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So, this post kicks off another occasional series. I thought it might be fun to share some of the nerdy behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into the CraftyPod podcast. Don’t worry – it’s not about the glamorous hours I sit on my butt at the computer wearing headphones! It’s more about the ideas and tricks I use in making the show. Many thanks to Stacey for being the inspiration for this first post. Hope you enjoy!
I realized the other day that I’ve done close to 100 podcast interviews over the last seven years. (Holy Crap!) Some of them are good, and some are frankly pretty bad, but all in all this long practice of asking people questions has taught me a lot about interviewing.
Since there seems to be a lot of interviewing going on around the online craft community – in blog, podcast and video form – I thought I’d share some of the ideas I’ve evolved about what makes a good interview. You might not agree with my particular take on interviews, and that’s just fine. This isn’t me telling you how interviews “should” be done. This is me saying “Here are some ideas that might give you a fresh approach to interviewing.”
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Getting all philosophical about it
You can’t write a good sentence without a verb. You can’t have a good story without a villain. And similarly, you can’t have a good interview without some motion and some kind of storyline. An interview comes to life when it’s more than just a series of questions. A good interview is essentially the intersection of three important things:
I think a lot of interviewers assume that their guest is the subject of the interview, but that’s not quite it. I believe that interviews that try to be purely about people can fall flat, because it’s so easy for them to resemble general, cocktail-party small talk. (“What’s your inspiration? What’s your favorite material? Why do you like your craft?”) I’m not saying that people aren’t interesting! I’m just saying that we’re missing our verbs here, and our villains. A good interview moves through a narrative arc, and that story emerges when you get more specific with your guest.
Or, to put it another way, a good interview starts with a hypothesis – a central question that you and your guest answer bit by bit during your conversation. The person who reads or listens to the interview actually takes a journey of discovery as the answer to this question builds.
As an interviewer, I think it’s your job to study your guest, and get clear about one very specific thing you’re wondering about them. And then, formulate a list of questions that helps you and your guest tell that story together.
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Turning questions into storytelling
Honestly, it’s not all that hard to create a storyline in an interview. Consider these options:
- You can ask a guest about his past, present, and future in relation to a particular idea. “What did you believe when you started? What was the most important thing you learned about that? What do you know now that you didn’t know then?
- You can ask a guest about the growth of her experience over time. “How did you get started? What took you to the next level? How does it feel to be experienced now?”
- You can follow a guest’s path through a particular experience: “What did you do first? What happened next? And what happened next?”
- You can follow a guest’s learning journey: “Why did you want to know more about that?” “Who taught you the most important thing?” “How did you use this knowledge?”
Image by aminorjourney, via Flickr
See what I mean? A good interview is in motion – it moves through time, or idealogical space, or events. When you read, watch or listen to this intervew, you get to travel along – and that’s compelling.
When I formulate interview questions for a podcast guest, I just absorb a lot of stuff they’ve produced (blog posts, books, zines, podcasts, etc). I keep a text document open on my computer, and as questions occur to me, I write them down. It’s like brainstorming – I don’t let myself overthink it. After a while I have a good, long list of questions. Then I measure them all against the subject – or hypothesis – of the interview I’m planning. I discard any questions that don’t fit, and then I tweak and re-shuffle the remaining questions so they follow some kind of motion path.
That’s all there is to it. And this process gets easier and easier the more you practice it.
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Hey, what about those villains?
OK, so what about my earlier statement about stories needing villains? Well, in interviewing, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of asking interview guests only about happy things. But you know what? Our challenges make for compelling human stories. Struggle is interesting. Failure is instructive – especially when it’s paired with a later success. (And lo and behold, there’s another storyline option!) If you know your guest has a challenge story, see if they’re willing to talk about it – these stories are interview gold.
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“So, where do you get your inspiration?”
It’s also hard, I think, for any guest to be interesting when you ask them the same questions everyone else asks. When I interview a podcast guest, I can tell by her tone of voice which questions she’s heard before. Her voice goes rather flat when she’s reciting an answer she’s given many times. But when I ask a question that makes her think in new ways, you can hear the spark return to her voice, and her answer becomes more interesting.
…So, if you want to interview someone well, one great tactic is simply to Google their name and “interview”, read as many other interviews with this person as you can, and then compile a list of the questions they get asked most often. And then, you know… leave these out of your interview.
(Getting philosophical again) Why Interviews are Important
Of course, now that we all have access to blogging and social media, we can tell our own stories – why are interviews still relevant?
Well, especially in an introvert-heavy community like ours, the interview format is familiar and comforting. Maybe you don’t love tooting your own horn. But if someone asks you questions, all you have to do is answer – and that’s a much less-threatening way to share for many of us.
…Not only that, doing interviews helps you grow in important ways. I can attest to this wholeheartedly – conducting interviews has made me a better conversationalist. It’s helped me develop deeper curiosity about people. It’s taught me to look beyond the surface of things and ask for more detail.
And let’s face it, a good interview creates a fertile space between us, where my ideas and yours combine to help both of us think bigger and deeper than we could on our own. And then when we share our conversation, maybe we can help others grow their thinking a bit, too.
To me, that’s pretty important work.
What other nerdy behind-the-scenes things would you like to know about the CraftyPod podcast? I’m all ears (as it were)!