- Show up early, so you can set everything up at your end before they join.
- Make sure you know how to pronounce the guest’s name. If there’s any doubt, ask the guest to say their name while you’re recording, as part of a sound check.
- Find the guest on social media and check if they specify a preferred gender pronoun. Many people declare their pronoun within their social media bio or their profile name. If you don’t have that info, try and normalise asking for it. It’s ruder and more uncomfortable to make a bad assumption than it is to ask.
- If the guest is using wired earbuds, help them clear anything that might brush against the cable, like shoulder-length hair, shirt buttons, or a scarf. Apple EarPod mics are pretty serviceable, but that rustling sound — we’ve all heard it — is pretty maddening, and really hard to treat in post.
- Make sure the guest is wearing headphones. If you can, insist on it. You don’t want you or your editor trying to compensate for Zoom or Skype trying to compensate for the feedback created when their mic picks up your voice and ping-pongs it back and forth between you. Everyone has headphones — everyone — so there’s no excuse not to pop them on for the interview.
How to structure an interview podcast
Let’s assume your podcast has one host, and each week you have a new guest. You’ve recorded your interview, so now what to do with it?
The best format I’ve found is the host-read wrap-around. That’s where the host delivers an intro to the episode, hands over to the interview, then back to the host for the outro. These bits should be recorded after the interview, and as close to publication of the episode as possible.
PROTIP: After the host’s intro, the next voice the listener hears should be the guest. This is an old radio journalism trick, and works wonders. An example transition is “I began by asking my guest how he got started making widgets”. If you have transition music, put it there, then open with the guest answering that question.
My show List Envy deviates very slightly from this formula. I start with what the TV industry calls a cold open: a brief snippet of audio, usually from the guest, with a punchy end that takes us into the short theme tune. I do my intro, hand over to the guest, then instead of doing my outro right at the end of the episode, I record a segment where I thank the guest, handle my listener calls-to-action, do any ad reads or paywall plugs, briefly push the next episode, and then hand back to the pre-recorded chat for the last segment of the episode, usually giving the guest the final word.
Some podcasts do an intro, mid-section, and outro, some do an intro and no outro, some have pre-recorded bits. Your mileage may vary, but a host-read intro and outro will serve you well if you’re just getting started.
How to start each episode of an interview podcast
This is really simple and often mishandled by newcomers. Simply welcome the listener to the show, explain briefly what the show is, introduce the guest, then hand over to the interview. That’s it. No “hey guys”, “what is up my peeps”, “this one’s for all you MailChimp fans out there”.
PROTIP: Podcast and radio listeners like to be referred to in the singular, not the plural, so when you record your intro and outro, imagine you’re sat in a comfy chair on stage in a tiny theatre, and you’re having a chat with a friend. The audience can hear your conversation and are enjoying it, but all your attention is focused on your friend: a single person, rather than the audience as a group.
In this scenario, the friend you’re talking to is your listener. It’s a way of helping you think about the way you address that person, and avoiding phrases that feel unnatural or slipping into an approximation of a radio voice… something I’m still guilty of from time to time.
A good structure works like this:
- Hello and welcome to the podcast, where we talk about the stuff.
- This week’s guest is this person, who does this thing or has this specific knowledge.
- I started by asking them a question.
If you’re the host, then you’re in charge, and you should do what feels natural and fits your audience and personal style best. These are just guidelines.
And finally, no voice-over artist should come anywhere near your podcast in any professional capacity, other than as a guest. This is the host’s space, and the listener is here for the authority the host brings. Intimacy is based on authentic connection, and an over-slick intro, however good the voice artist is, puts a barrier up between the host and the listener. (I often work with voice-over artists, and love doing so. They do great work — they just don’t belong in podcast intros.)
How to end each episode of an interview podcast
Just as with the intro, it works best if you transition from one person to another, so let the guest have the last word before you insert any transition music and wrap up with your closing remarks.
Podcast listeners are used to the transition, and understand — if subconsciously — that the intro and outro are probably recorded separately from the interview, so don’t feel you have to fake a smooth transition. In many cases, it actually sounds unnatural to thank the guest as if they’re still on the line and then carry on with your calls-to-action without the guest getting another word in. Put a full-stop in as soon as possible, politely closing the metaphorical door on the guest, and then handle the admin.
If you have ads, it might be that a middle section works best for you here. It’s entirely possible listeners will skip the outro, especially if it’s formulaic, so if you have something you want to mention in the outro that is important to you and of value to the listener, tease this in your intro.
Each valuable nugget of conversation between the host and guest builds a little trust capital, so spend this wisely. Try and leave the listener having received more value from the episode than you have from them listening. You also don’t want to dilute any calls-to-action you want them to perform, by asking too many things of your listener. Focus on the best outcome you’d like from the episode (subscribing to a newsletter, buying the accompanying book, etc) and make that your main ask.
A good structure for an outro works like this:
- Thanks to my guest for being on the show. Links to their work are in the show notes, which you’ll find at mywebsite.com.
