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Interviewing Podcast Guests: How To Turn Good Questions Into Great Questions

What do post offices, government forms and registration pages have in common?  Questions.  They confront us with the same bland, barrage of boredom – “Name…D.O.B…Mailing Address…” – fun, right?! Sure, they’re questions, but they’re not stimulating or engaging. No one fills in forms because they enjoy doing so, we do it out of obligation – they’re a means to an end.  Fellow Podcast Hosts! Refuse to be that host!  Never be that interviewer!  Don’t let your podcast be that podcast!  

In the same way that we find no joy from answering the same standard questions time and time again, there is zero entertainment or engagement value hearing the same old questions fielded in a podcast! And what’s worse, listening to these repetitive, unimaginative questions really is tiresome and dangerously disengaging for your listeners! This is important, friends; take it from this podcaster, thoughtful questions, insightful answers, great conversation – this is the lifeblood of your podcast!

But great interviews don’t just happen. There is some serious strategic planning required to make your show engaging, exciting, and thought-provoking. You’ve put in all the effort of securing an interview with this great guest, now it’s time to make it count! Don’t schedule a guest only to simply coast through your time together – really engage the human sitting across from you.  Unpack their story, allow them to share and allow your listener to get value from your exchange. Let your audience find deep points of connection through their answers to your questions.  And great questions deliver great answers.

This is a passion of mine, and in today’s blog, I want to share 4 tips to help you turn your good questions into GREAT questions.

1. Leave The Door Open

Is your podcast an interrogation? A game of Battleship, perhaps? No? Then be sure to use open ended questions, friends!  I take a playful tone here, but getting this right will yield serious results – namely better questions that prompt fuller, deeper answers. This is what makes your podcast content enjoyable to listen to.  

What’s wrong with closed ended questions?  Hotjar editor Fio Dossetto helps with this definition:

“Closed-ended questions are questions that can only be answered by selecting from a limited number of options, usually multiple-choice, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or a rating scale (e.g. from strongly agree to strongly disagree)…Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and instead require the respondent to elaborate on their points.”¹

For a practical demonstration, check out the two example questions below:

Example 1: “You’re such an incredible artist, what’s your favourite colour?”

Example 2: “You’re such an incredible artist, your use of colour is striking, yet still soothing. What inspired you to use this colour palette for this piece?”

These are two different takes on what is essentially the same question.  Example 1 could easily yield a one word response – “Red”. That’s a neat fact to know about someone, but there’s so much more potential depth that’s then missed out on. Your guest has more to say! And your listener wants to hear it! 

In Example 2, the host actually explains why they think their guest is an incredible artist; this validates the preceding compliment, it’s now more than just a throw-away phrase and shows the guest that the host is genuinely interested in them (which primes them to open up and share more – we’ll get more into that later!). The follow up question asks for the artist’s source of inspiration…which could be anything!  Woohoo! A beautifully open-ended question.

Asking open-ended questions is one of the soundest ways to see things from your guest’s perspective, and that is exactly what you’re out to capture – that fancy mic and audio interface aren’t kickin’ around for nothin’! Friends, this is so easy to do! Implement this approach and you’ll quickly turn your good questions into great questions.

Related Read: Everything You Need To Invite And Book Your Next Podcast Guest (Email Templates Included!)

2. Follow Up

In her Entrepreneur.com article, Madison Semarjian explains how there are typically four different types of questions: introductory, mirror, full-shift, and follow-up. Research conducted by Harvard Business School suggests the most powerful of these are follow-up questions. Why do you think that is? “People feel more respected and heard, which will improve your relationship”, Semarjian explains. 

We’ve heard of an open door policy, as a means of building relationship – but have you ever tried an open ear policy?  It’s just as powerful!  Listening is powerful. Friends, you have to actually listen in order to ask great follow-up questions.  In his article for Harvard Business Review, Richard Davis reminds us that:

“To ask a good follow-up, you need to pay very close attention to how the interviewee responds to your initial question, and then build on his or her answer…Ask a follow-up that will help you really uncover what you are seeking to learn. Be curious, and you will be amazed what you uncover.”  

Let your guest know they are being heard by digging deeper. Davis goes on to give us three examples of great follow-up questions:

1. Ask your original question again, slightly differently. Try saying, “Let me ask you this another way…” Make sure you change the way you phrase this second question, you’re guaranteed to enjoy some deeper revelations.

2. Connect their answers to each other. One of my favorite strategies to understand people better is to link their responses to something they said earlier. Connect the dots between their answers, listen intently, and tie what they hear to something said earlier in the conversation. Ask something like, “Is that what you meant earlier when you said…?”. 

