What follows is an abridged transcript of Tim Ferriss’s podcasting advice from Deviate with Rolf Potts, Episode One.
Sub-section topics within the interview include the following:
1. How Tim Ferriss Got into Podcasting
2. How to Frame Questions in an Interview
3. The Advantages of Doing the Interview by Skype
4. Deciding if Podcasting is the Right Platform For You
5. Dealing With Nerves and Preparing for the Interview
6. Helping Your Subject Relax and Engage With You
7. Keeping the Podcast Production Simple and Personal
8. How to Attract and Invite Guests for the Show
9. More Pointers on How to Frame Questions
10. Recording Equipment and Editing Tools
11. Show Notes and the Listener Community
12. Organizing Episodes as Topical “Master Classes”
13. More About Networking and Finding New Guests
14. More on Keeping the Podcast Simple and Personal
15. Episode Preparation, Post-Production, and Scheduling
16. How (and When) to Monetize Your Podcast
17. A Few Final, Essential Podcast Tips
Rolf Potts: Since this is Episode One I wanted to get a Tim Ferriss lesson on podcasting.
Tim Ferriss: Podcasting for me started off very much as a side-gig, never intended to become anything. There was at best no plan, and maybe a plan for it not to be something.
Rolf: That makes me feel better already, because I have a plan but I’m already a little bit jittery about how it will be implemented. I want to cover a lot of topics, and in a way the take-home for the people who are listening to this will be the take-home for me. Which is to get a sense, at a very basic level about what it’s like to podcast, for people who have a vision for how they want to join the podcast conversation. Some of my favorite podcasts are conversations that drift off the prescribed topic into something that obviously the interviewee is excited about. As I said on the phone before, you slide so smoothly into teacher mode, and I think that what excites you is sharing lessons-learned. I like the idea that you didn’t have a plan.
Tell us about your decision to get into podcasting, and when you realized you really had something that would be central to what you do.
Tim: There were a few experiences that coalesced. The first was the extended and very brutal experience of putting together the 4-Hour Chef. …I also was getting really fatigued by the short-form of, say, morning shows. You might get a maximum of 40 seconds of talking, so you have your memorized 3 bullet-points and hope that you don’t lead the host of digress somewhere so you can at least mention the name your book after they mispronounce your name. I was not able to be myself in those formats, and you couldn’t get into any nuance, any of the deeper subtleties of learning, which the 4-Hour Chef was about.
At the same time I had a number of experiences on, say, the Joe Rogan podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, and Nerdist, where we would talk for an hour-and-a-half to four hours, and I could actually be myself. I could curse, get into all sorts of details that would never ever surface in conventional media. They had no desire to take things out of context, so they were friendly interviews, they were genuinely interested, and I had a blast. I had so much fun doing those, and I was shocked by the impact that the shows had.
I knew very little about podcasting, and it was very reminiscent to me of my obsession with blogging for the 4-Hour Work Week. So I latched on to blogging and learned everything I could about it before the launch of the 4-Hour Work Week, including starting my own blog on WordPress a few months before the book was published.
After everything had wrapped up more or less with the 4-Hour Chef, I was completely exhausted, completely burned out, and decided I would potentially never do another book, and wanted to use a different part of my brain and do something very lightweight. No bosses, no copyright assignment to someone else, or licensing of any type that would constrain my ability to work with my material. I thought to myself well, if I’m going to choose my projects based on the skills and relationships that I develop, and trying to be not attached to a specific outcome, but to measure the success of a project based on the relationship and skills that develop, you can’t lose. Because those skills and relationships can transcend any given project. And if you snowball that over time, inevitably you will succeed with some type of outcome.
Podcasting struck me as the perfect experiment, because you didn’t eat a lot of gear. In the format that I was excited about, there was very minimal editing just two people like we’re doing right now sitting down and having conversation. I could hone my ability to ask questions and navigate conversations. That was that was very exciting to me, because I’d always done interviews as part of research, and pulling expertise out of various world-class performers in, say, the 4-Hour Body and the 4-Hour Chef and so on, but I’d never focused on questions for the sake of the questions, and to really develop that as a stand-alone skill.
It would also teach me a lot about a growing media form and distribution platform that really didn’t have — and I would argue still mostly doesn’t have — any rules. You can kind of do whatever you want. There people of five-minute podcasts, there are people with four-hour podcasts, there are people who basically take public radio and just transplant it into the podcasting world, and do a great job highly produced shows — you Serial, and so on. You can do whatever you want. There’s nothing preventing you from publishing the weirdest, shittiest, stupidest, most esoteric things — or any combination thereof. You complete freedom, and that was really exciting to me. I did everything myself for a long time — I did the recording, did the editing, did all of it.
Rolf: Did you know what you were getting into?
Tim: I had no idea, which was part of the excitement for me. I think I’ve achieved a lot thanks to planning, but I’ve also constrained or limited myself a lot with meticulous planning that perhaps prevents me from improvising later.
So I went into it and with the explicit goal of experimenting with different formats. It would be one show, but the first episode and the fifth episode might be completely different. I think what was very important for me at least was committing to doing six episodes. That was really important, and in the very beginning also — these go hand-in-hand — setting the expectations for the listeners very low. So from the outset I said hey guys going to try this thing, I think it’ll be fun, I’m going to have wine with my friends in the beginning for softball practice, and if you guys like it I’ll keep doing it, if I like it we’ll keep doing it, and if not on either side then I’ll stop doing it.
I don’t know why exactly I chose six but it seems like a number that would allow me to improve my ability to ask questions. So it wouldn’t be a total loss, even if I cut bait and shut down the show.
Rolf: Was Kevin Rose your first?
Tim: Kevin Rose was my first
Rolf: Hadn’t you done video sessions with him?
Tim: The Random Show, which we still do very infrequently. It was more of a conversation as opposed to an interview. I felt very comfortable with Kevin, and it was the right combination of someone who is deeply adept in several fields, but also a close enough friend where we can have a little bit of grab-assing and drink some wine.
Episode One [of the podcast] got very sloppy. I mean, I was hammered by the end of it. I was nervous! Which was amusing considering it’s a close friend and was at my kitchen table. But I was nervous, and I drank way too much. I remember reviewing it later, and there were these tics that I had, which I’d never noticed before, and one of them was not an “um” or an “ah” but phrase that I kept saying to him. I hadn’t defined how long the podcast would be; we just hit record and started, and it kept going. So in the beginning I said, Kevin I want to be cognizant of your time. And I kept repeating this phrase.
