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Spotlight: Jay Acunzo on Podcasts and the Art of the Interview

  • 7 Minutes
Thinking about launching your own podcast or online show in 2021? Speaker, author and podcast maven Jay Acunzo reveals what separates the best from the rest.

In 2020, the move to working from home motivated many people to invest in a better microphone or webcam to make the most of those Zoom meetings and virtual presentations. In 2021, all of that extra A/V gear may well fuel an explosion of new podcasts and video streams.

One of the attractions of creating a podcast series is the idea that they’re quick and easy to produce. Record each interview “as live” in a single take with minimal post-production and publish a finished show that same afternoon. Rinse and repeat each week. Simple.

But with so many podcasts and streaming media already out there, does anyone really need yet another “expert of the week” interview series, whatever the topic?

Jay Acunzo is the brain and voice behind the podcasts Unthinkable and 3 Clips, and has also produced more than a dozen series and pilots for brand clients. I talked to Acunzo about what makes a great podcast – and it isn’t the equipment.

As Acunzo makes clear, “You can’t save a bad interview in post”.

JC: Do new or aspiring podcast producers underestimate what’s involved beyond the tech?

JA: It’s incredibly easy to do a podcast. It’s incredibly hard to do a good podcast.

If you’re going to start with whatever tools are in front of you, which is a wonderful endeavour and shows your willingness to ship, are you going to measure it accordingly? The problem is, when marketers start lean, they measure the results according to their aspirations to create a good show. You haven’t created a good show. You’ve created a show.

Making a show should be like hunting for treasure on a beach. Your early attempts are your metal detector. If people don’t beep in response, don’t dig deeper there.

You don’t need to launch with a huge plan and a huge budget. You definitely don’t need a lot of tech. But you do need to say something that matters to your audience right away. That’s the first challenge. It’s not the microphone. It’s not the channel to put your show on. It’s saying something that matters.

In other words, have you developed a premise that people care about enough to subscribe?

How do you make sure that each interview is about something?

When you first start a show, if it’s an interview-based show, you typically grab name guests. You should still have a premise in mind so you’re focused. It’s not a generic topic-based show. You don’t want to talk topics with experts. The world doesn’t need another show like that.

But you might go niche, focus on this problem or underexplored topic. Eventually you need to switch from grabbing at names who can generically speak to the premise, to starting with questions and ideas that support your premise – and then asking which guests support those ideas.

What starts with you assigning a purpose to your guests flips to assigning a guest to your purpose.

How much prep work should go into each interview?

The level of prep is going to depend on you. What you need is a plan inside your episode.

A lot of podcasters say they have a structure to their episodes when what they really have is an intro, a 40-minute interview and an outro. The 40-minute interview is where they need to structure things. Your audience and your guests don’t need to know the structure, but you need to have a plan.

The most important thing is the premise. The second most important thing is the format. The format is your way to explore the premise.

One example is my show, Unthinkable. The premise was to showcase how creativity and innovation are only unthinkable from the outside looking in. Breaking from best practice is not actually unthinkable, because when you talk to people who do, it’s logical to them.

Therefore, I needed to structure my interviews in a certain way. The first thing I had to touch on was the best practice. So that’s where I’d start my interviews. The second thing was how did they break from the best practice. The third thing was why it was logical and smart for them, and not unthinkable. The fourth thing was how did they get there: “Let’s talk about your bio.”

Most shows would have started with the bio, but my show was not trying to be most shows. No show should be trying to be most shows.

In television, you have the “insert talent here” type story, right? An Anthony Bordain-like story. What does that look like? There’s a certain genre that the individual creator creates – or brand, if you’re a marketer.

So, what is an insert-your-name-or-company-here story like?

Most people can’t answer that. But you need to have this house style. And that goes all the way to how you structure a typical episode, which you then reinvent with more purpose because you’ve documented it.

It’s not about sticking exactly to that rundown. It’s about giving yourself some semblance of a plan to be consistent and to reinvent with purpose.

Sometimes, it can take a little cajoling to get an interviewee to open up. How do you get beyond the pat answers or predictable responses to reveal their real story and personality?

Part of it is actually in prep; like you can hold a 20- or 30-minute prep call with people. It’s a higher ask for the guest and for you, but it leads to a better product.

The other thing you can do is make sure you’re setting the right environment upfront. Guests will reflect your approach. If you’re just peppering people with questions, expect sound bites and stiffness. But if you’re casual and laughing, they’ll let their hair down.

Asking questions upfront that are silly and personal is a great way to dovetail between the housekeeping and the actual meat of what you want to ask. For example, when people feel stiff, I’ll ask questions like, “What would your last meal on earth be?” or, “Do you have any pets at home?” I tell them I’m engineering their sound levels, which is why I’m asking these random questions, but I’m actually engineering them.

And then the environment is set: This is going to be fun; this is going to be playful; or this is going to be serious and penetrating. Your attitude and emotions will be reflected by the guests.

What was your worst interview experience or the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn as an interviewer?

I was sitting in an airport late at night, flying home from a speaking gig, when I saw the screenwriter Brian Koppelman tweet that he would appear on anybody’s show – but only those that responded in the next 20 minutes. I responded. He’s written the TV show, Billions. He wrote the movie, Rounders. And he hosts an amazing podcast called The Moment. I admire the guy. So, I interviewed him.

I was at a point in my life where I’d just started doing the whole public personality and performer thing. I was trying to prove a lot to others, but basically prove a lot to myself. And so, I tried to get too clever and ask things about creativity and intuition that I just had no business speaking to.

My questions were too complicated. I could sense Brian knew that and was trying to reset me. I could tell in the moment he was getting a little annoyed, while ultimately being a good sport and giving me good answers.

What I should have asked for were the simple things: the basics about his life, his story, his work, his ideas, his reflections on stuff. Simple questions always yield better answers.

You asked me a simple question no one else has asked me. I’ve never told that story to anybody. That’s proof right there. Just ask simple questions. Even if you don’t have the research to say you should ask that, even if it’s not a question specific to the guest, it’s still way better to ask a simple question than something super-clever and concocted.

Too many interviewers try to hang with the guest. The way you hang is by trying not to hang. You’re not trying to show the guest that you know what they know. The way you hang is by being an incredible interviewer and allowing them to be an incredible guest.

Photo of Jonathan CrossfieldJonathan Crossfield

Jonathan calls himself a storyteller because freelance writer, editor, content marketer, journalist, copywriter and speaker wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. His articles on digital marketing have won a couple of awards, but they were so long ago it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. Jonathan lives in the Blue Mountains, perfecting the art of writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Twitter @Kimota.

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