Beyond allowing you to understand the person better, it communicates that you are really listening, and actually provides meaningful insight to the person by pointing out a connection that he or she may have not even seen.

3. Ask about the implications of their answer. Try this when your guest answers a question without being particularly revealing, or by giving a very safe answer. For instance, when asked about their greatest weakness, someone may say, “I’m a perfectionist”. Rather than accepting answers like that at face value, seek to really understand the person by asking “What are the consequences of your detail-orientation?”

These are simple, intuitive strategies to incorporate into your podcast interviews.  Give it a shot, do the work, and watch the quality of your questions shift from good to great!

Related Reads: How To Improve Your Podcast Interview Skills [10 Do’s And Don’ts]

3. Tone It Down 

Don’t limit yourself as an interviewer! Instead of only planning what you’re going to ask, consider how you’re going to ask it. Studies show that people are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a buttoned-up, official tone. In the aforementioned Harvard Business School Study, Leslie K. John, an associate professor of business admin at Harvard Business School, found some interesting results from a recent study:

“Participants were posed a series of sensitive questions in an online survey. For one group of participants, the website’s user interface looked fun and frivolous; for another group, the site looked official. (The control group was presented with a neutral-looking site.) Participants were about twice as likely to reveal sensitive information on the casual-looking site than on the others.”

That’s pretty telling, and we can co-opt the lessons from this study and apply these principles in our interviews – use the right tone. The right tone, when it comes to asking questions, is  the kind that puts your guest at ease. Are you curious and intrigued about what your guest is about to say?  Lean in, and perhaps widen your eyes. 

Are you prying into a humorous or embarrassing story? Smile, laugh, gesticulate with your hands and draw them into the conversation by letting them know they’re laughing with a friend.  Is the topic of discussion serious and sensitive? Maybe lower the volume and speak with softness and empathy. Great questions are those that are asked with the right timing, inflection, and body language that appropriately accompanies the topic of conversation.  Great questions produce great answers, and great answers produce great content for your podcast.

For a great read on the power of asking the right questions, check out this article:The Surprising Power of Questions

4. You Only Get Answers To The Questions You Ask  

You have to dare to ask! Richard Thalheimer, the founder of the Sharper Image, once asserted, “It is better to look uniformed than to be uninformed.” For that reason I encourage you not to worry about appearing silly, or less educated by throwing out certain questions.  Heck, if you’re wondering about something you can be sure that your audience is too! Serve your listeners and honor your guests by asking those pesky questions that persist in persisting – fellow podcast host, you know the ones!

You’ve prepped for the convo: you’ve got insightful, open-ended questions cued up, you’ve even practiced the inflection in your delivery…but something comes from left field, an unaccounted for inquiry, and you want to ask, but you begin second guessing yourself.  As long as it is appropriate for the tone of your show, and respectful to your guest and audience – dare to ask!

Asking the right question of the right person at the right time is a powerful combination because the answers you receive can bring about some of the richest conversations. But this often happens spontaneously; you have to be in the conversation, be present, be listening and when that question arises, be courageous – dare to ask!

Former CEO and Chairman of IBM, Thomas J Watson said: 

“The ability to ask the right question is half the battle of finding the answer.”

But that’s truly only if you are willing to ask the question. You will also find your own personal enjoyment of your podcast will grow exponentially when you’re also discovering unexpected nuggets, truths, and wisdom in real-time along with your listeners. Do right by your guest and – say it with me – dare to ask!

Related read: Good Leaders Ask Great Questions

In Conclusion

So, it’s really quite straightforward when you break it down – there’s a time and place for close-ended factual questions, but nothing opens up your guest like the breadth and depth afforded by an open-ended question. And after they open up, follow-up!  Demonstrate that you’ve been listening and invite them to share even more by using questions that build on what has already been said.  Be mindful of how you ask your question, tone, inflection, and body language will all contribute to whether you and your listeners get more, or less from your guests. 

And remember – the only way to find out what people are thinking is to ask them.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  Friends, from one podcast host to another, use these tips and you will most definitely take your podcast game to the next level as your good questions become great ones.

Related read: How To Improve Your Podcast Interview Skills – From Your Guest’s Perspective

Sources:

1.  Hotjar.com, Open-ended questions vs. close-ended questions: examples and how to survey users: https://www.hotjar.com/blog/open-ended-questions/ 

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David Hutchinson

David Hutchinson

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