Do you have a podcast, but are looking to take it to the next level? Interviewing guests for your show can be a great way to find new content and grow your audience. With this guide, we’ll show you how to conduct a podcast interview by asking questions that will yield interesting responses from your guest while also advancing the conversation.
I’ve produced 1000 podcast episodes and conducted hundreds of interviews with porn stars, bank robbers, drug dealers, billionaires, artists, entrepreneurs, and presidential candidates
In this guide, we’ll go over the four pillars of a fantastic interview
- Finding Great Podcast Guests
- Doing Research on Podcast Guests
- Becoming a Great Listener
- Asking Great Questions
Let’s get started.
1. How to Find Great Podcast Guests
When it comes to conducting podcast interviews, a compelling guest is the most important factor. People will turn you down regardless of how successful your podcast is. Just remember there’s no shortage of insanely interesting people in the world.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned as a journalist is that everybody is interesting if you ask the right questions. If someone is dull or uninteresting, it’s on you” Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening
As former podcast guest Nikki Groom says, everybody has a story worth telling and anyone can be a fantastic guest if you ask great questions.
After conducting 1000 podcast interviews with people like Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, Danielle Laporte, and Ramit Sethi, people still turn me down. Sometimes they even turn me down when they have been on the show before. But I never take this personally.
So how do you find great podcast guests?
Define Your Criteria, Develop Your Standards ,and Create a Rating System
“Make peace with the fact that saying “no” often means trading popularity for respect: When we fight back effectively, it shows people that our time is very valuable. It separates the professional from the amateur.” – Greg Mckeown, Essentialism
To find great podcast guests, you need to define your criteria and develop standards for how you choose guests.
When Greg Mckeown taught a class at Stanford, he assigned each student a numerical rating between 1 and 10. If students received a rating of 7 or less, they were not accepted into the course. The alternative is Derek Sivers’ “hell yes or no” framework for making decisions.
Make Your Standards Ruthless and Non-Negotiable
My roommate jokes that I turn down more people than Harvard, Stanford and Yale combined. The following are my standards for podcast guests.
- Every episode is one hour.
- We’re interested in stories not soundbites
- Our show exists to provide value for our listeners, not to provide publicity for our guests
There are ZERO exceptions to the criteria above. If somebody tries to negotiate, I wish them well. These criteria apply to my literary agent, publisher, and even my close friends. The United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists and the Unmistakable Creative doesn’t negotiate with podcast guests, book publicists, or anyone else.
It doesn’t matter if the guest is Oprah, Beyonce or the Dalai Lama. I frequently pass on internet celebrities with millions of followers to maintain these standards.
Listeners Will Notice When you Maintain Your Standards
The most important aspect of this show is the list of guests. A who’s who of people you may never have heard of, but who are FAR more interesting than SO many of the “big” guests on so many other shows” – Unmistakable Listener
That response from one of my listeners is worth more than the increase in downloads from a high-profile guest because that’ person could end up being a fan for life. You need to see your listeners as people, not downloads.
I’m always on the lookout for potential podcast guests who have interesting stories. If I read about someone in an article, stumble on their work through a google search, or read their book, I’ll add them to my list of ideas for people I want to interview.
For example, I discovered Andrew Yang’s Book, The War on Normal People at Barnes and Noble long before the start of his 2020 presidential campaign. As a result, I was able to land him as a podcast guest.
I also keep an editorial calendar of guest ideas and upcoming guests in Airtable. Unless you capture your ideas for podcast guests you’ll never capitalize on them. Having an editorial calendar has been enabled me to air a new podcast every Monday and Wednesday for 10 years.
Curiosity is my number one criteria for choosing podcast guests. I don’t care what they have accomplished or how famous they are. Humans connect with stories not resumes.
When I was reading April Rinne’s about page, I came across the following story
While I was in college, both of my parents were killed in a car accident. In an instant, my entire world flipped upside down. I had to grow up fast, and I needed to figure out what really mattered in life: money or meaning, ego or impact, what others thought I should do or what my soul said?
I knew that part of her story would touch people’s hearts, they would learn something valuable from it and it was the reason I said yes.
