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Gilly Smith

Taming the Stallion

How to manage a podcast interview with an A-lister guest

I’m used to interviewing big names in food. It happens most weeks for my various podcasts. With Cooking the Books, I’m lucky enough to be offered the latest food books hitting the shelves. I’ve built a good relationship with the publicists of all the major food publishers over the years of presenting and producing CTB and the delicious. podcast, and I’m ensured a steady flow of deliveries and great content. 

Potentially.

How, though, to manage the A-listers whose PRs sit in on the recording? How to steer the conversation artfully to what I want them to talk about and tip them – gently – off the smooth ride of the promotional trail? How to avoid them telling the same (brilliant, funny) anecdotes that they recently told Saturday Live or any other number of podcasts? How do you get your podcasting voice heard over the throb of the publicity machine?

It’s tricky. 

The Zoom Room

Zoom is my friend in this. When I’m in the #IRL room with my A-lister guests, there’s usually a ton of other stuff going on. Staff/work distractions, clock watching, the vibe from the PR is silently reminding them to keep to the ‘sell’.

It’s ok; I’m only there to talk about the book. My format, the four food moments that provide the structure of our chat sent to me in advance by the author, ensures a sigh of relief from the publicist that this one’s going to be fine.

But with Zoom, many of the externals melt away. The artist Rhys Trussler told me recently about the art movement that’s emerging from the Pandemic. The painterly musings on space pull focus on what’s not in the picture. It made me think about what’s not on my screen.

I can’t see the PR in a Zoom interview. The full face of my guest in their home or office and mine in my sitting room is all we’ve got for the next 40 minutes.  No wide-legged man spread, no expensive perfume filling the room. Nothing to construct the ‘other’ for my chatty brain to play havoc with my clarity of thought.

Microphone technique

While I’m physically in the room, I have control over the microphone, directing it towards my guest, and gently pulling it away to ask the next question.

Not so in the Zoom room. Pressing ‘record’ means ‘GO” for most A-listers. And they’re off, pulling out the anecdotes and lobbing the one-liners that they’ve got off pat. They don’t mean to; the Duracell bunny is the mascot of their media training. It’s easier that way, and it’s a wonderful way of hiding who you are. 

But I want my listeners to hear who I find. The reason they listen to one podcast over another, read one journalist over another is because of what their host reveals about the guest.  They’re looking for genuine connection, a moment of warmth, a touch of humanity that opens into a smile that lasts throughout the show.

‘Come with me’, you’re saying to your listener. ‘Let me introduce you …’ 

Body language

Listening is key. I’m a leaner. In the flesh, I’m right in there. Even in the Zoom room, I’m up close and personal.

Smiling, nodding, laughing at all the jokes that you’ve heard before in the course of your research.. and then making a mental note to cut them in the edit is the job of a podcaster.

Do the prep

Most writers love that you’ve actually read their books from cover to cover. It’s a sad indictment of all media platforms, but most interviewers won’t.  If they’re cookbook authors, I’ll make a few of their recipes too. I love to feel that I’m getting under the skin of my guests as they guide me towards a dish that will fill my evening and my stomach, that will give me, my family or friends deep pleasure. It’s an intimate experience.

None of my guests has ever underestimated the power of that moment.

Interrupt with a gesture

They’re in their flow, and you need to gently reel them back to where you want them to be. A laugh after a story along with a response before your next question will show that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say. Show you’re in charge by motioning with your hand that you’re going to ask the next question. 

Don’t read off a list of questions

Do your prep, structure your script and then go with the flow. If your guest trusts you to talk about their subject, you can steer off their path and ask whatever you want as long as it’s relevant. Your A-lister will be an expert in their field, and if you’ve done your prep, try bringing a little known fact to throw them, just a little. They’ll love that you found it, that you cared enough to do the research. 

Don’t be afraid of your own opinion

It can be scary to be told that you’re wrong by an A-lister. Stand your ground with humour and warmth, and you may just find you’ve encouraged your guest to think again, and there, ta daaa! is your original quote for your social, the headline for your press release, and, perhaps most importantly, the moment of memorable connection with your guest – both for you, for them and for your listener.

For more information on interviewing, click to buy my book How to Start and Grow a Successful Podcast. Most of the full interviews from the book are available for free on How to Grow a Pod.

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