Before we leave this section, I want to leave you with one important message: if you fail with every tip I gave you so far, you’ll do well if you simply let your guest talk.
I realized the importance of this years ago at a quiet dinner with my brother, Michael. I got a call from one of the employees at the greeting card company he and I founded.
“Andrew, I can’t stop crying,” she said.
I was surprised, not that she was crying or the reason why she was crying. I knew about the tough breakup she was going through. What took me by surprise was that she wanted to talk to me, not Michael.
Ever since we were kids, people brought their business questions to me and their personal issues to Michael. Even adults would open up to Michael when we were barely teenagers.
But maybe our employee had noticed all the work I’d done to improve my relationship skills.
“My ex is being intentionally cruel,” she sobbed. “He keeps flaunting his new relationships. He wants me to be jealous.”
“Don’t let him do this to you,” I said, trying to show that I empathized. Then I gave her some advice.
She stopped responding. I sensed that I’d lost her. I could tell this wasn’t what she needed, but I didn’t know why.
She thanked me, and we hung up.
Then Michael’s phone rang. She’d called him. I guess she didn’t realize we were at dinner together, and she looked to him for help.
I sat silently, listening, trying to understand what magic he had. I wanted to understand what I should have said.
Here’s his magic. He asked what happened. Then he didn’t say much more than “mhmm” for a long time. He followed that by asking “why did you say that?” and went back to listening.
When they hung up, I asked my brother, “How’s she doing now?” He told me she was feeling better. She already knew not to let her ex get under her skin and to ignore him, but it still bothered her. After unloading on Michael, she felt better.
That’s the magic of listening. People prefer to be heard than to be helped.
I used to wonder why some interviewees spoke to me when my audience was tiny in comparison to their reach. What did they get out of it? I found my answer after interviewing one of the most well-known bloggers of the day, Brian Clark of Copyblogger, about how he turned his site into a $7M-per-year software company.
When we were done, he exhaled and told me that it was good for him to take a pause from the business and think about how he built it and what he stood for. It made him a better leader to remember. It’s not what I said that helped him. It’s what he remembered and told me. I’ve since experienced the same thing while being interviewed by new podcasters, speaking to high school students, and even writing this book.
Listening is a critical skill for an interviewer, even while off the air. A few years after I started interviewing, our producer Jeremy Weisz texted me, “Andrew, the founder you interviewed yesterday is furious. He asked us not to publish the interview and won’t change his mind.”
Remembering what I learned from Michael, I called the founder. “I heard you weren’t happy with the interview I recorded with you,” I said. Then I let him talk. He vented that he didn’t come across well.
I wanted to explain to him that he did well, but I resisted the urge. Instead, I simply asked, “Why?”
He told me he knew my podcast was listened to by people who might fund his company or do business with him in the future, and he wanted it to be as good as possible.
“What didn’t you like about it?” I asked. He explained that he said “um” and “uh” too much. He thought it made him sound like he didn’t know what he was talking about.
One of the biggest complaints I get from people I interview is “I said ‘um’ too many times.” Successful entrepreneurs who have no trouble telling me that part of a startup’s job is to be OK with publishing software before it’s perfect will beat themselves up for saying “um.” It pains me to see how upset they get over saying something that’s actually helpful. Filler words add a feeling of authenticity, because we all use them.
Though our editing software, Descript, has a simple way of removing filler words, I don’t use it. Eliminating all “flaws” is a mistake. It makes people sound fake. It reminds me of photographers who use Photoshop to edit away “flaws” and end up with photos of women who have no knees.
I didn’t tell him any of that. I used what I learned from Michael. I let this founder complain. I only asked questions to help understand what he was going through. After venting, he said, “Publish the interview or not. It’s up to you. I just feel that I could have done better. It wasn’t bad, but I think I could do better.”
I published it. The audience loved the interview. But I couldn’t have published it if I hadn’t given him time to vent. To be heard.