How to be a Better podcast interviewer
In this post:
The Project Tempest Podcast is nearing its two year anniversary. The show’s always had a clear north star: in-depth conversations with creators about their journeys, struggles and inspirations. We’ve connected with video game, horror, film, and comics makers, an augmented reality technologist, a renowned H.P. Lovecraft scholar, a man who creates beautiful printed books in Ireland, an entertainment lawyer who’s in the thick of figuring out how intellectual property might work in the metaverse.
Learning how to shape and grow this weird thing has been intensely rewarding. People sometimes ask ‘how do you make a podcast’ meaning ‘what’s your tech setup.’ I’ve answered that at the bottom of this post. But the other question, maybe the more interesting one, is how to have the conversations themselves. In an age of disconnection, what bridges the gap?
I don’t have any kind of definitive answer. But here’s the start I’ve made.
I book guests by politely asking interesting people if they’d like to talk. It’s as simple as that. I look for working creators, people who are actively making things for a living. Mostly across entertainment and technology, but there’s always room to expand. I’m keen on more science & history guests in particular.
I’m not interested in booking super-famous celebrities on public relations tours, for several reasons - more on that in a moment.
Approaching people, I’m professional and friendly. One of the watchwords for me & my awesome podcast assistant Prea is that we aren’t doing amateur hour. My intro email is clear, short, and always shows I’ve taken the time to understand someone’s work. As the podcast has gotten more established, it’s easier to convey legitimacy - usually I just point to several recent episodes. But from day 1, it’s been about respecting people’s time, energy and privacy.
My impression is that many early-stage podcast creators struggle with this kind of professionalism, and it might be one of the reasons they don’t get further than that early stage.
People say ‘no’ and that’s okay. The best answer is a quick yes or a quick no. Either way, I thank people for coming back to me. No response at all is also totally understandable - people are busy.
The more challenging response is half-ghosting: people saying yes then saying no, or fading in and out of communication as we try and organize the session. I don’t get angry at this - there are so many reasons for human behaviour, and I don’t know what else is going on in someone’s life - but it’s definitely an area that makes me reflect on my own approach and how to improve it. Most often, when someone is clearly struggling to commit but also doesn’t want to just say no, I try and let them off the hook with grace & positivity.
We try and offer value to our guests: beyond reaching the Project Tempest podcast audience, we go the extra mile with assets like social media cards, blog posts and quotes that give guests a package they can use across their own channels. Prea makes a real effort on these, and it hopefully goes towards the professionalism and trust we’re aiming for.
Networking matters: if it feels like the experience of being a guest worked well for someone, I ask them if they know anyone else who might be keen. This results in chains of introduction: Simon Pulman -> Fabian Nicieza, Ed McRae -> Nick Jones, Nick & Fabian both -> Jeff Gomez, and so on.
I want a greater variety of creators: I’m especially aware that we’ve had fewer female & non-binary guests than I’d like. Sarah Beaulieu, who’s now a narrative director at the video game company Ubisoft, was incredibly generous early on, but there’s an imbalance. It’s a podcast about humans and their creative journeys, we should have a full range of humans on!
We’ve actually asked slightly more women than men to be on the show. And my impression is that all our guests have felt welcomed and enjoyed the experience. But I know that some random Kiwi bloke coming out of the blue with a podcast invite is likely challenging, and I’m at pains - sometimes maybe too much - to demonstrate that, no, this isn’t the start of some creepshow.
It’s definitely something to keep figuring out and trying to be self aware around. And I hope the track record we’ve established opens the door to more people in future.
The conversation itself is about genuine interaction, not status. I make it clear early on that the Project Tempest Podcast is not a PR vehicle, and the whole point is open, interesting conversation. The way I put it is something like:
Imagine we went to a bar or restaurant and enjoyed a great late-night chat together. Let’s just do that with mics.
Every guest to date has been up for this, and incredibly generous with what they’ve brought. Ed McRae set the tone by coming on the very first episode, and has been back every season (he’s got a new book coming out December 2022, by the way, check out his site). It’s why I keep focusing on working creators rather than celebrities: in my experience, very often when someone’s reached a certain level of renown, they either stop saying interesting things and become boring, or they have a small number of press-junket routines they fall back into.
That’s simply not what we’re about, and why status-chasing is a dead end in my view.
The recording session is a dance. Everything’s a little exaggerated on the video call itself. I try not to make the little noises that you do during normal conversation, but I nod enthusiastically, make it really clear I’m listening (which I am), and laugh silently so the person on the other end can feel the reaction. I try and give people space to breathe and think, and though I fail at this sometimes, I try not to talk over them.
I’m prepared - I’ve read books and biographies and theses and comics and all sorts when getting ready for a guest. When someone who’s creating things takes the time to come on the podcast, I’m going to pay them the respect of engaging with their work.
I’m not at all interested in gotchas or tricking people or breaking any kind of news story. Again, this isn’t journalism or PR. Simon Pulman, who does very interesting entertainment deals, probably has a bunch of things on the go at any one time but I’m not trying to wrangle those out of him, I want to hear how he’s going in Elden Ring and get his perspective on what’s happening in the world of entertainment.
Fundamentally - and this might be the key to the whole thing - I’m fascinated by the human beings I talk with on the podcast. I love their work, I want to understand how they see the world, I enjoy the dance of getting to know each other moment by moment.
If there’s one thing I’d suggest someone take away as advice, for podcasting and beyond, it’s to be genuinely interested in people, and learn to communicate that.
Bring on year 3!
In the middle of the pandemic, locked down in New Zealand, I knew I had to connect with people. Two years later, here we are, with a growing circle of people across the world as both listeners and guests. I’m deeply grateful to everyone who’s been part of this journey - especially Kearin & Prea, who both do so much to make each episode happen - there’s a lot more to come.
My podcasting tech setup:
Macbook with Blue Yeti mic (highly recommend the Blue Yeti)
Adobe Audition for mixdown
Captivate for distribution to all podcast services
Canva for social cards & quotes
The Project Tempest Podcast is where creators from around the globe talk with author C J Halbard about their journeys, struggles, and inspirations.