We can talk about time-management, because people can get super-antsy when they don’t know when it’s going to end. But with Kevin I said that [fairly early in the interview], and when I fast-forwarded to like an hour later I happened to find exact same phrase.
Rolf: What would you do in Episode One through Six that you would never do again — or that you’ve learned not to do?
Tim: There are certain veins of questions that I tend not to ask any more. And this is a very personal style-comment. I did study a lot of interviewers in the process of going into podcasting, and I certainly continue to do so, but I did not limit myself so podcasts. There’s no reason to — that’s just a distribution platform. So I looked very closely at Inside the Actor’s Studio, very closely at, say, Larry King, Charlie Rose, Terry Gross. All of these became classes for me, basically.
Inside the Actor’s Studio has a certain set of questions — it rarely deviates — towards the end, that are their rapid-fire questions: What’s your favorite curse-word? and so on. I asked Kevin 90 minutes into our interview, I went to my list of prepared questions, and I said, If you could be any breakfast cereal, what would you be an why? And Kevin responded with (as he should, he wanted to bust my balls), “Oh, it’s going to be one of those interviews.” And I was like, Jesus, stop chafing my nuts, give me a break, I’m nervous already. But that breed of question, I have found, is not in service of my audience, based on the promise that I’m making — which is, I’m going to tease out tactics, habits, routines of world-class performers to give you material and ideas that you can apply.
It’s a bit too self-indulgent, and you do lose interviewees in my experience, if you lead with those questions — the very abstract questions that would almost never come up in any natural conversation.
Rolf: Here’s a question for you: What about very direct questions that are nonetheless hard to quantify? Have you found that questions that are direct but not something that people have quantified [like asking for lists of life-lessons] are a difficulty?
Tim: Yes, I have realized a few things. I’m always keeping in mind what my listeners can use, which makes my job easy, because I have I have a very clear mission for my podcast. Rather than try to compete with other formats, I wanted to create a new category. I didn’t want to compete in a preexisting category. There are few resources here that people can take a look at: the Blue Ocean Strategy, which is a book, and “1000 True Fans,” which is an essay by Kevin Kelly.
So the actionable description of my podcast is a primary differentiator. What I mean by that is, my charter is to find actionable information. In other words, if their answer to, What do you do in the morning? is, “I wake up early, I have breakfast, I have coffee, and then I meditate,” — is that actionable? Is there sufficient detail in that answer for someone to replicate their recipe? No, there isn’t.
Rolf: Not at that level of detail.
Tim: What time you wake up? What breakfast? What type of milk? (If they say “milk”.) What type of coffee? How do you prepare your coffee? Why did you choose that coffee? I really dig into the specifics, so that if it were a step-by-step recipe, someone could replicate the outcome, or at least take a stab at it. Therefore, I can approach that a few different ways. The first is to do what most people do, which is How do you start your morning? and then ask a lot of follow-up questions.
Rolf: It feels like the “what” question is what coffee? and naturally the “why” question follows.
Tim: That’s one approach. Another approach would be, Can you please describe the first 90 minutes of day, being as specific as possible? For instance, if you wake up early, what time do you wake up? If you drink coffee, what kind of coffee do you drink? Then I save myself five minutes of follow-up questions on each point — which is very interruptive, and they might lose track of what they did for a second, third, fourth, fifth.
Similarly, I’m keeping in mind with the questions that I ask, I try to take the responsibility entirely for the interview. In other words if it’s a bad interview, it is my fault — I take full blame. In the same way that I blame teachers for bad student outcomes. I don’t blame students typically, I think the problem is very often on the teacher side. And for that reason I would look at a question like, What are your favorite books? Seems like a very good question. What I learned over time, because I asked this question, is it’s not. Why is this not a good question? Most of the people I’m interviewing have read hundreds or thousands of books. And if surprised by that question — which they would be — there will be a primacy or recency effect, they’ll choose something that first pops to mind.
But if they had 30 minutes to think about it, they’d probably give entirely different answers. That’s problem number one: the search query is too wide. The second issue — and this is particularly true as the interview subjects themselves are better than better known — is that, as they give answers, they’ve been burned by media before by having things taken out of context (or being quoted), they would worry that their “favorite book” would then be etched in stone in Wikipedia or somewhere else. So they’ll somehow defer, they’ll say, “It’s hard to see, there are too many good books.” And it ends up being a wrestling match, so asking instead, What books have you gifted the most to other people? gets a safe answer, and also a more widely applicable answer.
Rolf: It’s concrete, too.
Tim: It’s super concrete. So I tend to ask very specific questions when possible. That is not always true with follow-up questions. So there are a few “cheat” follow-up questions — and by “cheat” I mean they very reliably get good additional information. One is What did you learn from that? and the other one is How do you feel when that happened? So “What did you learn?” and “How did that feel?” are two follow-up questions that you can tag onto almost anything. Or Can you give me an example? — I use that a lot more than most interviewers, and I don’t let them wriggle out of it.
Rolf: Did these develop out of your own experiences, or did you see Terry Gross and Larry King using them?
Tim: A lot of this was just from my own experience in noticing when people seemed caught on their heels, or didn’t have enough time, or made up an answer to fill the space, but I could tell that if they had five minutes they probably would have given a different answer. Also, what I what I did at one point was that I hired the head researcher for Inside Actor’s Studio to look through transcripts of my podcast to try to identify where I missed opportunities, or sequenced things incorrectly. I hired someone to actually review transcripts of recordings. I’ve also asked other master interviewers like Cal Fussman, who I’ve had on the podcast — just an incredible storyteller, but a brilliant interviewer, I mean he’s interviewed everybody, Al Pacino, Mikhail Gorbachev, everybody, because he wrote the “What I Learned” column in Esquire for 20 years. I asked him to look at transcripts to identify where I should have jumped in, where I should have not jumped in, sequencing, what I should explored that I didn’t explore. That was also very helpful, and has informd some of the things that I do.
Rolf: Can you give me an example? (I’m trying to use your lessons, here.)
Tim: Yes, I can give you an example. Cal gave me a guideline that I think is very useful which is: Let the silence do the work.
