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Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Lesson 3 of 21

The Art of the Interview

Alex Blumberg

Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Alex Blumberg

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Lesson Info

3. The Art of the Interview

Lesson Info

The Art of the Interview

We're going to be talking about in this segment is the art of the interview. And what I'm gonna be covering today, what I'm gonna be covering in this section, is first of all, like sort of the most basic question, which is, what are you going for when you're interviewing somebody? What are you trying to get out of it? What does a good interview look like? Right, what does it feel like when it's happening? And as part of that, I'm gonna go through what to ask, how do you come up with the questions to ask. And I'm gonna be talking a little bit about the power of the right question. And then I'm also going to be talking about nuts and bolts. So that's coming up. So, what are you going for? So the first thing that you're going for is what we talked about in the last section which is authentic moments of emotion, authentic moments of realization, authentic moments of humor Something that feels like a real emotion. Those are golden moments in an interview. That's one of the things that you a...

bsolutely wanna go for. We talked about that a little before, and I'm gonna talk about that a little bit later. But the thing I wanna focus on now is, the other thing that we're talking about is stories. And I have a sort of a very specific meaning when I say what an actual story is. But I think the first thing to do is to play you a little bit of what I'm talking about when I'm talking about a story. So, I'm gonna play you a little piece of tape. This is a story that was on This American Life a while ago, and the set up is that it's this actor, Tate Donovan. And Tate Donovan was this sort of a character actor. He'd been, you know, sort of on a couple different shows, but he didn't get recognized very much. And then he had a stint on Friends, and all of a sudden he was starting to get recognized. And it was really exciting for him to be recognized because he finally got to be the celebrity that he always wished that he could be. The celebrity that he would've wanted to meet before he was famous. So, when he got recognized, and this story happens when one night he was out at this Broadway show, and a lot of people were coming up to him, and be like, "Hey, I saw you," and he was able to talk to people, and be very magnanimous, and say, "Thank you so much. It really means a lot." And he was like posing for pictures for people, and it was at the show. It was happening over and over and over again. [Tate Donovan audio] I was exactly how I wanted to be. I was doing it. I was doing great. And then, the kid with the camera came along. (upbeat music) This nervous kid, he must've been 16 years old. He's in a rented tuxedo, unbelievably like shy, and awkward, and he's got like acne, and he's got a camera in his hand, and underneath the marquee is his date, who is in literally like a prom dress, and she's got a corsage, and she's really, you know, nervous, and sorta clutching her hands, and he sorta comes up to me, and he sorta mumbles, ya know, something like, something about a picture. And I'm like, I just feel for him, so I'm like, Absolutely, my gosh, sure. No problem. My God, you poor thing. And I go up to his girlfriend, I wrap my arms around her, and I'm like, "Hey where are you from?" "Fantastic, going to see the play? That's great." And the guy's sort've not taking the photograph very quickly He's just sort of staring at me. He's got his camera in his hands, and it's down by his chin, and she's very stiff and awkward. And I don't know what to do, so I just lean across, and I kiss her on the cheek, and I'm like, alright, take the picture, hurry up. Do you guys wanna find out what happens next? (audience laughs) That's a story. So that is the power of a good narrative. I'm talking about there's two basic things you're going for: emotion and narrative. We as humans are hard-wired, I believe to listen to narrative, and it's a very simple, sort of the mechanics of a narrative are very simple. There's like a sequence of actions, and there's sort of rising action. And it's culminating in something. And you are in the middle of that sequence of actions, and you're about to get to the culmination, and I stopped it, and it's frustrating, and you really wanna know what happens next. And you would never, if you were listening to this, have turned off that podcast or that radio story at that moment. And that is a good story, and that's why you want to operate in stories. That's why when you're interviewing people, you want to get their stories out of them. And you want to get them talking in stories because stories are what we want to hear. And so when you're working in an audio format you need to operate in stories. The other thing we want to hear, as we heard before is emotion. So those are the two things you're going for in a good interview. So moving on, actually do you want to hear what happens next (audience laughs) Alright, I'll rewind it again and then we'll play it. You know, I don't know what to do, so I just lean across and I kiss her on the cheek, and I'm like, alright come on, take the picture, hurry up. And finally he sort of like snaps it, and I'm like, okay it's really wonderful to meet you, and he just stammered over to me, and was like, "Um, could you take a picture of us?" And the whole time he just wanted me to take a picture of him and his girlfriend underneath the awning of the play. He didn't want a picture of me. He didn't know who I was. (Tate and woman laugh) Oh God! (audience laughs) Got a little emotion in there too. So that is what I'm talking about in a story. So very simply, we're going to be talking a lot more about what story is in the next session. But very simply, it is that it is a sequence of actions that culminates in something, some sort of revelation, some sort of punchline, some sort of joke, some sort of like realization. And more to the point, it's something that you don't want to turn off, that you don't want to stop listening to. And so that is the thing that's in your mind when you're going out and doing an interview with anybody. You want to ask questions of the interview subject that are gonna either elicit an honest emotional reaction or that are gonna elicit them telling you a story. And there's a lot of things that you can ask. Let's talk about that, so what to ask? So first, if you're trying to ask questions that will elicit a story First of all, you don't want them to ask ever really "yes" or "no" questions. I mean you've gotta get some facts out of the way. But you don't want to ask a "yes" or "no" question because that is not at the end of a story, right? How you phrase the questions is very very important. You wanna sort of ask questions, I often sort of say, "Tell me about the time when..." Right? Something you want them to tell you. You use words like "Tell me," so that they are automatically starting to talk to you in story language. Tell me about the day when you blah, blah, blah. Tell me about the moment when you realized that this was what was going to happen. Tell me about the time in your life when you were going through this thing. Another question that works really well, Tell me the story of ... just ask 'em straight up. Right? You know? Tell me the story of this. How did this happen? Tell me the story. You know, sometimes that works. Another thing when you're on the right track is when people are actually talking to you in dialogue. If somebody's saying, "Well first 'I said' and then 'she said,'" then I said. That's really that you know you're on the right track here. So often, I will tell people describe the conversation where blah, blah, blah ... If you get people sort of telling you, he said, then she said, then