- You can support me by doing this thing (backing this Patreon, going to buymeacoffee.com etc). If you can’t do that, tell a friend about the podcast.
- (If you like, and if it’s applicable) Next week I’ll be talking to so-and-so about such-and-such.
- Thanks for listening, and talk to you next time.
Again, this is a guide, not a collection of rules to live and die by. Of course, you don’t have to have the same call-to-action each week, and running an experiment over a few weeks, then switching your call-to-action can be a handy way of finding out which ones work best.
How to edit an interview podcast
Preferred editing software and styles differ across the board, but here are some useful rules-of-thumb.
If you use music, have no more than 5 or 6 seconds before the host’s voice comes in. You want just enough to set the tone, and not so much that the listener is drumming their fingers waiting for the show to start.
Although not an interview podcast, the best example I have of this is Back to Work, with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin. Each episode starts with a drum hit and two strummed electric guitar chords, then straight into the discussion.
If your music is longer, it should duck (reduce in volume) by a few decibels just as the voice comes in, then fade out over a few seconds. You can do this manually or using dynamic compression. You can hear a good example of this in the design-focused podcast Presentable.
Finding a natural point at which the music should duck out of the way of the host will vary entirely on the piece of music, and the style of the intro. Editors with a good grasp of music theory can usually find this point, as it’s about locating a phrase in the music that suits. This is very much an art rather than a science.
Apply enough EQ and effects to make the sound uniform between the people speaking, and to promote clarity of speech. Interview podcasts are about packing knowledge and insight into a relatively tight space, so make the voices as loud as they can go, without causing distortion or making them sound over-processed. Again, this is a sweet spot and needs to be judged by ear, and it will differ depending on who’s speaking, and the platform you’re recording on.
Being able to hear every word is more important than creating a beautiful soundscape, so don’t overly stress about sound quality, as long as the words are clear through inexpensive headphones, and the listening experience is comfortable. Background noise reduction is good, but should be used sparingly so it doesn’t make the person speaking sound like they’re underwater.
When it comes to editing the meat of the interview:
- Reduce the satellite delay effect you get with remote calls by looking for gaps of longer than half a second where no-one’s talking, and trim them back, just a bit.
- Like a sculptor carving a statue out of a block of marble, the editor’s job is just to chip away the bits of the call that don’t serve the episode. That doesn’t mean removing every “um”, “err” or stumble; just giving the conversation a little buff and sparkle.
What you should end up with is an MP3 file between 64kbps and 96kbps, in mono (stereo episodes waste bandwidth, and there’s no benefit to having each person on a different channel — sometimes it’s a detriment).
Around 45 minutes to an hour is a great length for an episode, but really the duration should be served by the content of the episode, not the other way around. If it takes two hours to have the discussion, then the episode is two hours long. Again, your mileage may vary.
How to publish and promote an interview episode
I’ll cover writing show notes in more depth another time, but good show notes — the descriptive text that accompanies an episode — should
- be visible on the web and in-app,
- link to the guest’s bio and to relevant topics of discussion,
- describe briefly the content of the episode,
- optionally include quotes from the guest,
- have artwork that uniquely identifies the episode or the guest.
Each episode needs its own home on the web, what techies call a canonical URL or permalink. That URL points to a page that contains an embedded player for the episode, and all the accompanying show notes. I’ve seen podcasters host their show on one platform, and then put show notes on an entirely different website. All the relevant content for each episode should be in one place, that can easily be referred to. Also, show notes should always appear in full — as much as possible — in the listener’s app.
Once you have that URL for your episode, pass it to your guest so they can help you promote it. Their social proof, and the proof of other listeners, is your most valuable marketing asset. Audiograms (videos with animated waveforms) are fun, but they don’t really move the needle in terms of driving listenership.
As with many of the marketing techniques pushed at podcasters with smaller audiences, social audio clips can suck up a not inconsiderable time that could have been spent on the show itself. After all, sometimes the best podcast marketing tool is making a really good episode in the first place.
The best way to promote episodes on social media is with short, concise, enticing posts that link directly to the episode’s canonical URL (not Apple Podcasts, or Spotify or any other platform — you should always link directly to the webpage with the episode player and the show notes, and encourage others to do so).
Episode promotion is an ongoing experiment. In my years working on my own podcasts, I find that the occasional tweet or Facebook message can drive a little interest, but what really helps is your friends and fans sharing your content. People — and I suspect algorithms — are weighted against self-promotion, even when humble and well-meant, and weighted heavily towards social proof. So if your podcast is small, concentrate on asking your listeners to share your episodes, and make your episodes truly worth sharing.
There are many like it, but this one is yours
This is your podcast, your audience. You have the knowledge, as do your guests. I’m not trying to fundamentally change the personality of your podcast, but suggest formulas and practises that I know work. Ultimately you’ll choose the ones you feel are worth implementing, and discard those that don’t apply.
Also don’t feel you have to implement all of these things from the get-go, especially if you’re new to podcasting. You can apply them in layers, building up bit by bit, until your podcast is a well-oiled machine.