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.
During one Scotch Night, an entrepreneur in attendance started the evening talking about the early success of his new business. He sold flashing car rims—a surprisingly lucrative industry. He hit over $100K in annual sales within months of launching. That was a big win for him.
But as the evening went on, and he became more comfortable, he shared how anxious he really was. “How do I know when I should quit my full-time job and focus on this business?” he asked.
I never would have thought of that problem. After graduating from college, I jumped right into entrepreneurship. I never had a full-time job while nurturing a side hustle. And at first glance, reaching six figures in sales seemed like the right time to quit a job. But as we talked, he explained how unpredictable car rim buyers could be and why he didn’t want to give up the security of a good job.
He asked me: “Would you ask your guests how they knew it was time to leave [their full-time jobs]?”
I said I would, and I did. What I learned from those interviews was useful to the many new side-hustle entrepreneurs in my audience.
Oprah Winfrey, despite her fame, also knew the power of one-on-one audience intel. Winfrey always signed autographs after her live shows, but in the early years, she would try to get through them as quickly as she could.
“I [would] do all the autographs and never look up, trying to get through 350,” she said. “One day I decided, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’ But what do I really want to do? I want to talk to this audience. I want to find out who they are, where they come from. That became my favorite part of the day.”
So Winfrey started talking with members of her live audience after each show. It helped her understand them—why they spent hundreds of dollars and hours of their time to see her. She considered it her greatest resource. “It’s the reason why we were number one for 25 years,” she said.
You don’t have to drink Scotch or be Oprah Winfrey to learn more about your audience. Another one of my favorite tactics is to offer free, one-on-one coaching calls. People thank me for helping them, but they’re helping me too. By bringing me their problems, they’re guiding me toward interview topics that will be most valuable to other Mixergy listeners.
Here’s the best part about coaching calls—as an interviewer, you don’t have to solve their problems. Your job is to find guests to address those challenges. You should also be a good listener, which is what most people want—someone to let them talk about their problems and find their own solutions.
If those options don’t jive with you, there’s a simpler way to get started with audience intel: be like Barbara Walters. I know it’s not fair to ask you to be like one of the greatest interviewers of all time. But Walters had a surprisingly simple strategy for developing interview questions.
I studied Walters to see how she made the Shah of Iran’s wife cry, how she persuaded the elusive Fidel Castro to spend hours talking with her, and how she got Richard Nixon to admit he should have burned the evidence that cost him his presidency. In these historic interviews, when the camera panned back to Walters, I could see a set of notes in her lap—her questions. She wrote them over and over again ahead of time, but she didn’t do it alone.
In her autobiography, Walters explained her process. “I wrote down on three-by-five cards as many questions as I could think of, then asked anyone who walked into the office, whether it was somebody delivering the mail, a production assistant, or a hairdresser, ‘If you could ask any question of [whomever], what would it be?’ It was very productive.”
Asking people what questions they would ask your guest is the simplest form of audience intel. Today you see interviewers do this on social media, which has the added benefit of helping them promote the upcoming interview. They’ll post, “I’m going to interview [whomever]. What questions should I ask them?” The responses can be helpful because it uncovers people’s curiosity about the guest.
This approach has its limitations. When the guest isn’t well-known, audience questions tend to be superficial. As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t have many superstar guests on my show, so I rarely ask my audience what questions to ask. I prefer to ask them about the topic they know most about: their own problems. Then I use my interviews to address those problems.
Regardless of how you do it, the important thing is to uncover your audience’s needs and curiosity. And when their interests align with your own, you’re in for a fantastic conversation.