For Better Podcast Interviews: Ask for Stories, Not Advice
The single best book I’ve ever read about podcasting is called Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel.
It’s also the only book I’ve ever read about podcasting. But it is, indeed, awesome. The author follows around the teams behind some of the most amazing podcasts on the planet to learn their process, including This American Life (of course), Radiolab (hell yeah), 99% Invisible (rad), Snap Judgment (sick), Planet Money (right on), and more.
Oh, and it’s also written as a giant comic strip. Jessica Abel is, among other things, a cartoonist.
Anyway, I decided to read the book once again during quarantine, and one of the most eye-opening lessons I am re-learning is that the typical one-two punch during a guest interview (Stories and Insights) usually unfold backwards. Usually, we ask the guest to share their opinions, ideas, and advice FIRST…and THEN we ask for examples.
This is backwards. This actually hurts the final experience. So today, I want to ask you to ask yourself more often: Can I ask for stories instead of advice?
Why stories make shows better
Stories illuminate commonalities we’d otherwise not see. They’re how audiences connect with you and your guests. Unfortunately, our usual approach is to ask for someone’s advice or ideas, then follow up by seeking an example. But it’s far easier to identify great ideas or advice or areas of interest you want to distill further once you have the story material first.
Get the example. Extract the insight.
Start with story. End with advice.
In Out on the Wire, Ira Glass illustrates how powerful this approach can be to the final experience — and that emotional tug the audience feels towards the show and the ideas therein. He recalls an anecdote used at the top of an older episode of This American Life, where a guest is talking about a strange moment he’d just experienced on the platform of his local subway stop in New York. He spotted a man to his right, down the platform, who was approaching people waiting for the train. One by one, he’d walk up to someone, say something to them, then move on to the next person.
The guest tells us that, as the man got closer, he could hear what he was saying to each person: either “you can stay” or “you have to leave.”
This story culminates with the guest confessing to Ira Glass that he really wanted this stranger to say to him, “You can stay.”
“But it means nothing!” laughs Glass.
“I know!” chuckles the guest.
Then Ira Glass chimes in as a narrator, talking to us, his listeners, directly: “That’s the thing about strangers. We tend to care about what they think about us. It’s like by their very nature as strangers, they somehow have a unique window into the truth of who we are as people.”
Brilliant. Bloody brilliant.
A few minutes of story, then a quick moment of insight. It all pivots around that one little phrase, too: “That’s the thing about strangers.”
I think that is what we should strive for more often. We should open our line of questioning (at the start of the episode or just the start of a new moment with a guest) by seeking story. Then, once we’ve gotten it, once the listener is sufficiently gripped and intrigued and beginning to understand, we can distill to the fundamental insight or extrapolate to the universal truth. “That’s the thing about…”
Are you reaching your “that’s the thing about” moments?
Are you gripping your audience, making them care so deeply that they actually now trust the guest enough to want their advice?
Sometimes, we try to convey to our audiences that guests are trustworthy and credible by TELLING them. Namely, we share their bios. But rather than TELL the audience a guest is worth listening to, we should SHOW them. The way we SHOW them is by allowing the guest to start with the most compelling material — a story, an example, an anecdote. You don’t need to justify why the audience should stick around. By virtue of them hearing a story, a sequence of events (however mundane or magnificent), they’ll automatically just…go with you. They’re being SHOWN this content is worth their time.
Then and only then, you can switch gears and TELL them something powerful. “That’s the thing about…”
The next time you interview someone, don’t TELL the audience why they’re worth the time. SHOW them. Then, once they’ve been sufficiently shown, you can switch to telling. You can summarize and distill. You can ask your guest to make sense of their own story and offer advice. If you do, the insights will prove “stickier” because the experience was more memorable, all thanks to the stories.
After all, people are more likely to fall in love with physics if they first fall in love with race cars.
When an interviewer starts by seeking stories, they’re better equipped to distill and teach and use follow-ups to dig for the advice. The insights reveal themselves in stronger ways — insights you’d have no idea to ask for without first getting the crucial context of some stories to start. It can be an impressive narrative arc or just a quick mention of a book you like.
As you create your work, it can feel like you’re stepping out on the wire. While I can’t offer you a safety net, I can help you balance better as you start to step. Get more specifics from your guests than generalities. The latter ideas are only useful if you get the former first.
Ask yourself: Can I ask for stories instead of advice?
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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