Because interviews are different from normal conversations, if you want to really extract maximum value or entertainment from someone…it doesn’t have to be an interrogation but the dynamics are slightly different than regular conversation over dinner. This is one of the primary distinctions. If you ask someone a question in an interview, and they are searching for an answer, and it goes five seconds, that’s an eternity in an interview. The impulse is going to be to jump in and help them in some way: Let me rephrase the question.
Rolf: It’s a conversational thing, too. When you’re hanging with a friend, silence maybe means don’t go there. Whereas in an interview…I’ve heard this technique before in the context of journalism. You get your prepared answer, your pat answer, your first-level answer — and then the silence draws out the real answer.
Tim: It’s a lot easier via phone, to experiment with letting the silence do the work. I would actually recommend, for most people, that they hone their technique in the beginning by doing Skype or telephone conversations instead of in person. I know there is a traditional bias towards “in person”, that there is a certain magic or je ne sais quoi that exists only in person that you can’t capture via say, Skype. That’s not my experience. There are a handful of exceptions, but not many. And the benefits of, say, recording a conversation via Skype — and I’ll just lay out a few tools. I use something called Ecamm Call Recorder. There are different options. Zencastr is another that is very popular, I don’t personally Zencastr, but it is a very good tool. I’ve been on the interviewee side for that a number of times.
Rolf: Does that record into a digital recorder?
Tim: They function differently. The Ecamm Call Recorder records onto your laptop, and you can export it as split tracks, so that somebody can adjust levels, say, on either side. And for those people interested, I use an ATR2100 USB mic, which is an Audio Technica mic that is $80 perhaps on Amazon Prime. I have probably four or five of them. I just leave one in different locations; I always have one of my backpack.
Rolf: You use it for Skype interviews?
Tim: I use it for Skype interviews. What I would say is, when you record via phone, there are actually in my experience fewer technical bits and pieces that can go wrong. And assuming you give them some guidelines — like pause Dropbox and close Slack and turn things off that are going to consume excess bandwidth — the biggest advantage, perhaps, is that you can have your notes of you, and you can take notes without disrupting the flow of the interview.
So I very routinely had — and I still do this to this day — say, Evernote open with a document that I’ve created that has my cheat sheet, and then a notebook to the side to take notes of things I want to come back to. So if they bring up subject I really want to explore later, I’m like Ooh, that’s interesting, we’ll come back to that; pleas continue, and I’ll take a note in my notepad. And you can do all of that without throwing someone off visually.
I’m a very big fan of focusing on audio only in the beginning. It also gives you an ability to punch above your weight-class in caliber of guests. The person you’re talking to doesn’t have to worry about how they dress, they don’t have to think about getting to your house or getting to a studio, they don’t have to necessarily take a lot of time out of their day. For that reason, I think, my podcast was able to grow very quickly due to the fact that I could say, Hey, director-who’s-on-set-filming-right-now, when you need a break just give me three hours’ heads-up and I will jump on Skype and we can just do this while you’re getting your nails cut or something. It doesn’t make a difference — I’m not going to see you, nobody can see you — and I was able to really get some wins early on because of that. If I had insisted on meeting them in person it never would have happened. That’s another benefit to playing with audio only, which allows you to note, say, if anything gets garbled, or if there’s anything you need to cut you can also sketch down the time-code.
Tim: But I would also — just because we’re getting into the weeds, before we continue in the weeds, — at the 30,000-foot view, encourage anyone who’s considering podcasting to ask themselves, Why do you want to do this? Because the format that I chose is something that I love to do. I do it anyway. I pick the brains of experts whether there is a recording rolling or not. And I figured well, If I’m going to have these conversations with my friends and other people and experts, it’s such a shame that it has an expiration date — it’s gone as soon as the conversation ends, why don’t I just record these?
I don’t think people should podcast because they feel that it is the latest shiny tool in an arsenal of social media and media toolkits that they need to adopt to remain relevant. You won’t make it, in my opinion, if you if you do that. Because they are going to be people like me, who even if I’m not getting paid, would still put in — easily, if I’m excited about something — a hundred hours a week, it doesn’t bother me. I would do it free. It’s not a zero-sum game; many podcasts can compete, but you’re going to be at the higher levels contending with hundreds of people like me who love this format. The elephant graveyard of podcasting is littered with three-episode podcasts.
Rolf: This is good, broad advice. These mediums are going to change, but being excited about something isn’t. If you just feel like your “brand” needs to embrace the latest technology, then maybe you should consider that more carefully. I’m in Austin for the Austin Film Festival, and I sat in on all the panels, and one of the pieces of advice that film producers shared is that, if there’s a trend for, say, slasher-horror, then it’s probably too late for you to write a slasher-horror film just to be a part of the market. Because the person who dreams and breathes slasher-horror already has three scripts that are in circulation — and by the time you’re done with your script the eye of Hollywood is going to move on to something else.
Tim: Yeah, pick a format that gets you excited. This is where developing skills in relationships is important. If you would not ever get paid for this, would the payment, per se, in skills developed and relationships be enough to keep you doing we are considering doing? If not, I wouldn’t pull the trigger.
For me it’s been a huge success by any measure. I was told, when I started however many years ago, by many people It’s too late, the podcasting ship has sailed, man, you should have started three years ago. There’s still so much room. I remember something that I was told by Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer. I was chatting with him at one point, because I had a pending deadline for something else, and he said, in effect, “Just put it out when it’s great.” And I interpreted that to mean, like, it’s always a good time for great, and there’s never a good time for mediocre. In other words, that’s just to reassure people that if you think you’ve missed the ship — oh my god, it’s too late to get on Instagram, it’s too late to become involved with podcasting — it’s complete nonsense, because most people half-ass it. They feel rushed, they put out a mediocre product, and there’s never a good time for that. They will fail. Or they will hate what they do.
You can avoid both of those just by making something really, really good. It’s still the case, in my experience of podcasting, that — if you have even a bare modicum of promotional ability — if your stuff is really, really good, it will find its audience. Or the audience will find you.
Rolf: It’s interesting how the podcasting medium has prevailed. You interviewed me in 2014, and at the time I was thinking, Oh man, Tim caught the tail end of that. You know, Now it’s too late. And again, I was just sitting at the film festival here in Austin, and podcasting has become such a multitasking-in-traffic type thing that people are starting to send pitches, or even parts of screenplays acted out, in podcast form, so that the executive who’s too busy to sit down and read a script can listen to a few scenes of the script in the car. That never even occurred to me. Yet I’ve discovered that podcasts have become my new TV. To enjoy TV you have to sit and watch it; with a podcast I can wash dishes, I can go for a run, I can prepare lunch, I can drive around.
