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Most interviewers guide their how-to interviews based on the questions they think up when they’re trying to learn the topic. That approach works fine, but it’s not the optimal way to teach something.
My how-to interview structure is so effective that I call those interviews “Master Classes,” and I charge for them. That’s because by the end of the interview, my audience will have acquired a useful new skill, like growing their website’s sales. But how-to interviews also take more work to put together. I can’t do these interviews well without an extensive pre-interview or doing heavy research.
In this section, I’ll show you how to prepare a how-to interview that’s so good, your audience will pay you to teach them. At the very least, you’ll know how to structure conversations to learn more effectively from experts you admire.
Before we get into it, let’s talk for a minute about Blue Apron.
Like millions of Americans, I signed up for that weekly meal kit service, which mails me ingredients and a recipe card to cook at home. Even though I never cooked before, I was so proud of what it taught me that I texted photos of my finished meals to my family.
I want my guests to lead my audience through that kind of transformation. Not only do they learn a new skill, but they can’t wait to tell people about it. To do this, I model my how-to interviews after a Blue Apron recipe card.*
The recipe card starts with a clear, specific name. Not “Middle Eastern Meal” or “A Healthy Meal,” but “Shakshuka,” an Israeli breakfast dish featuring eggs and tomatoes. A good how-to interview starts the same way—not with a generic title like “How to Grow Your Business,” but “How to Grow Your Email List Using Social Media.”
Not sure what shakshuka looks like? Have no fear. The recipe card also includes a high-resolution photo that gives you a clear vision of the finished product. It also helps you grasp the finer details, like how thin to slice the peppers. The same principle applies to how-to interviews. The audience needs a vision of what their future will look like if they listen to the interview. I ask my guests to share a story that illustrates the power of the lesson they’re about to teach us.
When Scott Bintz, founder of RealTruck, taught a master class on creating a fun culture that grows online sales, we made sure to start with an example. He told me how his team set a goal of reaching $10M in sales. They made it fun by getting Scott to commit to buzzing his hair and donating it once they hit the goal. Now that’s the kind of revenue and esprit de corps my audience aspires to.
I like to publish my how-to interviews with video as well as audio, so I asked Scott to show us the outcome. Scott shared a before-and-after photo of him with shoulder-length hair and then with a buzz cut. The visual makes the interview more interesting, but it also adds credibility. People believe what they see.
After understanding what the interview will teach, listeners are ready to take action.
The Blue Apron recipe card breaks up meal prep into five to eight steps. I ask my guest to do the same with their lesson by sharing each step they took to achieve the goal we promised in the interview title. If we can’t boil it down to eight steps or less, we narrow the scope of the lesson. Is “How to Get Your First 100,000 Email Subscribers” too complex to do in eight steps? Fine. Then let’s teach “How to Get Your First 1,000 Email Subscribers.”
This point is important to repeat: When teaching your audience a new skill, make sure it fits into five to eight steps. If not, narrow the scope of the lesson until it does.
The Blue Apron recipe card also has a photo of each step. New cooks like me need to see how small “diced onions” should be, for example. I do the same with my how-to interviews. I ask for a story to illustrate each step. If a guest says, “I emailed my friends and asked them to join my email list,” I ask for more details. I want to hear the story of how the guest exported his address book and stuffed all the email addresses into the BCC field of his email message. I want to hear how his high school sweetheart replied and how he wished he’d gone over his list before including her. Details like that make the story interesting and show that perfection isn’t necessary.
But I also want actual visual examples when possible. If my guest says they did something, I ask them to show it to me. Did they email their friends during the product launch? Great. I ask them to please search their email app and find the message. When they find it, it’ll often trigger an important memory, like how they used tracking software to see which recipients opened their email.
Some interviewees are reluctant to go this extra step and find examples from years ago. It’s daunting. So, as always, I share my higher purpose. I explain that they’re changing people’s lives—that audience members who are most likely to take action are the ones who need specifics. I tell them that finding these visuals is useful beyond our interview too. Next time they give a speech at a conference, for example, having these visuals handy will make for a more inspiring presentation. I say that future employees will understand their company better if they see how it was built.
