Asking great podcast interview questions is a balancing act. It requires coming prepared but also being flexible. You need to be open but focused. You want to get what you need from the interview while being ready to switch gears on the spot.
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And these two creators would know: all of their episodes feature interviews that are built around each podcast’s central concept. For each Crescendo! episode, Bresnitz interviews a renowned chef who pairs dishes from an imaginary menu with songs. Berner interviews guests about "their own personal hell," including their darkest "insecurities, fears, and anxieties," for “Berning in Hell," which is—believe it or not—a comedy podcast.
Berner and Bresnitz talked to us about the types of podcast interview questions that will stimulate your guests and keep your audience interested. Their expert advice will help you come up with your own questions and produce exceptional interviews.
Start with your softballs
Before you dive into your interview topic, set a comfortable and friendly tone to put your guest at ease. Treat your interview like a conversation with a friend. Berner says, “Some interview questions won't be too deep, but you need to gain trust from your interviewee and almost warm them up before you delve into more personal questions.”
One approach is to ask some lighthearted “getting to know you” type questions, like “Where did you grow up?” “What were you like as a kid?” “Do you have siblings?” or “How long have you lived in [insert city]?” You can also connect over something you have in common with your guest, like a hobby, astrological sign, or pets.
Be prepared to have your expectations upended by this lighthearted riffing and for it to lead into meatier subject matter. Berner says one of her favorite interviews was with a guest she had a certain impression of prior to recording the episode but who ended up surprising her.
“I started the interview with a lot of light humor, and because our back and forth was so easy and fun, he started to open up about darker sides of himself. I wasn't planning on the interview being serious at all, but it ended up being so much better when I gave him room to feel comfortable and open up,” says Berner.
Ask open-ended questions
Frame your questions so they will lead to a story, elaboration, or any other kind of thoughtful response. Don’t phrase questions in a way that will only give you short, incomplete answers. Often, the fix is to start questions with “what,” “why,” or “how,” so you’ll get more than a “yes” or “no” in response.
Less experienced interviewers often fall into the trap of predicting answers based on their assumptions about the guest and their story. Berner recalls asking these types of leading questions in some of her early interviews.
“When I first started, I would sometimes ask questions that would answer the question for them, like ‘So when your parents did that to you, it made you feel alone?’ Instead, now I would ask a more open-ended question, like, ‘So when your parents did that to you, how did that make you feel about yourself?’ This question gives the interviewee room to tell you new things that you may not anticipate because you can't read their mind."
In the “Berning in Hell” episode with Dr. Sasha Hamdani on ADHD, Berner demonstrates how to make an inviting, open space for her guest to respond. For her first question, she asks, “I want to understand, why does it seem like everyone is being diagnosed with ADHD right now?” She then asks if she might be getting this impression for particular reasons. So basically, in one question, she’s asking for an explanation and for her guest to weigh in on possible factors. In return, Dr. Hamdani is able to give a detailed response to her multi-layered question.
Ask follow-up questions
Ask follow-up questions if a guest brings up a point that needs or inspires further explanation. Another tendency of inexperienced interviewers is to rush to the next thought, question, or talking point, but remember to stay engaged, like you would with a friend.
When you’re really present in the conversation, you can follow whatever idea is the most interesting or thought-provoking. Bresnitz says it helps sometimes to take your host hat off and channel the listener. “I think of myself as the audience avatar, so if the guest says something and it piques my interest, I do a follow-up question to get the full thought,” he says.
Those questions you think of in the moment can create some of the most surprising and magical parts of the interview. “Sometimes, the follow-up questions that you didn't plan can take the conversation to the deepest place,” says Berner.
Show you’ve done your research
No podcast host wants to ask their guest the same tired questions they’ve been asked a million times before. But the only way to avoid that is to do your research on the guest and topic you plan to discuss.
You don’t have to be an expert, but your questions should show you’re familiar with the guest’s background. Bring curiosity to the conversation based on what you do know about the guest’s work or field of interest, so you can learn more about what matters to them. “Good hosts show their knowledge by asking deep, well-informed questions that get the most of their guests,” says Bresnitz.
And even though you don’t want to repeat other interviews, you can still use them as resources. When researching your guest and other interviews they’ve given, Bresnitz says to “read between the lines of what they are trying to create. Asking about that tends to get them to light up and pay attention.”
Your interview research starts before you’ve even picked your guest. You want your listeners to tune in because they get something unique and different out of your show, and your guest should reflect that. Select your guests based on their experience or opinions related to the episode topic and your overall show concept. Then you can develop questions that tie it all together.
For example, the guests on “Crescendo!” all have a connection with food and music, which is what the whole podcast is about. Past guest Pooja Dhingra, the founder of Mumbai cafes and patisseries, explained how K-pop got her through the pandemic. Another guest was Prince Lobo, the creative director of a New Orleans Ethiopian restaurant, who explained how his food and Ethiopian music both represent the traditions and culture of Ethiopia.
Ask the questions your audience wants answered
Think about what your listeners would want out of the interview and, likewise, what you would want to hear as a listener.
What are the kinds of questions your listeners would want to ask but would be hesitant to? One reason people love a lot of the top podcasters is that they’re able to ask brave or even daring questions in a tactful, respectful way.
The “Berning in Hell” episode with Corinne Fisher, “Staying Slutty & Respecting Yourself,” is a great example. First off, the guest and the topic have a lot of intrigue. Fisher has her own podcast on sex and dating, and the episode covers some really personal and vulnerable topics. Right out of the gate, after establishing common ground with her guest, Berner asks Fisher a provocative and direct question, “Why do you think you’re attracted to addicts?” And with that, she has our attention.
If you really want to find out what your listeners are curious about, ask them directly. Tease upcoming guests in preceding episodes and use our Q&A feature to ask your listeners what they want to know about that guest and their work. You can also crowdsource questions and ask for your listeners’ input on your social media channels.
Prepare your podcast guests to ensure the best flow
You don’t have to send a complete list of questions to your guests before the recording, but consider providing them with background on your show and audience, links to your websites and social media, and the main topics you plan to cover.
Prepare them for any segments of your show for which they’ll need to bring something to the table. For example, the last rapid-fire segment of each episode of the “Dare to Lead with Brené Brown” podcast asks each guest the same five questions they need to have a quick answer for, including a music playlist they have to send in advance.
Bresnitz says his episode with Prince Lobo was an “amazing interview because he really understood the prompt of the show and built his pairings as a collective journey. You do not always get guests who listen to your show, so you are trying to educate them while the interview is happening. When guests show up as fans and prepared, who are just as excited as you are, then it makes for a great interview.”
So, don’t just prepare your guests for a knockout interview; get them excited about it. Make them a fan of your show (if they’re not already).
Sometimes you need to go off-script (or toss out the script)
When you’re planning your podcast interviews, use prepared questions as your guide, not your bible. Think about your goals for the interview and try to uncover that information while following where the guest’s responses take you. Don’t be bound to your list of questions.
If your guest says something that catches your attention or takes you by surprise, don’t gloss over it and try to hit all your planned points. If it makes sense and there is time, you can guide the conversation back to your planned talking points.
As Bresnitz points out, don’t “come with an agenda” or “ ignore the guest to get [your] own views across.”
“I really trust that seeing where the conversation goes naturally is always a better interview. My pre-planned questions are there just in case we are not getting a natural flow,” says Berner. Let the conversation lead the way.
Now it’s your turn to put these insights into action. Plan your next—or maybe your first!—podcast interview by identifying your guest, researching them, and outlining some interesting, open-ended questions you haven’t heard them answer before. We can’t wait to hear it!