In fact that leads into my own inspiration for doing this. One aspect of which is having the pretext to talk to interesting people, and overcoming my introversion. I’m a writer who is very solitary, and exercising that muscle of approaching people is a good thing. So I do want to talk to you about anxieties going in. You know, approaching people you’ve maybe respected for a long time, and then suddenly thinking Oh crap, they said ‘yes,’ now what do I do?
Tim: Oh, I remember all this. I remember the first one, actually.
So just to put a pin in what we were just talking about — and then I’ll come back to Ed Catmull, who is the interview I was extremely nervous about — we are nowhere even close to, or 25 percent into, what anyone would consider a peak of any type. We are so early. If you look at the broader population, it’s a relatively small percentage of people in the US who listen to podcasts on a regular basis. There is so much money being pissed away in radio. And money brings talent.
You look at the evolution of MMA, mixed martial arts, and UFC, and how much it has accelerated in, say, the last 5-10 years…the podcasting world is still relatively tiny, and the number of big-spending creative agencies and brands coming in are very limited. They’re still on terrestrial, and that is just polishing brass on the Titanic; that’s going away. I mean, the money that is there is going to move in. We’re still super-early. So if you’re passionate about audio there’s still a lot of room left, a lot of runway left.
Tim: The interview question related to nerves: The first complete stranger I interviewed, with a name that I considered very widely recognized, was Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar. I was really nervous, and I had asked for something like 90 minutes, and he seemed very displeased that someone had scheduled him for a 90-minute interview.
Rolf: Was it a Skype interview?
Tim: Yep, it was Skype. And I remember exactly where I was. I was standing on Long Island, where I grew up, at a kitchen counter, which allowed the laptop to be at about chest height — same place I remotely interviewed you, actually. I had my tea in my water and everything ready to go, and I was nervous. I found the most useful ways to defuse that were multifold.
Number one is, just stating the obvious. Just telling them, I’ll be honest I’m a little nervous because of A, B, and C. I do this my podcast all the time. A, for setting low expectations on the part of the audience, which I think is the secret to happiness for everybody, and B, it engenders some degree of sympathy / strokes the ego, which are both helpful. So that’s number one. I’ll say something like that right up front. I did the same thing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was in person, in his kitchen. With Ed I viewed it as my obligation to him, but also to the listeners to demonstrate a few things relatively quickly. Number one that I had really done my homework. That is how you get, in my experience, busy type-A people to attention, that you respect their time enough to have put in the background work.
Rolf: What does the background work look like?
Tim: Let’s come back to that, because that’s a longer conversation. And so, second is very often identifying an area of interest or a tiny footnote, say in their Wikipedia page, about a side-obsession that you have not seen covered in other interviews.
For someone like Edward Norton for instance, who I was fortunate to know beforehand. Nonetheless, even if you know some people quite well, they can have a Pavlovian response to the little red record button in person and become more guarded. It’s very common among celebrities because they’ve been burned so many times. I wanted [Norton] to feel as comfortable as possible, so we talked about surfing. He is extremely passionate about surfing.
And with Ed Catmull, I really wanted to dig into some of his background, and the fact that he’d jumped from art into the hard sciences. To really zoom in on that decision and transition because I found it interesting for reasons that I could explain that seemed somewhat astute. He’s a guy who I knew from background research, and his own writing, who highly valued the powers of observation. What I find very frequently is, if I’ve done my homework I demonstrate that with good questions. I set the parameters very well at the outset — and I’m going to come back to that because that’s actually really important — before I hit “record.” Then I can make myself feel less nervous, and get people to open up and not feel rushed in such a way that they’re looking at their watch waiting for the interview to end.
Rolf: By setting parameters?
Tim: Yep. That’s what I want to cover next. So before I ever hit record what I try to do with everyone is spend just a few minutes — and this is when I will use video if I’m recording remotely — just so there’s a face associated. So I’m more of a human and less of a robot interviewer at the other end, who’s somewhat dehumanized. I’ll try to do just a little bit of video and I’ll ask a number of questions.
I’ll say from the outset that this is a “friendly,” there are no “gotchas.” You have final cut. So if there’s anything you say that you want yanked out later, just let me know and we’ll cut it out. I encourage them. I say, It’s better to be excessively open and then cut stuff out because I can’t add interesting things in later. This gets easier with time, and comes back to the question of guest recruitment, which we can touch on. So that’s number one: You have final cut. Which they do for Inside the Actor’s Studio, by the way, which is where I got the idea.
Secondly, I will ask them, What would make this interview a homerun for you? Three months after this publishes, if you look back at it, what type of people you want to meet? What actions would you like my audience to take? Is it book sales? Secondarily is there anything else? Because I can put my machine behind it in such a way — and position in such a way — to optimize for those outcomes.
Rolf: And this is before you hit record?
Tim: Before I hit record. And almost no interviewers ever ask question. So they’re like, “Huh, interesting. All right, thanks for asking.” And then they lay it out. OK, cool — so you want to do this, this, and this? Great, I’ll take this link and I’ll put it at the top of my show notes to increase the click-through rate, and A, B, C, D, and E.
The next question I always ask: It’s not unique to you, but is there anything you prefer not to talk about? So that we don’t even have to edit it later. Anything you don’t want to talk about? So some people say, you know, “I prefer not to talk about my son” or “I’d prefer not to talk about my family” or “X, Y, and Z lawsuit that everybody’s fascinated by — I’m over it, it’s just exhausting and it’s not that interesting or useful, I don’t want to talk about that.” Great, no problem; won’t even touch it. Those are a few of the questions that I ask.
What I’ll also do is a lay out a format of the show. I’ll say, As a context, so you know the roadmap: Typically what I’ll do is I’ll bounce all over the place for the first thirty minutes. It’s very nonlinear, so we’ll go all over the place just like a natural conversation, with questions are just of interest to me. Then we’ll do probably 30 minutes of asking, perhaps, audience questions — fans who submitted questions — and also talk about your new project, the reason you’re doing this interview, whatever that is. Then in the tail end will be my rapid-fire questions. Which I will very often send to people in advance so they don’t get stumped. Some of them look, some of them don’t. Then we’ll wrap up, and we’ll do a call to action. I’ll ask you what you would like everyone to do as a suggested next step, and I’ll record the intro later, so that I can also hit your new book, or your new fill in the blank. On top of that I’ll do A, B, and C to optimize for these outcomes you’ve already told me really important for you. Sound like a plan? Cool. And then they’re ready to rock and roll.