he said, then she said, that's great, you know you're on the right track. That someone's telling you a story right then because they're quoting dialogue to you. Again, "Tell me about..." Often you're going for is a moment of realization, so a story has to culminate in something, often the thing it's culminating in is a moment of realization, so you wanna say, Tell me about the day that you realize whatever it is that we're talking about here. Another thing that really works well is if people can sort of talk through a process. There's often steps that led from one situation to the other situation, What were the steps that you got you from one thing to another? What were the steps that you got you from your career in the army to your career as a celebrity florist? or whatever, right, so... (laughs) Anybody here have that career by the way? (audience laughs) So, you wanna ask that, like sort of, what were the steps? If you can get people breaking down into steps, and often each step is its own story. So often, step one will be, I had my career in the army and this one thing happened when I was in the army, or this thing happened that made me wanna change, and so they'll tell you that, and that's a story. Each step can be its own story, but that sequence of steps is also a story. So these are all sort of questions that will elicit stories. You want to have people back-up, you wanna do all that stuff Alright, so that's one whole set of questions. And often when you're doing ... The other set of questions, so what do you ask if ... There's a whole other set of questions that are built around eliciting, sort of, honest reflection and emotion. So that's the other stock in trade. That's the other thing that you're going for, right? Pretty simple. Two things. So what do you ask? When you're trying to get people to tell you how they feel? One question is, "How did that make you feel?" (audience laughs) It's pretty straightforward. There's a joke, like you're doing a good interview for audio and having a good sort of therapy session look very similar. Because what you are trying to do is get people to articulate their emotions in words. All you have in audio are words. That's all you have, you have people's words, and so, if they're feeling something, it's like if something happens, and you're not shooting it, it didn't happen. If they're feeling something, and they didn't articulate it, it also didn't happen. So you need them to articulate the way they're feeling, and so a lot of what you're doing is you're in the interview, and you're like, I noticed feeling in your voice or in your manner, and I want you to articulate that feeling. So that's one thing. "How did that make you feel" is a big one. Often, you also want to encourage that kind of reflection. Some people just aren't very naturally reflective, but they've gone through something sort of momentous, and you want them sort of getting that emotion in there. So one good trick I've known is, sort of like, if the old you can see the new you, what would the old you say? 'Cause often you're interviewing about something that has happened to them. They've gone through some sort of transition, and you want them to be able to articulate what that transition meant to them. And these are all tricks we're going to use, by the way, on one of our audience members, Ann, coming up. So we're going to do a live interview coming up in another section, so take notes 'cause we're going to have to employ this, you know, use this in action. A lot of what emotion is around is around internal conflict. And this is one of the things that I love about audio which audio can do uniquely well, is that it can give voice to sort of, interior drama. On television, you can sort of see people looking pensievely or you can sort of get across an internal life, but stuff has to happen on tape that has to be happening. And with audio, if you can get people to give voice to the internal conflict, it has the power of any kind of real drama. So what I often to say people is like, so conflict, you're going for conflict, but it can be conflict within a person. It can be a person feeling conflicted about something, and so a big question that I use a lot, if you had to describe the debate in your head over this moment, over this act that you took, what was one side saying, what was the other side saying? And it's just getting people to sort of like voice the feelings that they're having, and often our feelings are contradictory, Right? And so you want that, and that's great. If people have a conflicted feeling when you're interviewing them, that's a wonderful thing too. That's what you want, 'cause that's a way of breaking out of what you were talking about, Ann, which is the canned thing. Part of what being canned is, is just sort of, just having like a sort of very straightforward feeling about it that you don't necessarily believe, but you can't shake people out of. So what you want is to sort of get at what was the conflict? Was there ever a point where you didn't feel so confident about this? Was there ever a point you felt differently? And sometimes it can be as simple as sort of like, you seem very confident right now, was that always the case? You know, if they say, "no," then just zero in on that. Zero in on the weakness, the emotion. (audience laughs) Right? That's what you're job is. Another question that often happens in an interview, and I bet you this'll happen to you as you're doing your interviews. Somebody will say something, and it feels very important to them. They've something that you know is meaningful. You're talking to a railyard worker, and they'll be like, "The boss gave us extra hours." And you're like, "Wow! The boss gave you extra hours!" You're saying it like it's important, and I have no idea what it means, but it means something to you. There's emotion in their voice, right? Like what does that mean? And often, I would always flub this thing. I would know that there was something they were getting at, but they weren't articulating it to me. And then Ira uses this question all the time, and it's a really great question. And it's super straightforward. It's just sort of like, "What do you make of that?" And so I say it all the time now because often, I just need them to tell me the reason that there's emotion in the thing that they just said. So what do you make of that is a really important question. The other thing that I think, one of the most important things that we... Which is part of the "What do you make of that" question, again, you sort of ask, "What do you make of that?" It's sort of a dumb question. You sort of feel like an idiot for asking. It's like sort of basic and weird, and it's not a question that you actually ask that often in normal conversation, and so this gets to the point of, are you having a real conversation or are you having a staged conversation, Sort of, to elicit certain things? And you're doing a little bit of both, right? And "What do you make of that" is very much like a staged, sort of therapy kind of conversation, you know what I mean? And so, but really important is to then shut up. I can't get across enough the importance of shutting up. And like early on in my career, I would come back, and I would just keep talking so much, and people would start be to telling me interesting things and I would be talking over them, and it was all because I was nervous, and I was worried about making them feel uncomfortable. And you sort of want them to feel uncomfortable. A little bit. Not totally uncomfortable so that they're not going to be like talking to you. You want them to feel safe, but you want them to feel like they're saying something real, which is often uncomfortable. So you want it to be safe, you're not judgmental at all. You never want to be judgmental, but you want to be asking real questions. You want them to be really thinking about it. So another good question that sort of gets at this is the, "Why is this story meaningful to you?"