When your curiosity about a podcast guest is genuine, it’s easier to ask great questions and conduct a great podcast interview.
How do Popular Podcasts Get Big Guest and Celebrity Guests?
Even though leveraging your guest’s audience is a frequently cited marketing tactic, conducting interviews with people who are famous is a lousy strategy for creating a successful podcast.
First, celebrity guests have been interviewed a thousand times, appear on all the same shows, and people ask them the same questions. When you interview the same people that have been on every other show, you become a pale imitation of your predecessors. If you want to have a successful podcast, you need to stand out in a sea of noise and find people who are interesting.
Second, listeners expand their worldview when they discover someone new. It doesn’t make them compelling guests just because they’re well-known. Our most popular guests and some of my favorite interviews have been with people nobody has ever heard of.
Some of our worst guests, have been really well-known internet celebrities. We will never have them back on our show. But if you need to know, the key to getting big guests is to treat every single guest like their story matters because it does.
Don’t Underestimate the Value of Smaller Guests
The first dozen people I ever interviewed were other students in an online course I was taking.
- Josh Hanagarne was the first person I ever interviewed. After our conversation, he said “don’t underestimate what this is going to do for you.” I built a career from that one piece of advice.
- Sid Savara was encouraged me to focus on interviewing people instead of writing and was my first business partner.
- Greg Hartle had a 150 followers on twitter when I interviewed him., Thanks to his mentorship, I planned a conference and grew our business from 600 dollars to six figures in six months.
The least known podcast guests have had the most tangible impact on my life and career. Interviewing famous people might give you bragging rights, But those people aren’t going to have an impact on your life because they aren’t invested in your growth. Never judge the impact a potential podcast guest could have on your life based on their vanity metrics.
Ask Your Guests for Referrals
When you start your podcast, the easiest way to find great podcast guests is to ask for referrals. After each interview, ask each guest if they know anyone else who they think would be a good fit for your show.
Asking for referrals creates a compound effect. Eventually, one of your podcast guests will introduce you to someone who is a connector. Once you know a connector, you’ll never have a shortage of potential podcast guests.
For example, my friends Clay Hebert and Sarah Peck have introduced me to dozens of people who have been guests on The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. If I ever run out of ideas for podcast guests, I just send them an email and they send me a list of interesting people to interview.
When you ask for recommendations, the guests have already been vetted by someone who has already been on your show. They are familiar with your format and interview style and know what makes a good guest.
Make Your Podcast Audience Your #1 Priority
When I started a podcast, I thought I would interview well-known people, they would share the interview with their followers and every episode would go viral. What quickly became apparent was that our listeners, not our guests were the people who caused our show to grow.
Your job is to create something your listeners want to hear, not to increase your downloads. Being famous and interesting are not mutually exclusive. But if you have the choice between someone who is famous or someone who is interesting, choose the latter.
Dealing with Difficult Guests
My rule for dealing with difficult podcast guests is simple. I don’t. I cut interviews in the middle, ask guests to go back and listen to one of our episodes, or scrap the interview altogether regardless of who they are. I know if I’m not enjoying the conversation my listeners won’t either.
Some guests have been willing to do that. Recently, I did a second take with one of our guests. When he came back, he told me even he was initially a bit hurt, but he actually appreciated it because it made him better at telling his story.
If I’m unhappy with the interview and the guest refuses to do a second take, I don’t air it. Occasionally, my guests will ask for a second take and I love those people because they’re clearly committed to telling their stories to provide value for our listeners.
As a podcast host, you should always put the interest of your listeners over the interest of your guests.
The most ideal guests are the ones who want to engage in a dialogue and provide something valuable for your listeners.
2. Pre – Interview Preparation and Research
Background research on your guests is a double-edged sword. If you do too much, the conversation will come across a dry. But if you don’t do enough, you won’t be prepared during the actual interview.
Read your guest’s books and take notes
A few years ago, Rob Bell was a guest on The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. When I asked him about his time touring with Oprah, he told me, “She reads the books of every single person she interviews.”