Very few interviewers — and I’ve been interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of times — I could count on one hand the people who have gone through that prep process with me. Very rare. So you’re immediately a standout. What I’ll sometimes volunteer also is that, You have final cut. You and I have both been misquoted in the media before, it sucks. It’s not a “gotcha” show. And so I’m also letting them know that I understand — and have experienced — what they have, in some capacity. If they’re concerned about something being cherry-picked and used out of context, it’s like, zero worries whatsoever.
Then there’s other things that happen before the interview ever starts: Asking them for, say, preferred photographs and preferred bio, and if they have any requested talking points or subjects that they’d like to explore. Some people send things, some people don’t, but I’m giving them the option. So they know exactly they were have a very good feel for the terrain that they’re going to encounter in the interview. So those are a few things that I use to them at ease. Which puts me at ease.
Rolf: And it helps you. I was going to say if they know the terrain, then it becomes a more self-guiding conversation.
Tim: It does, and they are also less prone to getting panicky about plugging their stuff. Early on I was guilty of doing this as well, because when you have media training they instill in you the importance of saying things [about your product], and it sounds so bad. Someone will ask you a question, and you pull a politician — you’re like, That’s a great question, which reminds me, as I wrote about, in my book, the 4-Hour Chef: Subtitle, blah blah blah blah blah. And you hear these do that like seven or eight times, and it’s terrible. You’re coached to do it, but it’s just awful. And people will get panicky because they feel like you’re going to end the interview unexpectedly, and they won’t have a chance to sell their book, or whatever it is.
So I’m just like, look, Got it covered. I’m really good at doing this, and I know why you’re doing the interview. We are going to check all those boxes, and I’ll hit a home run for you. But you need people to trust the messenger before they’re going to buy the message, so let’s just make fascinated by you — and then I will promise you I will sell a shit-ton of books. But we’re going to get there in, like, the second third.
Rolf: So it’s like reassurance.
Tim: Yeah, it’s reassurance. It’s like, look, I’ve seen this movie before, not my first rodeo, fill in whatever metaphor you prefer. And that, I find, very helpful. I also ask them, Do you have a hard out? Is there an exact time by which you absolutely need to be out? And if they do, OK. What will happen, very often, is that they’ll say is — like, their assistant or publicist signed them up for 90 minutes with me — “You know, I’d really like to finish in no more than 60 minutes.” I can tell you, without exception, a hundred percent of those have gone longer than 60 minutes — sometimes they’ve gone two to three hours, because once they realize I’ve done my homework and they’re having fun, then they just roll with it. I will also, if I’m hitting time, I’ll say I know we’re brushing up against your out-time, but are you okay with a few additional questions? And very often they’re like, “Zero rush, I can push my meetings, we can talk as long as you want.”
Rolf: Do you edit afterwards? Does a 90-minute conversation ever feel a little flabby, so you tighten it back to 60 minutes?
Tim: Almost never. I knew in the very beginning that I had to engineer everything for optimal simplicity, or I wouldn’t keep doing it. To that end I watched what Joe Rogan and Marc Maron did, which was effectively zero editing. This is fly-on-a-wall: You’re sitting at a dinner table having wine with all of us, and you’re going to hear all of it. Including the meanderings that don’t particularly go anywhere.
Rolf: You haven’t had any pushback from the audience?
Tim: I’ve absolutely had pushback. But here’s the thing: You’re going to have pushback from at least ten percent of your audience on any decision you make. If it’s short they’re going to say it should be long, if it’s long they’ll say it should be short. If you use fast, jazzy music they’re going to say you need rock music. Whatever you do you’re going to get pushback from a portion of your audience. Ultimately none of that matters if you stop doing the podcast because you’re doing something that you dislike. I very much optimize for my enjoyment, peace of mind, and ease. So there’s very little editing, but that also poses a tremendous challenge that I like. Which is How do you keep a two- or three-hour conversation — a handful of my podcasts have gone four hours — how do you keep that interesting the entire time? I like that challenge.
Rolf: You alluded before to framing questions in such a way that you’re making the useful part of the conversation more efficient. I want to touch on that in a second, but first I wanted to ask: In the interest of simplicity, did you ever consider a more produced podcast? Because I love This American Life and 99% Invisible and other things, and I’ve thought about doing some of that.
Tim: Those shows are a lot harder to create then most listeners realize. I would suggest, if you’re considering doing a show like that, that you fast forward to the end of This American Life and listen to the credits. All of those people are busting their asses. It’s not a lightweight job. It’s very stressful. I know a number of people and companies who produce brilliantly put together podcasts, and it’s a startup. Every single one of them. I had no desire to do that, and I also wanted to retain all control. I left the door open to doing that, and I have experimented with moderately produced formats, like my radio hour formats. Where I say, Today we’re going to talk about meditation, and I’ll pull out bits and pieces from different interviews. But I’m not going to try to out-NPR NPR.
As much as I enjoy the listening experience of This American Life, for instance, I am not going to compete on that playing field, because I’ll get my head served to me. It’s not fun for me, either. I know what the process is like, of capturing a lot of tape, going through, selecting tape, transcribing — it’s not a process that I really want to be a part of. So I prefer to get really good the transferable skill of keeping something interesting for two hours, because that applies to so many other areas. Whereas the very niche repertoire required, and process required, to put together a radio show does not actually transfer to many other places.
Rolf: It’s like conversation-craft versus story-craft. I was thinking as you were talking, it’s like the difference between asking your grandfather questions about his youth, versus making a documentary about your grandfather’s youth. In a way story-craft is very important, but it’s just a different monster the interview-craft. Interview-craft or conversation-craft can be practiced in real-time, whereas story-craft is a much more curated phenomenon.
Tim: If you were to look at the most critical top-level decision that is allowed me to have whatever degree of success I’ve had in podcasting, it’s keeping it simple, so that I don’t start to view it as a burden. Because I’ve seen hundreds of podcasts come out with people who have the potential — if we’re looking, say, iTunes ranking and downloads — they have the potential to beat me. Like if they stuck with it for 100 episodes, and put out really good content, and paid attention to the quality and were really meticulous, they have the name-recognition — these are really well-known people, a lot of celebrities, a lot of people who are good on radio, jumping into podcasting — and they flame out after ten episodes because they’re trying to be NPR. I have a high degree of confidence in the general misguided impulse to complicate format. And I just keep my primitive operation going.