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Join Alex Blumberg, award-winning reporter and producer for This American Life and co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, for Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, and learn podcast tips on how to tell powerful, memorable stories through audio.

Storytelling is in our DNA – integrating its principles into a podcast not only helps you tell better stories, it allows you to authentically and emotionally connect with your audience. In this class, you will learn the unique approach to interviewing and story composition, which has made This American Life a fan favorite on public radio stations across the country. Alex will share production techniques you can use to create a multi-layered sensory experience and share tips for standing out in the ever-growing field of podcasts. You’ll learn: 

  • How to develop your narrative instincts
  • How to prepare for an interview to get the best answers
  • The elements of a good story

Alex will teach you how to create a “driveway moment” — that experience when the story is so good, it makes the audience pause what they are doing just to listen through to the end.

Whether you already produce a successful podcast, are a creative entrepreneur looking for a new marketing method, or just a public radio-loving audiophile – this class will help you tell better stories.


Matt James Smith

The best storytelling resource I've come across bar none. I've read all the books, paid for all the online courses, listened to all the podcasts but for me none have been anywhere near as useful, engaging, moving, fun and outright inspiring as this course. If you're trying to tell stories with factual material, whatever your medium, this is as good as it gets. Regarding those reviewers saying it was haphazard and underprepared - huh? He doesn't offer strict formulas and perfectly structured, detailed approaches, but that's because he's the real deal. Those things only exist for snake-oil-merchant online "story gurus" who charge through the nose for "the perfect strategy" (*cough* Patrick Moreau *cough*). Alex offers what he can of tricks and formulae, but where it's about experience and gut feelings, he's honest. Thank god. Superb.

Gregory Lawson

This class is great on multiple levels. Are you interested in interviewing? There are great tips and techniques. Interested in Storytelling? Great insights into the basic structures and tools to test how compelling your story idea is. Interested in podcasting? Great tips and ideas here too... Alex is a seasoned pro, has an easy, approachable style and allows his class (and you) time to really consider and work through the concepts. Excellent all the way around!