Start with the Answers
Note: Please, please scroll all the way down to the bottom of this message for details about the next Narrative Beat workshop! As promised, we're gonna cover interview techniques. And as always, scholarships will be available to anyone who needs them.

This little newsletter has gotten very international lately. (Welcome, Brazil!) So I'm gonna start at the beginning.

Here in the U.S., we have a daily television quiz show called Jeopardy. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it is absolutely beloved.

Jeopardy has been on my mind a lot lately, because they hired a new host. And for the sake of brevity, let's just say that the new host was a very, very bad choice. And thanks to some very fine investigative reporting by The Ringer's Clair McNear (an excellent reporter and a very wonderful human) the bad host has been ousted...and a better host will hopefully soon be chosen.

But that's not the only reason why Jeopardy has been on my mind.

Jeopardy has a quirky rule. All answers must be given in the form of a question.

So if the clue is…
Former NPR radio producer and host who writes a newsletter called Narrative Beat.
The "question" would be…
Who is Karen Given?
In a way, the Jeopardy producers start with the answers...and then the contestants come up with the questions.

Let's be clear...on the TV show, it's a bit of a gimmick.

But if you're trying to plan an interview, it's absolutely vital.

When I look over interview questions written by someone new to interviewing, I often find myself asking them, "What are you hoping to get from this question?"

Far too often, the answer is, "I don't know. I just thought it was something we should ask."

After the 1000th time of hearing this, I realized...I don't actually start with questions. I start with answers.

To put that in Jeopardy terms.
Clue: Four word phrase that reveals the secret to great interviews.
What is, "Start With the Answers."
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Look, I've been doing audio since the reel-to-reel era. And that means that I do a lot of these things without writing them down. In fact, I think it's safe to say that I do some of these things without even realizing that I'm doing them.

But if you want to improve your interview skills, it can really help to slow down and be super-strategic for a while.

And thus, I'm gonna be totally dorky, and I'm gonna give you the five steps to preparing for a great interview.
Step 1: Why are you doing this interview?

You'd be surprised how often people skip this step. And you know what, I can HEAR it when they do.

Every time.

The interviewer meanders around. There's no point. I might hear a couple of cute moments, but there's nothing coherent to hold the thing together.

You might be able to get away with this if you're interviewing Oprah Winfrey or Tom Hanks. People are going to keep listening, even if you don't have a good plan.

But even if you're interviewing Oprah or Tom, the interview is going to be BETTER if you understand WHY you're doing it.

So, for this, I'm gonna suggest applying Alex Blumberg's story formula.

(True story, I once watched a 10+ hour asynchronous webinar during which Alex promised to Power your Podcast with Storytelling. This is the best thing I got out of it. And now I'm sharing it here. Sorry, Alex.)

The formula goes like this:
I'm doing an interview about X.
And it's interesting because Y.
Yep. That's it. Pretty simple.

Planning for an interview is all about making choices. Make sure you're making choices that lead to interesting conversations.
Step 2: What's your takeaway?

What do you want your audience to take from this conversation? Is there something you want them to learn? Something you want them to feel? Something you want them to see from a different angle?

Don't just think about this in an abstract way. Get specific. Because the truth is, your guest is going to have their own agenda. Their own reason they're doing the interview.

And that agenda might be self-serving. They might want people to buy their book. Or go to their website.

No matter what you do, your interview is going to serve that purpose. You will say the name of the book and give the URL for the website. That's how you fill your social contract with your guest.

But your job is to bring something of value to your listeners. They're the ones you're really serving here.

So keep the conversation focused on YOUR goals. YOUR purpose.

(And fun fact: focusing on the needs of your listeners rather than the needs of your guest will also inspire more or your listeners to buy the book or visit the website. It's a win-win.)

Step 1 gives you clarity on your topic. Step 2 gives you clarity on your purpose. Now you're ready for Step 3.
Step 3: Make a list of the the stories you'd like your guests to tell, the concepts you'd like them to explain, the issues you'd like them to reflect on.

In other words, make a list of the answers.

You're gonna want to skip this step.

You're gonna think it's silly.

But it's not.

The only way you can know if a particular question is going to lead to an interesting answer is if you have some sense of what the answer is going to be.
Step 4: Write questions that are clear enough to draw out the right answer.

Hey, look, I'm not talking about putting words in the guest's mouth.

We're taught to ask open ended questions for a reason. We want to give the guest room to share -- to say something they've never said before.

