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.
Grab Attention Fast
Movie producers use billboards to get people into theaters to watch their films. Few podcasts have the luxury of that kind of budget. Instead, listeners use the first few seconds of each episode to decide whether or not it’s worth their time.
Just how important is your opening? Reality set in for many podcasters when Anchor, the podcast creation app, gave its creators second-by-second analytics for each episode. When podcasters looked at their graphs, many saw big drop-offs in listenership just moments after their podcasts started. Some lost over half their listeners within a minute. As NPR producer Nick Fountain said, “If you don’t hook people in within the first minute, you’re screwed.”
This isn’t just true for podcasters. The principle applies to nearly every medium. In our attention-starved world, the first few seconds of any content are the most important.
Interviewers don’t have traditional billboards, but we still need creative ways to capture and keep our audience’s interest. Here are four billboard techniques you can use.
Billboard #1: The Why
The easiest way to introduce an interview is by telling listeners why you chose the interviewee and why you think it’s important for them to listen. I used this opening with Tara Reed, founder of Apps Without Code, which teaches entrepreneurs to build software without programming.
I introduced her by saying that I spent years rejecting listener suggestions for me to interview her. Frankly, I didn’t believe good apps could be built without code. But then I tried no-code tools for myself and realized how big the possibilities were. Later I discovered that Tara had raised money from Silicon Valley investors for a software company built entirely without code. Finally, I decided I had to interview her. I had a responsibility to help non-developers in my audience understand this new way of building software companies.
Billboard #2: The Shocking Question
Another way to hook listeners is to begin with a shocking question. One of my favorite opening questions is to ask founders how much revenue their businesses generate. That signals to my audience we’re going to get into topics that are usually considered too personal to discuss in public.
Oprah Winfrey used this technique in her interview with cyclist Lance Armstrong. Her first question to him was, “Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?” Does an interview get any more captivating than that?
But remember my advice from Part I: if you’re worried about a guest’s response to your shocking question, pre-ask it before recording. Make sure they’re prepared to answer and continue with the interview. You don’t want them so caught off guard that they shut down for the rest of the conversation.
Billboard #3: The Rule of Three
Sometimes, one hook isn’t enough. NPR producers like using the rule of three, a principle that says focusing on a trio of events makes the material more enjoyable and memorable.
When podcaster and founder of AppSumo, Noah Kagan, interviewed NPR producer Nick Fountain, Noah illustrated this principle. At the start of the episode, he recorded a summary of the top three lessons from the interview. He said, “I learned three major things that I’m going to share with you today. Number one, how to hook your listeners. Number two, why editing is king. And number three, how to create a real narrative for your work and closing out what you make.”
Billboard #4: The Cold Open
A fourth option is to clip a highlight from the interview and play it for the audience before the interview starts. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman often uses this technique on his show, Masters of Scale.
In his interview with Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, Reid pulled a clip in which Branson talked about heading to a party at Las Vegas’s towering Palms Hotel. Upon arriving, Branson was surprised to learn he would be entering the party by jumping from the top of the building! The story is certainly interesting in itself, and it showed listeners that this wasn’t just another business interview.
Whether you choose one of these four suggestions or take another approach, the important thing to remember is this:
At the start of your interview, your listener is not asking, “What does this interviewer have in store for me?” but “Do I really want to listen to this interview?”
Before writing this chapter, I looked at my download stats for the year. Who was my most popular guest?
I expected it to be the founder of Riot Games, creators of the worldwide sensation League of Legends. Around 115M people played the game in 2020. More people watched the League of Legends World Championship in 2019 than watched the Super Bowl. Clearly, he has a following. He was a sharp guest with a compelling story. But no, his interview didn’t get me the year’s biggest audience.
The title of most popular Mixergy interview for 2020 goes to a founder whose company is significantly less known. Andrew Burnett-Thompson is a quiet developer who built SciChart, software that allows other developers to add helpful charts to their apps. Why was his episode so popular?
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