That was enough for me to make that my default rule. When you’re done reading the book, capture your highlights and save them in a note-taking app. For more on how to do this, check out my article on more effective book notes.
Remember that you’re having a conversation, not an interrogation
When someone listens to your podcast interview, you want them to feel like they’re eavesdropping on a conversation in a coffee shop. You would never go out with a friend and start a conversation with prepared questions. So you shouldn’t plan or send out potential questions in advance of a podcast interview either.
The Downside of Sending a List of Questions
I’ve done interviews where people have said, here are the questions we’re going to ask. You can say don’t ask me this question because it’s a technical question and I don’t know the answer and I’m not going to do the homework so you’re not going to get a good answer.
In researching for this article, I came across many others who recommend planning questions in advance. That’s lousy advice for conducting a podcast interview.
First, it makes you a worse listener because you’ll already be thinking about your next question. Second, you won’t be able to adapt if your interviewee throws you off track. Third, you’ll miss interesting topics because the best parts of a conversation are the ones you don’t expect.
Don’t plan or send questions in advance.
Dealing with the fear of what to say next
Many people plan their questions in advance because they’re afraid they won’t know what to say next. But “the result is that worrying about what to say next works against you. Your answers will be better, your connections will be stronger, and you’ll feel more comfortable when you have your head free to listen,” says Kate Murphy.
When Cal Fussman Mikhael Gorbachev interviewed, he thought he would have a whole hour. When he got to the former president’s office, he only had 15 minutes. So he ditched his script.
He asked Gorbachev about the most important thing he had learned from his father. This worked in Cal’s favor because the interview ended up lasting an hour. If you ask the right question, you can keep someone talking without breaking a sweat.
Don’t listen to any other interviews they’ve done.
This is somewhat counterintuitive. But I think listening to other interviews that others have done tends to hinder your ability to ask interesting questions that only you could have come up with. Follow your curiosity instead of imitating your role models.
Listening is the foundation of a great podcast interview. Becoming a good listener will do more for the success of your podcast than any other marketing tactic or growth hack. Your ability to listen is what leads to a conversation that compels others to listen. Listening comes down to creating the right environment and having the right mindset.
Create the Right Environment for Conducting a Podcast Interview
Our environment has a profound impact on our behavior, health, happiness, and our ability to listen. Conducting a great podcast interview is a form of what Cal Newport calls Deep Work. You have to eliminate the competition for your attention if you want to be truly present with a podcast guest.
Set Your Computer Up For Listening
“If you need to access websites to perform your work, open only one at a time. Whenever possible, do not use tabs, and when you are done with a website shut it down rather than minimizing or keeping it in your browser. Open but minimized apps and tabs are more accessible than those that are closed even if they appear only trivial so, and thus they facilitate switching” says Adam Gazalley in his book, The Distracted Mind.
When you’re conducting an interview, close open browser tabs, turn off your email, and shut down any other programs running on your computer. This doesn’t just help you listen, it reduces the likelihood of technical issues while you’re recording an interview.
Also, record your interviews in full-screen mode, so you can’t see icons on your computer or anything else that might distract you from the conversation. When I’m interviewing someone, I only have two programs open:
- Zencastr to record podcast interviews
- Notion to reference book notes during a conversation
Turn Video Off
This is a matter of personal preference. But, if you turn the video off, you actually reduce the visual stimulus that’s competing for your attention. And if you’re not convinced, consider what Kate Murphy says about Terry Gross in her book
Many journalists, including Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, prefer telephone to in-person interviews so they don’t get biased or distracted by the other person’s appearance or nonverbal tics.
Considering Terry Gross is one of the best interviewers in the world, you might want to model her approach.
Leave Your Phone Out of the Room
Studies show that the physical presence of a phone can be a distraction even if it is turned off or in your pocket. It might be tempting to leave your phone in Airplane mode or put it in do not disturb mode. But the impulse to look at your phones is so strong, it’s best to leave it out of the room when you’re conducting a podcast interview.
Declutter Your Desk
“Distractions are pieces of goal-irrelevant information that we either encounter in our external surroundings or generate internally within our own minds,” says Adam Gazalley.