I’ll also hunt for visuals myself. You’d be amazed by what you can find with a few searches on Google or Facebook. I also love using specialty search sites. If they refer to an ad, I’ll search WhatRunsWhere, a database of digital advertising. If they tell me what their site looked like years ago, I’ll grab a screenshot of it from the Internet Archive. Once I find the visual and show it to the guest, they realize just how committed I am to the work. They often reciprocate by doubling down on their commitment to teaching my audience.
After I have examples for each step, our outline is nearly finished. There’s just one element left—one that recipe cards don’t need but how-to interviews do. It’s what I call the “before story.”
You know how diet ads use before-and-after photos of their successful customers? It’s so other people will see the dramatic difference and think, “If they can do it, I can do it.” That’s the message you’re trying to send with the “before story.”
You want your audience to understand how painful life was for your guest before they mastered what they’re about to teach. The “before story” should be the first thing your audience hears. You want them to relate to your guest’s painful past and aspire to experience the same transformation.
When Chris Ronzio, founder and CEO of Trainual, taught my audience how to systemize their companies, I asked him to share what life was like before he learned to take control of his businesses. He told the story of a video production company he ran, which was hired to shoot a cheerleading competition. On the day of the shoot, no one from his team showed up—the company was too disorganized to keep track of clients. That was the moment that inspired Chris to develop a world-class organization system, which eventually turned into Trainual.
The how-to interview structure is the best way to blend stories with actionable advice. But as you can see, it’s not necessary for every conversation. Reserve your how-to interviews—and the effort that goes into them—for your guests with high-dollar, in-demand skills.
Example Outline: How-To Interview
Below is an actual outline my team and I created before interviewing Scott Bintz.
We based this outline on his book, Principles to Fortune, as well as our own research and a short pre-interview. You’ll notice the outline doesn’t include full stories. I just need a short prompt that will guide my guest to his story.
Topic: How to Create a Company Culture That Grows Sales
Interviewee: Scott Bintz, founder of RealTruck, an online auto-part store
Before: Scott’s story about how he started to hate working at the company he founded and led. He tried creating a company culture by writing down the company values, but his team ignored them and the effort fizzled out.
After: After a recommitment to his company’s culture, Scott’s team focused on hitting goals while still having fun. They even convinced Scott to shave his head if they reached their goal of $10M in sales. After they hit the goal, Scott cut off his shoulder-length hair and donated it.
Tactic 1: Ask your employees what they already value.
Story: Instead of writing the values he wanted his company to follow, he asked everyone on his team to write down what makes the company meaningful to them.
Tactic 2: Condense the team’s responses to core company values.
Story: Scott sat down with all the responses he got and looked for common values. Then he picked the ones that he thought would create a fun environment and help his company grow.
Tactic 3: Track only metrics that matter.
Story: Scott eliminated his customer support team’s sales goals because they blocked a core value: “deliver more.” As a result, the team started delighting customers. Once, the wife of a customer called to say her husband loved his truck like a mistress, and she wanted to buy a surprise treat for it. After placing her order, the support person sent her a surprise bouquet of flowers with a note that said, “We think the wife deserves a little treat too.”
Tactic 4: Roll out values one at a time.
Story: In the past, Scott posted his company’s values and was disappointed that no one lived up to them. His new approach was to roll out each value individually and spend an entire month teaching and reinforcing each one.
Tactic 5: Embed each value into the company.
Story: At a meeting, he asked everyone to think of ways they could live one of their core values. Everyone wrote down a suggestion. He picked some and got the company to implement them. That’s how the company ended up writing cards to customers, sending them free fuzzy dice for their rearview mirrors, and surprising them with gifts.
Tactic 6: Recognize and reward employees who live the core values.
Story: Scott’s team had many prizes made up so employees could give them to coworkers who were living out the company’s values.
I don’t like to focus on the news because its relevance expires fast. When Jon Stewart hosted The Daily Show, he was the comic that millions of people turned to when they wanted to understand world events. After he was off the air, his episodes were removed from The Daily Show’s website.
Meanwhile, video platforms are outbidding each other for the rights to play reruns of timeless shows like Seinfeld.
I prefer to record interviews that will be as useful decades from now as they are the day I publish them. Still, news-based interviews have their place. When controversy strikes, interviews with the person at the center of the storm will draw a large audience. For me, it’s also a chance to better understand how entrepreneurs think.
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