If you have an interview podcast, ask your guest questions that will reveal something audiences haven’t already heard. Simple? Hardly. That’s why every interview with Politician Pete talking about his new memoir sounds canned, right down to the self-deprecating humor.
For seventeen years, I taught a weeklong course in writing popular fiction at an international conference of women writers. For the lesson on creating characters, I told my students to interview their protagonist and other key characters.
I gave them dozens of questions to ask. Some seemed pointless. How tall are you? Do you have siblings? Where did you go to school? I explained that while most of the answers will never make it into their novel, asking the questions reveals strengths and weaknesses, helpful skills and debilitating scars. Only when the writer knows how her character will react in any given situation will she have the confidence to put her character in danger, to create conflict in the story.
As for those particular questions, I once posed two of them to international forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee on my YouTube show, Full Bloom. I wanted to learn about the quiet Chinese-American who studied the pattern of blood splatters and who has consulted on thousands of criminal cases around the world, including the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the case against O.J. Simpson, and the re-investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
I didn’t have to ask Dr. Lee about his height. Anyone who has seen him on television knows he is about five-foot-six. I didn’t think that would have any bearing on my interview until I learned in the pre-show that his childhood dream was to become a professional basketball player. He told me how he came home from school every day and hung on his bedroom door, hoping he would stretch.
I did ask about siblings. He is the youngest of thirteen. That, too, might seem nothing more than a curiosity until I learned that his father, a successful merchant with political enemies, was killed on his ship when it exploded. His mother, now the target of her husband’s enemies, and now plunged into instant poverty, was forced to flee the country with her children. How did she manage? How did the dramatic lifestyle change affect Henry Lee?
I knew from my research that instead of attending a traditional college, Dr. Lee went to what we might think of as a police academy. I asked if he did so in order to learn how to investigate his father’s murder. No. As it turned out, the police academy was the only way young Henry could get higher education since it was free. In return, he would have to work for law enforcement for several years.
Destiny is a wide road.
As a podcast host, you can uncover interesting stories by asking simple questions. Use the pre-interview to test a question. Squeeze gently. Does it have juice? If you sense that it does, hold further exploration for the full interview.
What kind of questions should you ask?
Ask questions that show what your guest feels strongly about.
- What is he for? What is he against? His answers will reveal his character.
- What nonprofits do you support? The Audubon Society? The Southern Poverty Law Center? Broadway Cares?
- When was the last time you shopped at a local farmers’ market?
- What do you do with clothing you no longer want?
- What are you doing to help end racism in our country?
- Have you lost a friend or family member to COVID-19?
- Have you, or anyone in your family, served in the military?
Ask questions that probe for secrets.
In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, the late Dwight V. Swain says that if you want to know a character’s secrets, look for them in grief or pleasure.
- Have you had your DNA tested? Did the results surprise you?
- Do you keep in touch with friends from high school?
- What is Thanksgiving like at your home? What do you contribute to the dinner?
- How did your father handle anger? Your mother?
Don’t ignore simple questions. Their answers can reveal a lot.
What did you have for breakfast? Who cares – unless by asking the question you learn that your guest has allergies and peanut butter on toast would have been deadly. Or unless he has one more shot at creating the magic muffin that could save his bakery from bankruptcy. Or unless he’d rather go hungry than eat eggs that aren’t organic and free-range. Or unless he took off his Harley helmet, strapped on an embroidered apron and helped his half-blind, arthritic grandmother make those cinnamon rolls.
Consider each scenario. Go deeper. Ask: Why?
Have you ever winked at a stranger? If your guest is a free spirit with a high “sassy factor,” winking at a stranger could be fun. If your guest is shy and readily retreats like a turtle into her shell, winking at a stranger could trigger an anxiety attack.
You want to find out what makes your guest uncomfortable. How? Based on what you already know about Former Nun Nancy, imagine what might she never say or do...like wink at a stranger.
Ask the question. Go deeper. Ask: Why?
In what way do your clients undervalue you? Celebrity Chef Charles might not feel undervalued at all. Your question gives him an opportunity to reveal his impressive connections. Invite him to gush. Or, your question takes the lid off a pressure cooker of frustration. Invite him to dish.
In what ways are you just like everyone listening to this interview?
In fiction, readers want to relate to the protagonist. If your guest answers this question in a way that makes listeners nod their heads in agreement, they’re more likely to listen to the whole episode. Affirmation feels good.
If your guest answers the question in a way that insults your listeners, they’ll get fired up and will be eager to leave comments on the interview. Be sure you give them that opportunity. They’ll also expect you to stand up for them. Be ready.
Which one of these proverbs best fits an experience in your life? Tell us about it.
- Nothing is so burdensome as a secret.
- The butterfly often forgets it was a caterpillar.
- What was hard to bear is sweet to remember.
- If you are afraid of getting wet, you will never make a good fisherman.
Today’s podcasts cover a wide range of subjects. The questions I’ve suggested won’t work for every host. What can you do? Imagine that you’re the guest on someone else’s show. What question would make you eager to respond? What question would make you squirm? Explore your own reaction for questions you can ask your guests.
Of course, your questions build your reputation as a host. Before you ask a “gotcha” question, consider the ramifications, both to your guest and to you. Like it or not, each of us is responsible for what we put into the world. And that includes the content of our podcasts.