I mean, you mention the intro music. The intro music that I got was from AudioJungle. It’s royalty-free music that I bought for, I don’t know, 50 bucks, and then threw in a little dialogue here and there. Jason Bourne and The Terminator and a couple other bits and pieces. Which in retrospect I would not recommend people do, probably. I’m still waiting for some cease and desist letter. I would discourage people from doing that, but in the beginning I was like, You know what, I’m not hurting anybody, I wasn’t monetizing in the beginning, so it wasn’t using someone else’s intellectual property for unfair gain, and which was a very deliberate decision on my part. I didn’t want to be distracted by the commercialization, or even marketing components of the podcast, because I knew that those would be easier for me than the craft-work of getting better at asking questions and focusing on the actual content. But that music — I’m still using the same, cheap-ass music that I got on Day One. And I’m totally OK with that.
Rolf: Was there a strategy behind that? To be some memorable and punchy and sort of weird?
Tim: It’s just me being me, honestly. And everybody is fucking weird. We just, to differing degrees, do a good job of covering it up and fitting ourselves into the box, whatever that box may be. I had such a brutal experience with The 4-Hour Chef, with so many cooks in the kitchen (pun intended). It was really demoralizing — I’m really proud of the book, but it killed me. And I wanted to just be my goofy, stupid self and drink too much wine with my friends, and record it and laugh my ass off about how stupid I was to get to the point where I slurring my speech, and not give a fuck. At all. And to put is out and have people go, Dude, really? And I proceeded to get drunk again in Episode Three, and I thought OK, this really shouldn’t be the expectation of the audience, that the second half of the interview is going to be really sloppy.
Rolf: Maybe a spin-off podcast.
Tim: Well occasionally I’ll do my “drunk-dial” podcast. This was another attempt to make things easier for myself. I was like How can I record a podcast and make it as easy as possible, but haven’t be fun for my audience? OK, well let me just get like a bottle of gin and some soda, sit down at Skype, and on social media just put out a call where people can fill out their name and phone number in a Google form, and then I’m like All right, from 7 to 10 I’m just gonna be sippin’ gin and making Skype calls, in the order received. And I’ll answer your questions, and get progressively less sober.
Rolf: So it’s like Drunk History but like, “Drunk Life-Advice with Tim Ferriss.”
Tim: Yeah. So it turned out great. Setting the expectation from the beginning — this is another pitfall of the NPR “produced approach” if you’re not committed to doing it with a team for a long period of time is that you’re imprisoned by this structure. And then if you want to do a drunk-dialing episode, people are like What the fuck is this? You know like, Who let this maniac into the recording booth? Whereas from the outset, if I’m like, Yeah, this is weird, I’m weird and you never know what the next episodes going to be, like the format can be completely different. But at the end of the day you will have actionable stuff that you can use. That’s the one constant. But otherwise it could be a politician one day and a porn-star the next. You just have no idea, and that’s part of the fun of it for me.
Rolf: Let’s jump on that — guest selection, guest invitation — how do you approach people? I presume you started the way I’m starting, which is talking to people you know who are doing things that are interesting.
Tim: Yeah. Which comes back to the ease. Play softball first. You don’t want a major leaguer throwing a fastball at your head in your first few outings. That unnecessary hardship. So in the beginning was friends. And then asking friends who I might have on. And then I began cold outreach. The cold outreach is hard no matter what, but I’ve had a lot practice pitching via email, in various ways, for a long, long time.
Rolf: That predate the podcast?
Tim: That predate the podcast, for sure. I was fortunate to be in a position where some of the interviewees or target interviewees had read my books, or at least had heard the name. So I think the format of the email is transferable, but the access I might have in the beginning is probably not.
Twitter is an excellent way reach otherwise out-of-reach potential interviewees. Because you can you can direct-message with someone if they follow you back without them giving you their contact information. This is a key characteristic of Twitter that makes it very useful. In fact for my new book — I just got a real copy of it yesterday, Tribe of Mentors — I reached 70% of them, these are people like Ben Stiller, Patton Oswalt, founders of various companies, people who would be very difficult for me to get on the podcast, who responded to questions that ended up in the book because I was able to figure out a way to get them to follow me so I could direct-message them on Twitter. It could be tweeting at them, it could be, say, re-tweeting something of theirs so that it gets commented on by your followers in such a way that if, for instance, they’re sorting by verified @-mentions. If you re-tweet something and then follow them immediately afterwards you’re going to pop up twice in their timeline, if you have a verified account. Or you may have a friend who has a verified account who could, like, “favorite” a re-tweet, it’s also going to pop up in someone else’s feed. And this is the game we play.
Rolf: This is deep-matrix Twitter strategy.
Tim: Yeah, this is not stuff I’ve talked about before. So that would be one approach. Then, in the email it’s very important that you put your best foot forward, so whatever tools you have to bring to bear on promotion. For instance you could figure out a way to partner with or contribute to Huffington Post, or Forbes, or some outlet whose credibility you can borrow. So you can say, Not only will you appear on the podcast along with these following people you might respect — but the transcript will also be turned into print pieces on this site, this site, and this site. There are many different ways to go about engineering reach in that fashion. But the “final cut” option for guests is a big piece. Giving guests final cut is a huge unfair advantage. Almost nobody does that.
With a book, different story. If you give people final cut/final approval edit on books? A lot of people fashion themselves writers, and you will have a huge mess on your hands with people sending back redlined documents. In podcasts, I have had maybe five people out of more than 300 ask to hear the interview afterwards, just in case there’s something they want to cut out. Nobody exercises the final cut right that I’ve given them. Almost nobody does that, because by the end of the interview they’re like, This guy is totally cool. There was no oblique strategy, no ulterior motive, it’s exactly what he laid out and told me it would be.
Rolf: And probably full-context too. You’re not cherry picking.
