The power play in a podcast interview (and how to use it ethically)
An interview is essentially a conversation, and most of us are having conversations pretty regularly, but there are a few things that make a podcast interview different to a chat.
For a start, you’re recording this interview. You will also edit the interview, cutting bits out and moving them around. Also, you may be doing other interviews and putting them next to this one, or weaving them through it.
You may put music or sound effects under the person’s voice.
You can ask any question once you’re recording, and the person may or may not know the answers.
These things are all reasons that you have power in this conversation.
Power is not essentially a bad thing. It’s how you use the power that matters.
Now of course, there are different types of interviews. There are accountability interviews where you are asking questions of someone in power who may have done something wrong.
Perhaps you have been told a politician has been corrupt, or a person working in government has misused public funds. Well, in these situations, you will conduct an interview that holds your power to every level because it is for the public good that you get all the answers.
More often, you will be interviewing everyday people whose stories will highlight an issue, or will inspire an audience. They may have never been interviewed before, they are most likely going to be nervous. In these situations you need to use your power with care.
Acknowledge the power
To work in a space of power with respect, it is important you are conscious of your power.
Once you are aware of, and comfortable with, this power, you can find ways to be respectful and fair. If you deny that you have power, if you don’t want to acknowledge it to yourself, then it’s actually very hard to have integrity.
So be honest with yourself, and acknowledge your power.
Before you conduct any interview, you should be aware of the purpose of that interview in your story.
You may not know exactly what the person is going to say, in fact it’s better if you don’t know everything because that element of surprise will be powerful for the audience.
Your role here is essentially to be a conduit between this person’s story and the audience, so you need to know what the audience wants, and what this person will be offering that audience.
And it is reasonable that the person who is being interviewed should know this too.
Anyone who is being interviewed should have an opportunity to give informed consent.
When I interviewed Jason for this Background Briefing story about homelessness after prison, I sat with him first and talked about why I was doing the story, and explained why I was interviewing him, how the whole program would sound, that I would be editing his interview a lot and that he would only be one voice in the story.
This meant he was prepared to be interviewed, he knew his purpose, the reason I wanted to talk to him. He also had an idea of who would be listening, and what they would get out of it.
Some interviewers feel giving the interviewee the questions in advance is one way to share the power. I will never do that, because that will damage the quality of the story.
If someone can research their questions, they will never sound as authentic. You won’t get those gold moments of “I never thought of it like that” or “Oh, let me think about that for a moment”. You need those moments to help the audience connect to the story.
At worst, an interviewee will write the answers to their questions down and read them. None of us sound nearly as good when we are reading notes as we do when we’re talking honestly.
Also, if you give them questions you can’t make changes to the interview as you’re doing it. Other things come up, you think of new questions. About 20% of my questions come to me during an interview, I can’t give them those in advance, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to say I could.
Explaining the purpose and the process should be enough.
Share the control
If I’m interviewing a real person, not a politician or someone who needs to be held to account, there are a few things I say before I start recording the interview. I tell them I’m not it a rush, that they should take their time.
And I also say this:
“Let me know you want me to ask any questions again, to rephrase them, or if you want to restart an answer.
“I will be editing this interview, and so we can stop and start if you need that.”
I will also tell them that if they choose not to answer a question, I won’t keep the question and their refusal to answer in the edit. If they are not accountable, I don’t need to hold them to account, only to hear and massage their story.
I always let people know when I start recording and when I stop. These are ways to acknowledge the power, let them know what I am doing, and to include them in the process.
I will also ask the person to also suggest where we will conduct the interview.
I let them know we need no wind, minimal background sounds and to feel comfortable, but otherwise they can choose where we are. If it isn’t going to work, then I let them know that and we try to find somewhere else.
This means they are comfortable, and have some control. Often that place can also become an important part of the story, and the sounds I collect there can be powerful and relevant.
Some interviewers will allow the other person to hold the microphone in the interview. I do not do this.
First, it can damage sound quality. Mic noise is very hard to edit, and also a mic needs to be held just the right distance from a person’s mouth.
Also, as I said before, there is nothing wrong with power as long as it is clear and open. You holding the mic shows that you have control of the interview, that this is your conversation essentially and you will be editing it. It reminds the person of that. That is important.
The last question
However long an interview has gone for, I will always ask the person if they have anything to add.
Not only does this often lead to the best bit of audio in the whole interview, it gives them the last word. It’s the opportunity for them to address anything I missed in my questions. It’s an important moment to end on.
Don’t be ashamed or afraid of your power as an interviewee, but own it with respect and humility. Remember you are there for the audience, to find the story they want to hear, and you are also there for the the interviewee, to help them tell their story. You are a guide.