6 Tough Questions About Becoming a Great Podcast Host
When something gains steam in marketing, the tendency is to race towards tactics. Which channels? Which tech? Which topics? How do we optimize for X? How do we measure it? These are all incremental questions. Let’s take a moment to focus on the fundamentals, on top of which we can build anything we want.
A show is just the combination of three essential elements: a show premise, an episode format, and creative talent. Recently, we provided an end-to-end look at show premise development, and we’ve also discussed the documented strategy that fuels irresistible episodes. Today, let’s look at the toughest of the three essential elements of a show: becoming a great host.
What are a few traits of great hosts?
There’s no one right way to be a great host. It largely depends on the type of show and personality and your objectives for the show. But great show hosts can’t just show up and switch on. They embrace that the job is repetition and reinvention. Repetition helps you learn to bring your full self to the work, while reinvention ensures the act doesn’t get stale. Even the most beloved individual or show suffers from stagnation, so they have to constantly tweak and add things over time. (Here are the 5 different ways to reinvent a show.)
What is something new show hosts often overlook?
Lots of new show hosts forget that the things which look incredibly natural from those you admire are very hard skills to master. This plagues interview shows more than most. People assume they can skip all the careful planning of an episode’s structure or segmentation and chaptering of an interview, as well as skip the post-production, in favor of just kinda winging it. The thing is, having a conversation or interview the audience gets lost in requires incredible practice and honing your skills. (Here are 9 questions some of the more famous interviewers like to ask.)
How can people get better at asking questions to guests?
First, look for two different types of content. You want the facts of the events story (“Tell me about…”) and their reflection on the events of the story (“How did it feel…”).
Second, recognize that follow-ups are where the best material comes out. Don’t allow the guest to wriggle out of giving specifics by generalizing, nor should you stop at the face value of what they said. Keep these questions simple, too. There’s this notion that clever questions yield the best responses, and I’ve never found that to be true. The basic questions, asked earnestly, lead to lots of magical moments. “Why? What do you mean? Can you share an example? What was the best/worst/hardest/fondest/(other superlatives)?” (Here are 3 questions we can ask, in that order, to get better material from guests.)
Finally, embrace that interviews are like dances, not straight-forward marches. Sometimes gently, sometimes overtly, you need to lead people where you want them to go. You’re in charge of the final experience, not them. If they don’t deliver great material, that’s not their fault. It’s yours.
How do you engage an audience when you can’t see them?
You have to anticipate what they’d need to go from the first moment they hit play through to the very end. There’s a golden rule in showrunning, I think, which is “get them to the end.” That means you have to hit each block and beat of the episode or story that you plan to tell without losing them. Along the way, you can rely on techniques like open loops and signposting to more or less “purchase” their attention in little increments. A great host acts like a guide into the material they’re covering for a group of travelers that aren’t physically with them.
What makes a guest interview interesting?
Specifics make a guest interview irresistible. So many shows allow guests to respond with vague generalities, but as humans, we love to follow sequences of events. There’s something oddly compelling about that, however boring the “story” is. “First, I woke up, then I went downstairs. Then, I started the coffee.” Additionally, some kind of friction, like any story, some tension or stakes or conflict. You don’t need to argue, but the interviewer needs to dig deeper, disagree if they actually disagree and ask for clarification, and turn over a topic or story from multiple angles. All of this speaks to the need to get specific, true details.
What makes a show interesting?
There’s this great “unlock” for a show, which helps your content resonate more deeply and your creative choices snap into place more succinctly. It’s your premise. Most shows describe WHAT the show explores, i.e. the topics. A great premise describes HOW they’ll explore it. The point-of-view, the angle into the topics, or maybe a clever conceit should all come through in the show premise. Effectively, an interesting show combines important topics (to their audience) through a compelling hook. Say something that matters in a way people care to spend time with. That’s the entire game. Everything else is incremental (like gear and software, marketing ideas, and so forth).
Say something that matters. Say it in a way people want to invest time with.
(Hat-tip to Andrew Littlefield for the questions.)
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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