Tim: I’m not cherry picking at all. That’s also one of the benefits — I didn’t mention this earlier — of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get minimal editing policy. You can sell it as a benefit to the people being interviewed. I’m not going to cherry pick. It’s a conversation people going to hear record start to finish, unless there’s something you want to pull out. And they’re like, Weird, OK. For that reason, oddly enough, what’s happened in a number of cases — with Jamie Foxx and a bunch of different people — is, the answer they give me, the topic that they mention the beginning as something they absolutely don’t want to talk about (or that their team mentions they don’t want to talk about), they voluntarily bring up, say, an hour and a half in. Because, OK, wow this guy is actually legit, means what he says, is asking insightful questions — this is the perfect format and forum for me to tell the full story, or give the full context for this thing that’s controversial.
Rolf: I think traditionally interviews have been a little bit extractive, and if you can angle them towards a conversation, it feels less extractive, perhaps.
Tim: Another good question that isn’t a question at all — I borrowed it from Alex Blumberg, the co-founder Gimlet Media, who has a very good tool kit for interviewing — is Tell me a story about dot-dot-dot. So rather than, for instance, Can you describe your childhood? Super broad. The search function on that is really CPU-intensive for someone. And if it’s early on, which it typically is — most people, if they’re going to ask about childhood, do it in the very beginning an interview, before they’ve established enough trust and rapport. The person may be concerned that their parents are listening to the interview, or who knows. They’ll give you, very often, pretty pat answers — uninteresting undetailed answers. But if you say, Tell us a story about something your parents did with you as a kid that typifies what your experience was like from 5 to 10. That is not as polished as if I’d had time to think more about it, but Tell me a story about one of your most memorable rejections in the beginning days.
Rolf: Or I was even thinking just now, if you’d said Tell me about your childhood — I mean, you’d almost have to answer with geography. I’d say, Well I grew up in the middle of the country, and it was pretty normal. Whereas if you say, Tell a story, I’d say, Yeah, once I had a beer-drinking contest with my cousin Clint when we were five, because beer sort of seemed like pop, but it didn’t taste as good. And then pretty soon you’re five and you’ve had a beer. And suddenly you have a story — you don’t have a normal childhood in Kansas, you have, Well Rolf did this really weird thing when he was five. It’s more interesting.
Tim: And it’s not only more interesting and engaging for the listeners, it moves the interviewee into conversational mode and out of defensive-interview mode.
Rolf: I was going to ask you about that — about how to massage the conversation toward anecdotes, which in a way are more interesting than the information-exchange. Do you have any strategies for that?
Tim: There’s the Could you tell us a story about X. There’s also, can you give an example. The example is a really follow up to almost any question you could use to elicit an anecdote or a story.
Rolf: Plus silence, right?
Tim: If you get an answer where they say It really depends, or if they’re hemming and hawing, silence works really well there. Because they’ll usually capitulate if you’re just very earnestly waiting with bated breath, maintaining eye contact. And then they’ll have something to add.
Rolf: It’s interesting how similar this is — I’ve taught writing at a number of places, and sometimes a student’s initial impulse in writing is way up high on the ladder of abstraction. I’m constantly reminding students to take it down the abstraction-ladder and make it more concrete. You can write a story about love and not mention the word “love.” And sometimes it’s even better. I think “give me example” is a way of pushing abstract down to concrete levels of language.
Rolf: So, getting concrete, let’s talk about recording equipment. Now I’m recording on a Zoom H1, which you observed when we sat down is compact. It’s sort of a reporter’s digital recorder, and it can be used with any number of microphones and headphones — and actually I’m wearing headphones right now. And then I have these lav-mics — and I know that you and some other people that I’ve been interviewed by, like Ari Shaffir, the comedian, have used handheld mics. So tell us about your setup.
Tim: My general in-person setup is a Zoom H6 — so same manufacturer different model — and I like the H6 for a number of reasons, primary of which being that I can have up to six mics attached. With fair frequency I interview multiple people at the same time, and that was sometimes cumbersome to do with the H4, which I had previously. So the recording device that I use is the Zoom H6, which I like quite a lot. And then I use XLR cables, which are very standard cables, that connect to Shure hand mics. That can be an SM78, which are cheaper, or I have slightly more expensive, specifically designed to be for vocal-use microphones, also from Shure. They’re optimized for vocals, and they’re fantastic. In a pinch the ART2100 that I mentioned earlier, which is a USB mic, has an XLR jack, so that can also do double-duty, but it’s not very good for that. And that’s it! I will use ear buds of some type for sound-check, and then I take the headset off because I want people to forget they’re being interviewed, to the extent possible. That’s the system that works for me. It’s changed very little.
I now have editors handling the editing of my podcast, but out of the first 50 episodes I probably edited 30 of them myself, because I wanted to be confident I had a basic understanding of how to do it. I used GarageBand at the time. I wouldn’t recommend GarageBand. There are some limitations, that can become very problematic, where your audio can get trapped in GarageBand; you can’t export it, which is not what you want. I know people who have very successful podcasts who still use Audacity, for instance, which is free software.
But the point I was going to make is that I would very often export WAV files — higher quality than MP3s — as separate tracks from Ecamm Call Recorder, and then run those tracks through Auphonic, which is an online service that allows you to upload audio, and it applies noise reduction and leveling in a very interesting way. You just wait, and it does some of the most fundamental forms of cleanup on audio.
Rolf: It’s sort of auto-leveling?
Tim: Yeah, exactly. There’s also a mic called the YellowTec IXM, that I use sometimes, and it fits in a backpack, and it’s all self-enclosed, so everything I need to record its inside the mic, including the SD card. That hardware itself has auto-leveling, which is odd, and I don’t conceptually understand how it works, but it produces beautiful audio. It is an expensive mic — that one’s like $800 or $900.
Rolf: We can allude to all of this in the show notes. And maybe at some point I’ll ask you how you outline your show notes.
Tim: By the way: Why are show notes important? They help the listener, and they also get people to a website that you can control. Where you can develop a direct relationship with your podcast listeners, because that is not information you otherwise have. If distribution platforms change you want your audience to travel with you. You can’t do that if you less you have direct communication say, via a blog or social, or preferably email. So the show notes is also a way to get people to my site, so that they can become an opt-in participant with direct communication from me.
Rolf: That’s a great point. I have yet to study these distribution platforms. I know that iTunes is a big podcast medium. I know a lot of people use Stitcher, for example. Soundcloud, maybe? But the show notes allow you to curate the “guide” to your show.
Tim: And you offer additional resources that are of value, and you also provide yourself with the opportunity to develop a direct line of communication with your listeners.