In other words, distractions are not just digital. If you want to become a better listener, limit the items on your desk to whatever you need to conduct the interview.
The only things on my desk when I’m interviewing someone are a water bottle, notebook, coffee, and a pen. Setting up your environment so that it’s distraction-free is the closest thing to a “hack” that will make you a better listener during a podcast interview.
Limit Yourself to One Interview Per Day
Careful listening is draining, regardless of your personality, aptitude, or motivation. – Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening
If you’re doing it well, listening should push your brain to its cognitive limits because it’s a form of Deep Work. You should feel exhausted after an interview. A pattern I’ve observed in interviews for Unmistakable Creative is that the quality suffers whenever I do more than one interview a day.
Conduct Podcast Interviews at The Time of Day When You’re at Your Best
Another aspect of creating the right environment for conducting better podcast interviews is a time of day. You have to know when you’re at your best if you want to do your best work. For example, I schedule all of my interviews for Unmistakable Creative between 10 am and 12 pm.
First, this gives me time to finish any reading or research prior to the interview. Second, because I spend the first few hours of my day writing and reading, it primes my brain for questions to ask and topics to explore during the interview. Anytime, I’ve tried to record an interview after 12pm, it sucks.
Sometimes you’ll have to work around other people’s schedules due to timezones. If that’s the case, respect your guest’s schedule. But in general, try to record your interviews at the same time each day.
The Listening Mindset for Conducting a Podcast Interview
If all you learn by interviewing someone is what you’ve read in their book or from their linked in profile, it defeats the purpose of the interview. It’s no different than having your guest pre-record their answers in advance to the questions they’ve asked a million times.
People are like onions.
As a podcast host, your job is to peel those layers until you get to the core of who they are. That’s what enables you to bring someone’s story to life in a way that connects with your audience.
You want to learn things you couldn’t by reading books, looking at their resumes, or visiting their websites. There’s more to every single podcast guest than they can possibly express through their resumes or their books. Your job is as a podcast host is to get it out of them.
The ability to do this comes down to two traits.
- Curiosity: When you’re are genuinely curious about another person’s story, you won’t have trouble coming with questions.
- Authenticity: You can’t fake being a good listener. Even if you give the appearance that you’re listening when you’re not, people will be able to tell.
When you learn to listen well, your questions will elicit emotional responses with depth. You’ll get stories instead of soundbites.
Don’t Put Your Guests on a Pedestal
Even if you admire your podcast guests, putting them on a pedestal will hinder your ability to connect with them. Remember, they’re also people just like you who have problems, challenges, and issues. You put your guest at ease when you don’t put them on a pedestal.
Humanize Your Podcast Guest
When you humanize a podcast guest by understanding who they truly are, they’ll feel a deeper level of connection with you, and open up. Your listeners will also see a part of themselves in your guests
Focus on who they are instead of what they’ve accomplished. Ask them about their worldview, defining moments, and challenges in life that have made them who they are. That’s more valuable to your listeners than what they have accomplished.
A great podcast interview is a form of seduction. You get to know your guest on a deep and personal level that makes them feel comfortable. When you put your guest at ease, they’ll open up and be vulnerable with you.
Deeper Level Questions, Comfort Level, Intimacy, and Boundaries
Starting an interview by asking your podcast guest about something deeply personal is like asking someone to have sex two minutes after you show up on a first date. You need to make sure they’re at the right comfort level.
If you’re going to ask deeply personal and revealing questions, you have to build trust with your podcast guest and make them feel comfortable.
The more comfortable they feel, the more they’ll reveal.
Doing this is more of an art than a science. It requires enough self-awareness to know where a person’s boundaries are. One way to figure this out is to ask yourself if you would feel comfortable revealing something so personal.
Respect the Boundaries of Your Podcast Guest
When adult film star Sarah Vandella was a guest on our show, she revealed something during our interview. Because she thought it might end up causing a lot of problems for her, she asked me to cut it. I respected her boundaries and removed it from the episode before we published it.
Don’t Just Pay Attention to Their Words
“Listening goes beyond just hearing what people say. It’s also paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates within you” says Kate Murphy in her book, You’re Not Listening.
