Five Tips for a Killer Q&A

While YouTube has grabbed all the headlines in this young year, podcasting has quietly gone mainstream. An increasing number of businesses, particularly in the high-tech field, are using podcasts to communicate with prospects and customers about very specific messages.

Paul Gillin Communications has produced more than 70 podcasts in the past year, the majority in the simple but effective Q&A format. We’ve learned a lot in the process, and thought we’d share some best practices with you.

Q&A isn’t the only valid podcast format, but it works very well for business marketing. It exposes the talent in your organization, is reasonably fast and easy to produce and segments the program into manageable soundbites that are easy to consume. There’s a big difference between a Q&A that excites your listeners, though, and one that bores them. Usually, the following five factors make the difference.

Be interesting— This may sound blatantly obvious, but it’s advice I wish more of our interview subjects would heed. You need to get your message across, but you also need to wrap it in a bigger message that gives the listener immediate value or new insight. Too often, speakers just fall back to delivering a product pitch. This is death. Podcast listeners have lots of choices and they will quickly pull the plug on content that doesn’t interest them. Try to give your listeners at least one nugget of useful information every five minutes. That’ll keep them hooked.

Think about your answers – I always provide my interview subjects with questions for the Q&A at least a day in advance, and if it’s your podcast, I’d recommend you do the same. Your podcast will be much more satisfying if you jot down talking points and anecdotes to guide your responses. This doesn’t mean you should read from a script. Believe me, the audience will figure that out in a minute. But there’s nothing wrong with having an outline to make sure you get your points across. An outline also helps you stick to answering the question that was asked and prevents you from talking on tangents, which brings us to our second tip.

Keep it short — The most common mistake I hear speakers make is to drone on with repetitive answers that run four and five minutes for each question. You may care passionately about the details of your product, but remember that your listeners probably can’t parse your message at that level. They want to get a quick summary of the market and the issues. Here’s a suggestion: Put an egg timer in front of you and turn it over whenever you start a new answer. By the time that a timer is half way down, you should be wrapping up. If the timer runs out entirely, stop talking.

Tell stories — Reporters know that readers respond to anecdotes and first-person accounts. They bring a topic to life and frame the message in a way that listeners intuitively understand. Your case studies are a valuable resource here. Cite examples of what customers are actually doing with your products or tell a first-person story about a customer you visited or spoke with. Or just talk about your own experience using or seeing the product. Personalize your message and people will understand it better.

Speak clearly and deliberately — Be aware of any verbal tics you have — “you know” is a common one — and make an effort to eliminate them when you’re on the air. I call these “verbal placeholders.” They are a tool that people use unconsciously to mark time while deciding what to say next. Avoid them. They will be much more obvious on a recording than in a conversation. Practicing your answers before it’s time to record and sticking to an outline, which provides your next point if you lose your place, will help you prevent yourself from “you know”ing your way through a podcast.

Whoops! I lied. There are SIX tips:

Take advantage of the medium — Unlike broadcast media, podcasts are forgiving. You can easily rerecord what you say and splice it seamlessly into the program. If you don’t think you answered a question very well, just do it again. Audio editing software makes it possible to replace your old answer with the new one in just a few minutes.We are often asked what is the ideal length of a podcast? The truth is that it depends. An excellent speaker will get much more leeway from the audience than a poor one. This 48-minute speech by Steve Wozniak will have you spellbound whereas I’ve moderated 15-minute podcasts that were just awful.Personally, I like to keep podcasts to less than 20 minutes, including eight to 10 question-and-answer pairs and an introduction. I find that 15 minutes is about ideal.

Here are some links to podcast interviews that went particularly well:

Preventing Digital Crime – Government Regulation or Industry Standards – Howard Schmidt is a former national security czar, but he’s also an energetic and exciting speaker who’s on top of his subject. It was a great idea on Qualys’ part to use him as a resource like this. (You have to register to download this one.)

SaaS Advantage Podcast Series with Greg Gianforte – The CEO of RightNow Technologies knows when to stop talking and that makes his answers more effective. He’s also just an interesting person, which I would recommend your speakers be, also.