But it's really helpful to give your guest a roadmap. Some sort of small clue as to why you're asking the question -- so that they can give you an answer that's helpful to you.

So, a lot of newbie interviewers will ask a question like:

What was your childhood like?

But when I ask them what they're hoping to get from that question, they'll often mention something much more specific.

The interviewer might tell me that the guest's sister was a huge influence in his life. A story about how they got along as kids could really set the stage for that.

Or the reporter might say that the guest struggled with culture shock when they went to college in the big city. So knowing what it was like to grow up in a small town could offer some contrast.

You get where I'm going, right?

By knowing what you're hoping to get for the answer, you can ask much more direct and pointed questions.

So instead of asking…

What was your childhood like?

You should be asking…

Tell me about your sister. What was your relationship like when you were kids?


You grew up in a small town. Describe what that was like.

You might not actually know how the guest is going to answer these questions. But you should know, 100%, why those answers are important to your interview.
Step 5: Put your questions in order.

I think a lot of people underestimate how much time and effort experienced interviewers put into getting their questions in the right order.

An interview isn't just a list of questions, followed by a bunch of answers.

An interview is a journey. It has intention. It has direction.

Concepts need to build on each other. You don't want to reveal something at the beginning if the listener doesn't have the context to understand it yet. And you don't want to get to the end -- the big takeaway -- and discover that your guest still needs to explain a dozen more concepts in order for the moment to have impact.

So after you've written a list of interview questions (that are designed to elicit specific answers) you're gonna want to think hard about what order to ask them in.

Does your interview unfold chronologically?

If so, you're probably gonna want to start at the beginning and end at the end.

Does your first question give the listener a reason to CARE about your guest?

Please, please, please don't start every interview with the guest describing what they do for a living. Who cares?!? Instead, start with a question that will make me smile. Make me relate. Make me give a crap.

Have you saved the big concepts/takeaways for the end?

If not, you probably should!

One more thought...

You might be worried that you're limiting yourself by only writing down questions based on the answers you're hoping to get.

But we have this phrase in the storytelling world.
Stories beget stories.
So sometimes, the story you thought you wanted falls flat. But it leads you to a story that's really, really good.

Here's an example.

I was doing interviews for a new podcast series I worked on for Dear Media and TOGETHXR called Summer of Gold.

It's a six-part narrative series about how the 1996 Summer Olympics led to a huge boost for women's sports.

For the second episode, I wanted to interview the star of the 1996 US Women's National Soccer Team.

No, not Mia Hamm.

Her name is Michelle Akers.

Back in the '90s, Michelle was such a big star that she was once asked to try out for the Dallas Cowboys kicking coach.

I wanted to get Michelle to tell the story for the cold open of Episode 2. So I knew I needed to go deep.

But when I asked Michelle to tell me the story, it wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped.

Frankly, it was kinda meh.

I was stuck. What was I going to do? I knew I needed to grab listeners with a great anecdote, and this one just wasn't going to cut it!

But while she was telling me about her try-out, Michelle mentioned that she was sent to the principal's office for arguing with her teacher about whether girls could grow up to play in the NFL.

And I was, like, "Wait...what? Tell me THAT story."

And she did.

And it was sooo good.

All of this is to say that you might feel like all of this pre-planning is going to limit you. That you're not going to be able to find the real story because you're going to be too busy following your plan.

But the exact opposite is true.

By having a solid plan, you don't spend any time in the interview worrying about what you're going to ask about next.

You're freed up to really, really listen to your guest. Pay attention! You never know when they're gonna drop a detail that's even better than the one you asked them about in the first place.
Join Me for Interview Skills for Storytellers!
Thanks for making it all the way down to the bottom of this message and the long-awaited promised announcement of our next Narrative Beat workshop!

This time, we're gonna delve into interviewing. How do you set your guest at ease? How to you encourage them to "speak in story?" How do you ask for emotion without feeling like a amateur psychologist?

How do you ask all the right questions AND watch the clock while also maintaining appropriate (but not creepy) eye contact?

We'll talk through it all...and spend some time practicing on each other.

Here are the deets.

Date = Sunday, September 19, 1-3:30pm Eastern
Class size = 25-30
Cost = $40

Our last class sold out pretty quickly, so don't delay!
Sign up here!
Real talk here. This newsletter is free, but teaching is one of the ways I make money. That said, I don't want to exclude anyone.

So if you can't afford $40, reply to this email and let me know. Seriously. I am literally saving slots for you. And if you don't speak up, those slots are just going to go unused.

I hope to see y'all there!