You need to pay attention to your podcast guests’ tone of voice, emotions they express through their words, and how they’re feeling during the interview. Like most of the things required to conduct a great podcast interview, this takes practice.
A Great Podcast Interview is More like a Road Trip than a direct flight
In California, there are two ways you can get from Los Angeles to San Francisco. You can take Interstate 5 which is a mind-numbing, but faster route. Or you can take the Pacific coast highway, which takes twice the time. But there are also twice as many reasons to stop because it’s so beautiful.
When you’re conducting a podcast interview, you want to travel with a compass, not a map. The point of the interview is the journey, not the destination. You need to be open to taking detours. It’s a bit like inviting your guest to join you for a road trip, handing them the keys, and letting them drive to show you places you’ve never been before.
4. How to Ask Great Interview Questions
“There are a couple of questions that signal to the other person from, from a purely brain perspective, this conversation will probably be the same that you had before,” says Vanessa Van Edwards
In social situations, these are questions like what do you do, where are you from, etc?
For podcast hosts, the equivalent is how did you get started? To prevent guests from engaging with you on default, you have to ask questions that interrupt a pattern, elicit stories, and appeal to emotion rather than logic.
“The most important thing that we have remember in the first five minutes of verbal is that you have a choice. You can either decide to engage in interaction on default.”- Vanessa Van Edwards
When you decide to engage on default, you will end up asking boring questions like “how did you get started, tell me about yourself, etc.”
You should ideally ask the types of questions that lead to what NPR calls driveway moments. You want to ask questions that cause your listeners to sit in their driveway just to hear the answer to a guest’s questions.
Don’t Read Bios When Conducting a Podcast Interview
Reading someone’s bio on air is a waste of both your listener’s and guests’ time. Your listeners will learn everything in the bio by reading it in the description or by listening to the episode. Just start the damn interview.
Don’t Start The Interview by Asking About Someone’s Work
A few years ago, my old business partner Brian noticed that the most riveting parts of our interviews happen about 20 minutes into the episode. So he suggested, I start the show by asking questions that have nothing to do with their work.
First, they start to open up the minute the conversation starts. Second, they can’t answer a question without telling a story. Since human beings are hardwired for a story, asking a question that elicits a story will hook your listeners from the start. Third, they can’t just give you a default answer they’ve given a thousand times.
Don’t Interrupt Your Guests
When you’re conducting a podcast, interview the spotlight should be on your guest. And when you interrupt people, you make the conversation about yourself instead of them.
Whenever I bring in a story or example from my life, it’s to give my listeners a practical example of something that the guest is teaching our audience. For example, when Ramit Sethi was a guest on our podcast, I used my student loans as an example of how to get out o
But I will let guests talk for up to 45 minutes without saying a word as I did in this interview with Andy Dixon, in which he shared the story of serving two life sentences.
How to Take and Use Notes During a Podcast Interview
You don’t want to be flipping through the pages of a book when you want to ask your podcast guest a question about something they wrote.
After you capture your notes in a note-taking app, use Tiago Forte’s progressive summarization method, which he describes in our interview with him.
- Highlight the most important passages you want to ask your guests about.
- Bold the quotes from their books that stand out to you
The point of having these notes isn’t to give you a script, but as something, you can reference during the conversation.
Ask Question That Elicit Stories, Not Soundbites
A good story is the currency of a riveting conversation. When your podcast guests tell stories, it piques a listener’s curiosity. For example, when you hear the following story from our show, it’s almost impossible not to listen.
Appeal to Emotion Instead of Logic
If you want to ask questions that elicit a story, you have to appeal to emotion, not logic. You want your guests to feel something when they’re telling their stories. Listen to the following excerpt from our show, where Leslie Ehm actually cries during our interview.
What Surfers Can Teach You About Asking Follow-Up Questions
If you don’t surf, you may not know that surfers ride waves parallel to the beach. And they are constantly adjusting to the wave. Conducting an interview is like riding a wave.
You ask a question and listen to your podcast guest’s answer. Then you base follow-up questions on their answer. This forces you to listen closely to what your guest is saying and become fully present with the person you’re interviewing.