How to Encourage Innovative Thinking: An Interview With Larry Weber — Note how Larry tells stories throughout this interview to get his points across. By using examples, he brings the topic to life and makes his answers easier to relate to. I guarantee you will remember at least one anecdote from this interview.

Tips for Winning Webcasts

Almost anything you can do in a white paper you can do in a webcast (“webinar,” by the way, is a trademarked term). So why choose the multimedia approach?

One reason is speed. If you have a speaker and a presentation, a webcast gets your message online with a minimum of pre-production work. Be aware, though, that publishers are more inventory-constrained with webcasts and your waiting time could be months. Another reason is speaker quality. If you have a great speaker, whether your own employee or an outsider, a webcast can deliver a provocative forum for your message. A third is audience interaction. Live webcasts can create a real-time dialog with the audience that you can’t get in any other online medium. Finally, webcasts let you work with complex formats like panel discussions or Q&A interviews that don’t work in print.

But there are tradeoffs. The biggest is audience engagement. Because a webcast requires your audience to invest a significant amount of time in front of the computer, you risk reaching a smaller audience.  Podcasting offers a possible solution to this problem, but I’ll deal with that in a separate newsletter. Webcasts may also be more costly. It’s also harder to repurpose a webcast created in a proprietary format for use with another partner’s service. If you want maximum flexibility, check to be sure your program can be delivered over a standard media player like Real Player.

If you’ve decided to go the webcast route, here are a few factors to consider in making your event a success:

Write for the medium – A webcast is a direct-access experience, meaning that you have little flexibility for tangents, sidebars and appendices. Choose a topic that can be address serially from beginning to end. A repurposed conference presentation or training seminar is a good choice. Provide an agenda at the front end and stick to it. Break your presentation up into digestible segments and indicate clearly when you’re transitioning from one topic to another. Remember that your audience may tune out or become distracted at times. You want them to be able to return to your presentation without losing their place.

Choose a good speaker – You’ll want someone with a clear, deliberate cadence and an engaging style. Stammers, pauses and mumbles will undermine your message. Remember that your smartest technical people aren’t necessarily your best speakers. If you’re inviting listener questions or comments, choose a speaker who’s fast on his or her feet. It can be time-consuming and expensive to go back and edit a presentation later.

Keep it brief – People have about a half-hour attention span for an online event. If you’re going to go much over that, be aware that you will lose listeners. If you’ve bought a full hour of speaking time, break up your presentation into segments that will re-engage the listeners. For example, go to questions, launch an instant poll or bring in a second speaker for a discussion.

Keep slides readable – I always recommend using a lot of visuals because they keep the audience engaged and provide structure and pacing for your speaker. But be aware that your audience may not have the full screen available to look at your slides. Spread your visuals across more slides, if possible, and use fonts and images that won’t make your viewers squint. Large images can take a long time to load and may cause the audio to break up on slow connections.

Take advantage of interactive features – If your service provider offers the option of interactive questions/comments from your audience or real-time polling, take advantage of it. It’s a great way to get feedback on the spot and learn something about your audience’s interests. Be aware, though, that live events offer less margin for error and tighter scheduling options. Also, not every event lends itself to interactivity. A technical topic oriented toward developers usually generates better interaction than a market overview or other general topic.

Make slides available for download – Your listeners should have the option of reviewing and sharing your visuals. It’s a great way to generate follow-up inquiries and some media partners can give you a registration form that generates leads from slide downloads. If you’re concerned about intellectual property, use PowerPoint’s non-editable .pps format.

Some media partners offer you a turnkey option to create a printed version of your presentation. This can be a great way to generate leads by offering content as a white paper for hosting on your site or elsewhere.

A few words on video: With nearly 90% of business Internet users now using high-speed connections, video is an attractive webcast option. However, it’s generally much more expensive, requires travel and can introduce scheduling complexities. For industry giant companies, video can be a way to enhance their upscale image. And there are some things you can do with video that you can’t with a simple audio format. However, I think for most companies video is an expensive indulgence.