You’re reading an excerpt of Stop Asking Questions, by Andrew Warner, a veteran podcast host of 2000+ episodes. The book explains how to lead high-impact interviews and learn anything from anyone. Master the craft of interviewing with this complete digital package. Purchase now for lifetime access to the book and extensive audio and video resources.
Put Your Needs Upfront
Many people sit behind a mic and think they’ve suddenly turned into the reporters they see on the evening news. They think the professional thing to do is get the facts for some imagined audience that expects formality.
That’s the old way. It doesn’t work online, where you don’t have a general audience. Your audience is made of enthusiasts who want to learn about their passion from someone who is just as passionate as they are. They want to know about you as much as they want to get to know the person you’re interviewing.
I miss this point myself sometimes. When it was time to hire someone to help me lead my company, my business coach told me to interview Cameron Herold, the former COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK, the junk removal service. “I can’t,” I told her. “Mixergy is about interviews with proven founders who talk about how they built their businesses. He didn’t found 1-800-GOT-JUNK.”
Like a good coach, she kept pushing. “You’re dealing with a challenge every entrepreneur in your audience will face at some point. Ask him.”
I finally listened to her. When I published the interview, I titled it, “Cameron Herold Coaches Me on Hiring (So I Don’t Collapse at My Desk).” We talked about how I budgeted money to buy and mail a microphone to every interviewee, but I didn’t have time to coordinate it. And how I sometimes read about founders who listened to my interviews and had successfully sold their companies, but I didn’t have time to reach out to them to do interviews with me. As Cameron coached me through delegating, I learned from him, and so did my listeners.
It became the most listened-to interview of the year, with double the average audience of the year’s other interviews. Even founders who didn’t need the advice told me they liked hearing what was going on in my life. They had listened for years and felt invested in my success—or were at least curious about it.
Audiences today don’t mind when you put your needs first, as long as they align with their own needs. Still, it’s difficult to do in a society that punishes self-interest.
Even if you haven’t read Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, when it comes to human relations, you’re living in a world it defined. Since 1936, when it was published, it’s consistently been one of the best-selling self-improvement books. But something is missing from the book’s philosophy.
Its message can be summed up as follows: if you want people to like and listen to you, you need to take an interest in them. It’s sensible. By taking an interest in people, I didn’t just make friends, I got my ideal after-school job, working for someone who has stayed a lifelong friend.
But there’s a problem with exclusively taking an interest in others as a way to build relationships. I discovered this lesson in college while on the subway home from school. A classmate mentioned he liked comic books, so I asked about them. He went on and on about his collection. As he talked, his eyes lit up with excitement. He loved the conversation and liked me for tapping into his passion, but it was torture for me. I have no interest in comics.
I remember wondering, “Is this what being a good conversationalist is all about? Sacrificing my enjoyment just so someone else would be happy and like me?”
Long before I started interviewing, I experimented in conversations. After that interaction on the subway, I decided I would no longer sacrifice myself. It became clear that showing a little self-interest during a conversation was good for me and my relationships. No one wants to hog speaking time if the other person isn’t genuinely interested.
Years later, I was invited to a party in LA by a venture capitalist. One of the guests loved talking my ear off about his company. The more interested I was in what he was saying, the more he loved talking to me. Truthfully, though, I wasn’t interested. Eventually, I decided to cut him off with that magical phrase described in Part I:
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but you mentioned earlier that you live in Los Angeles. My fiancée and I are getting married here. What do you think about raising a family in LA?”
He said, “It’s a wonderful city, but painful when you have kids.”
I saw he had an emotional connection to the topic—a topic I was also interested in—so I continued, “Painful? Why?”
“Andrew, my kids know about things that they shouldn’t.”
Now he was getting personal, so I pressed on, “What’s going on with your kids?”
He could see my genuine interest and wanted to help. “We have a nice car, but my seven-year-old son knows about expensive car models that no kid his age should know about. And he expects us to buy them. We have a maid, but his friends have full-time, live-in maids. He wants to know what’s wrong with us that we don’t because he’s embarrassed.”
As we talked, I could see he appreciated talking about an issue he’d been thinking about deeply, and he enjoyed helping me with a problem that I was sorting out. Before I left, he gave me his cell phone number, so we could continue the conversation if I ever needed to.
Soon after that, Olivia and I got married … and moved to Argentina.
That’s the kind of meaningful conversation you want to have, especially on a podcast.
When COVID-19 hit the U.S., I went to a grocery store to stock up on food because of reports of upcoming shortages. As shoppers cleared the store shelves to prepare for an uncertain future, I saw the fear and anxiety on their faces. I became worried about my business, my family, my health, everything. I needed to avoid feeling pessimistic, so I used my interviews to help me.
I put out requests online for introductions to entrepreneurs who found ways to do well in those difficult times. That led me to interview people like Aditya Nagrath, whose Elephant Learning app was used to teach kids math at home during school shutdowns. He showed me that parents were taking a more active role in their kids’ education, and there was an opportunity for entrepreneurs to help.
I also interviewed Sahil Lavingia, whose Gumroad platform allowed creators to sell their work online. He told me how creators who previously procrastinated about selling digital products were finally becoming entrepreneurial.
As I heard what was working for entrepreneurs, my pessimism about the future dissipated. I saw an opportunity to build my company to serve the new needs. Many of my audience members noticed the same opportunity. Those interviews were such a hit that I temporarily changed the subtitle of my podcast from “Mixergy” to “Recession-Proof Startups.”
As an interviewer, you have an opportunity to reach people who can help you with your biggest challenges. Don’t shy away from using that power. When you follow your self-interest, your interviews will find an audience with similar needs, and you’ll be the person who finally helps them overcome.
It can be valuable to put your needs front and center during a conversation. But that doesn’t mean you ignore your audience. Audience intel is one of the best ways to steer your interviews toward the most painful and productive lessons.
My favorite form of audience intel is Scotch Night, which came up in the section about the dramatic lowball technique. I’ve hosted these events for years. The premise is simple: I’ll buy three different bottles of Scotch (along with snacks and other beverages) and invite people to my office to try them. As you might have guessed, this event really isn’t about the Scotch—it’s about having time to get to know people who listen to my interviews. In this casual and intimate atmosphere, folks share things they would never think to include in an audience research survey.
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