10 years ago I plugged a microphone into a laptop and started recording conversations with strangers on the internet. Some of them have become mentors, others have become lifelong friends. They've all taught me something that's made a difference in a life that hasn't exactly gone according to plan.
The people I've interviewed come from all walks of life. They include incredible artists, entrepreneurs, billionaires, presidential candidates, and porn stars. My guests have expanded my horizons, made me aware of my personal biases and given me an education that kicks the crap out of the one I got in school.
But above all, after 1000 interviews, I've learned that everybody has a story worth telling (not just those who are rich, famous, and successful by the standards of society's life plan).
1. Choosing Guests
"The one indispensable element to a good interview is a good guest." - Terry Gross
The first person I ever interviewed was a librarian/kettlebell weightlifter with Tourette's Syndrome who had a blog called the world's strongest librarian. He was a fellow student in an online course I was taking and agreed to be my first interview.
Given that nobody knew who I was, getting high-profile guests was almost impossible. So I developed a highly selective set of criteria that are impossible to "hack" by design. To this day, these criteria still inform how I choose my guests.
My roommates joke that I turn down more people than Harvard. While it's true that I say yes to one of ten potential guests, the truth is that if there was a formula it wouldn't be unmistakable.
Every single guest who has appeared on the Unmistakable Creative is someone I was curious about. And there's no PR specialist in the world who could tell you how to make me curious. But if I think the story is going to be entertaining, educational, and inspiring, they make the cut.
Every episode of The Unmistakable Creative is one hour. It doesn't matter if you're Oprah or the Dalai Lama. If you don't have an hour, I always say no. It doesn't matter how famous someone is, how big their audience is, or how impressive their accomplishments are.
A few years ago, the assistant of a famous author tried to test me on this. She said, "He'll provide more value than all your other guests have in one hour." He didn't and I've never wavered on the standard since.
After starting to get overwhelmed by pitches from publicists and potential podcast guests, I started to use a strategy that Greg McKeown refers to in his book Essentialism: I give each pitch a score from 1-10. Anything that's not an 8 or above, I decline.
2. Asking Questions
When Cal Fussman was in elementary school, he wrote a letter to Lyndon Johnson after John F. Kennedy's assassination. In the letter, he asked Johnson how he felt about being president. To his surprise, he received a response from the White House a few months later.
This brought him to a realization that would lead to a career in which he would interview everyone from world leaders to professional athletes.
With the right questions, you could get access to the most powerful people in the world.
When he interviewed Gorbachev, he thought he would have a full hour, but was told he only he had 15 minutes. He didn't have any questions planned in advance. So he asked Gorbachev about the most important thing his father taught him and spoke to him for an hour.
If all you're going to learn in an interview is what you could from reading an author's book or looking through a brilliant person's resume, it defeats the purpose of the interview.
People are like onions. As an interviewer, I aim to peel their layers, identify their origin stories, worldviews, insecurities, and all that makes them who they are.
The essence of who we all are lies underneath our accomplishments and accolades. That's what makes us human and relatable.
We learn more about a person from the adversity they've encountered then we ever will from the impressive things on their resume. This is where their humanity lies. This is how we get to the peel back the layers and get to the core of what makes them Unmistakable.
Getting to the core of the onion is what I'm after in every interview. There's one sign that tells me I'm getting to the core. My guest will say, "Nobody has ever asked me that before."
It all comes down to the questions you ask.
Ditch the Script
When you plan your questions in advance, an interview sounds more like an interrogation than a conversation. There's no room for serendipity. You miss out on the potential for deep, rich, and unchartered territory in the geography of a person's life.
Ask Questions that Elicit Stories
The brilliance of Cal's question to Gorbachev is that it's almost impossible to answer his question without telling a story. Human beings are hardwired for story. This is what led NPR to coin the term "driveway moments."
When you ask questions that force your guest to tell a story, it's a pattern interrupt. They can't just spout the same soundbites they have in dozens of other interviews. As a result, they become more present, alive, and engaged in the conversation.
We start every episode with questions that seem off-the-wall and have nothing to do with a person's work. Some of our icebreakers include:
- What social group were you a part of in high school
- What did your parents do for work
- Where did you grow up and how did that influence who you have come
It's not a coincidence that the most popular podcasts in iTunes have deep, rich, narratives woven into them.
Embrace the Silence
Humans find silence uncomfortable. Our natural temptation is to fill that space with noise. But, what I've learned from 1000 interviews is that some of the most poetic, provocative, and insightful things my guests have said to me have been right after what seems like a deafening silence. Oscar Trimboli defines this as deep listening.
3. The Desire for Mastery
When Sid Savara and I co-founded BlogcastFM (which would eventually become the Unmistakable Creative), I was under the delusion that I would interview people with a large following. They would tweet my episodes and each one would go viral. It didn't take long to realize that wasn't true.
Doing Your Own Editing
Editing your own podcast seems inefficient and time-consuming. That's because it is. But there's one hidden benefit.
It forces you to go back and listen to each interview. You learn what you did well, what you could have done better, and identify opportunities to ask questions you didn't.
Even though I don't edit Unmistakable Creative anymore, I edited almost 400 interviews myself before ever outsourcing it.
Focus on Mastery Instead of Metrics
Refreshing the number of your downloads is not what causes your audience to grow. Creating content worth consuming does. If you want to build an audience for your art, focus on mastery instead of metrics.
While I've been fortunate to reap the external rewards of my work as an interviewer in the form of book deals, speaking engagements, and more, that's not what drives me.
There's a diminishing return to external rewards. Moments in the spotlight are temporary. The real work of an interviewer happens behind the microphone, where the only two people paying any attention are the guest and the interviewer. You have to be in love with that part of it instead of seeing it all just a means to an end.
Steal Like an Artist
Despite being the host of one, I rarely listen to podcasts. When I do, I don't listen to people being interviewed on business podcasts. It's hard to develop a unique style and point of view from inside an echo chamber. By borrowing from other art forms and other podcast styles I'm able to use other people's ingredients and come up with my own recipes.
The Most Important Lesson of All
In her interview on The Unmistakable Creative, Tina Seelig said that passion follows engagement. For me, interviewing people and telling their stories evolved into a passion.
I started interviewing people to complete an assignment in a course. I kept doing it because I found it engaging. 10 years ago, when I plugged my microphone into a laptop, there was no audience, book deals, or other external rewards. I was and still am creating for An Audience of One.
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