It makes a conversation sound more organic and natural than it would if you plan questions in advance. The one thing that prevents people from taking this approach is the fear of silence. But they overlook a timeless lesson when they give in to this fear.
Silence is Golden and Revealing
Some of the most interesting and valuable bits of information have come not from my questioning but from keeping my mouth shut. . – Kate Murphy
Five seconds of silence during a podcast interview can seem like a lifetime and feel intimidating. As a podcast host, your natural temptation will be to fill dead air. But as Robert Greene said, “humans by nature abhor a vacuum.”
If you embrace the silence and resist the temptation to fill dead air, your guest will do it for you. In many of my interviews, podcast guests reveal the most profound insights frequently following a long silence.
One way to practice this is by counting to five in your head, before saying something. And often you won’t have to say a word.
Nobody Has Ever Asked me that Before
There’s no better sign you’ve asked a great question than when a podcast guest says “nobody has ever asked me that before.” One of the reasons I start with off-the-wall questions like “what social group were you part of in high school” is because I know almost nobody has ever asked most of my podcast guests this question. Not only that, it helps me and my listeners get to know who they are as a person.
5. Audio Quality and Equipment Don’t Matter as Much as you Think
When I started the Unmistakable Creative Podcast, I used the microphone on my Macbook. A podcast listener liked our show in spite of the sound quality that he sent me a microphone in the mail.
It makes no sense to spend thousands of dollars on fancy tools and podcasting equipment if you have little or no podcast audience. Seth Godin once said, “No one ever says, have you heard the sound quality of the last episode of This American life.
I don’t recommend using your computer’s built-in microphone, but there is an important lesson.
Good quality audio will not magically improve your ability to conduct a podcast interview.
Digital interview tools like Zencastr or Squadcast will cost you less than $20 per month. Both are great for recording remote interviews and creating separate tracks. You can get high-quality audio with a microphone that costs less than $100.
Before you spend thousands of dollars building a studio, start a minimum viable podcast and learn how to conduct a great podcast interview. If you lose motivation to continue your podcast, you will save yourself thousands of dollars.
6. How to Develop Your Podcast Interview Style
Your interview style will vary from guest to guest. Some will ask you questions during the interview so you end up talking more than you otherwise would. Others will give you 20-minute answers to your questions.
Steal Like an Artist
To develop your podcast interview style, steal like an artist. I’ve certainly borrowed questions from other interviews. For example, Krista Tippett starts every interview with a question about the religious or spiritual beliefs people grew up with.
But don’t just steal from one person. Steal from lots of people, mix their ingredients, and develop your own recipes.
Edit Your Own Interviews
One piece of advice I give to new podcasters is to edit their own interviews. I edited the first 400 episodes of Unmistakable Creative myself. Even though this flies in the face of conventional wisdom about running a business, it will do wonders for your ability to conduct a podcast interview.
First, it forced me to listen to each episode three times: once during the interview, once while editing, and again after the episode aired. And it helped me become a much better interviewer
Second, you will come across things you could do better. You’ll notice verbal tics and odd things that disrupt the flow of your interview that you would only notice if you were editing yourself.
Even though I don’t edit my interviews anymore, I still listen to each one after it airs to hear what I could have done better.
Review your work
When you listen to your interviews, you’ll discover opportunities for questions you wish you’d asked that you can ask in other interviews. You’ll also get a lot of ideas for things you could write about.
Your interview style isn’t something you can figure out at the start. It’s something that emerges every time you conduct a podcast interview. Pay attention to what your guests say or those podcast episodes that resonate with your listener. Find out what they have in common and integrate those elements into each of your interviews.
Mastery is a Lifelong Journey
Interviewing is a skill like any other. It takes practice, commitment, and the combination of finding great guests, becoming a great listener, asking great questions, and telling a story people want to hear. It’s the journey of a lifetime if you’re serious about it.
There are no shortcuts or life hacks that will teach you how to conduct a better podcast interview. The only way to get better is to practice. Hopefully, the ideas in this guide have helped.