Rolf: Just to stay on that topic, what are some other ways of building community? You’re already targeting the audience by giving them actionable information and keeping them in mind. How do you keep them around? How do you attract more audience members? How do you have listenership coalesce around a podcast?
Tim: I don’t have a magic playbook for this, other than just make the interview really, really, really fucking good. I mean it sounds like such an unhelpful answer, but to use a Silicon Valley analogy, the fastest-growing startups I’ve ever been involved with have almost I’ve focused nearly zero percent of their attention on marketing in the early days. They’re just constantly eliciting user feedback, so they can double down on the making the product as sticky and as word-of-mouth worthy as possible.
So I haven’t thought a whole lot about proactively creating a community around the podcast, but I have thought about trying to create the, say, seminal fill-in-the-blank subject 101 podcast on the Internet, that people can go to. So I will do a podcast with, say, Dominic D’Agostino, who is a published researcher and scientist, very familiar with ketosis, ketogenic diet, fasting, and cancer. And I will put together an episode — or a two-part episode some cases — that I intend to be the definitive audio introduction to all things ketosis and ketogenic diet. Which is a very hot topic these days.
Similarly, I will think about, say, cryptocurrency, which I’m very personally interested in, and ask myself How can I take this easily confusing subject and create a master class by incorporating experts who can start from the basic concepts, but also go as deep in the weeds as anyone on the planet? And architect that episode — how can you do that? That’s what I did with Naval Ravikant, and someone named Nick Szabo, who is a demigod within the world of cryptocurrency. There’s a lot of interesting speculation around Nick. That ended up being a huge hit in what most people would consider arcane or perhaps fringe subject matter. An entire podcast on currency, cryptocurrency, the origins of money. That seems like a very small podcast, [but] it has millions and millions of downloads.
Rolf: Are these [listeners] looking for information on cryptocurrency and that’s what they find — or is it that your existing audience starts passing it around by word of mouth?
Tim: It’s both. I really enjoy making podcast episodes for fanatical pre-existing audiences. I’m using “fanatic” in the positive sense — obsessive proselytizers who believe very strongly in the value of fill-in-the-blank. It could be blockchain, it could be some type of gymnastic strength training, it could be just about anything — the health benefits of the ketogenic diet.
I very much enjoy creating — I’ll use the cryptocurrencies as an example — an episode where someone who knows nothing about the subject can suddenly talk coherently with someone is well-versed about cryptocurrency, and simultaneously the alpha nerds who are on the cutting edge and actually developing cryptocurrency still find it interesting enough to listen to. That’s a unique challenge, at least for me. And I enjoy the challenge.
So in that case I brought in Naval, who is probably the person I go to most for any type of start-up related advice — and for those people who don’t know the background, I’ve invested in technology in Silicon Valley for a very long time; I was early in Facebook and Twitter and Uber and Alibaba and Duolingo and many others. But Naval is the person I go to for startup advice — he is very smart and strategic, and he spent the last few years learning everything he possibly can about cryptocurrency. So he knew the expert-level questions to ask, and then I could play the foil, Joe Average, which in that world I was at best average, so that I could look at it with beginner’s eyes and say Well wait a second, you just said X, but you’re using this word in a way that I thought I understood, but I don’t understand what that means at all. Do you mean this, this, or this? And then they would clarify. So it was a tag-team effort of sorts that worked out really well.
Rolf: How do you bring that out in your interviewee? Is it that old interviewer’s tactic of Please educate me, I don’t understand, can you clarify?
Tim: I only interview people about subjects I have a burning desire to learn more about. So it’s not hard for me. I think it’s more of a sincere interest than a tactical approach. I’ll just be like, Guys, I’m so excited about this, but I feel like and idiot. Maybe it’s because I’m from Long Island — my brain just doesn’t move fast enough — I still don’t understand what you mean by a blockchain. I’m like, What are we talking about? Can you give me an example that a knuckle-dragger like me might understand? It’s something like that. It’s the exact same thing I would say to them if we were having wine at a dinner table.
Rolf: But it’s also audience avatar stuff, because your audience wants you to ask that question. They don’t understand either.
Tim: Sure, and I’ll fill in the gaps for my audience, again in the interest of making things actionable. If I’m interviewing someone like Dom D’Agostino and he suddenly says, “well when you’re measuring BHB,” and then move on and I’ll say, Dom, let me just pause for a second, for people who don’t know what BHB is, it’s beta-hydroxybutyrate, it’s how you measure ketone levels in your blood, that is the actual substrate that you measure with a finger-prick, much like you would measure glucose. Sorry to interrupt; you were saying X. And then we move on. I’m providing the glossary a lot of the time when I do these interviews.
Rolf: Earlier you use the abstraction really fucking good, and it sounds like the concrete example of that for you is the “master class” strategy. Your way of being really fucking good is creating master classes, based on your own enthusiasm, on topics that interest you.
Tim: It is. And there are different approaches that I think could lead to faster growth, but I wouldn’t enjoy it, and I think that would lead to a certain malaise that would lead to me quitting the podcast. For instance many podcasts that follow the interview format are now getting very good at looking at Google Trends, seeing what’s in the news, and for instance — I’m blanking on the gent’s name, but he was fired after sending out a memo at Google — he was on some of the top podcasts within a week of that happening.
That’s a very good strategy for capturing explosive interest in a given person, particularly if you have a website, with show-links and so on, that has a high page-rank. Because then when people plug so-and-so name, topical person, into Google, the podcast will rank very highly. You end up getting hundreds of thousands of extra download, but I don’t want to do that. It’s the opposite of what I want to do. I do not want advice or conversations that are so topical that they will be primarily irrelevant in six months. I want people to be listening to podcasts that I did years ago, now — and years in the future, which has been the case.
I have a very unusual podcast in the sense that my back-catalogue still gets many millions of downloads every month, including my crappy Episode One, which is hilarious to me. My intentions is to create a class that stands the test of time, which seems like almost a quaint, naive goal in the jet-stream that we assume the Internet to be. It’s like “No, you put it out, and you have to feed the monster. You’re only as good as your last podcast, man!” I choose not to live in that world. And lo and behold, it seems to be working. Most people have really strong convictions about what you need to do in podcasting, or what you have to do on Instagram don’t have a lot of evidence. Maybe they have some personal anecdotes, maybe a few pieces of data, but very little evidence to justify the strength of their convictions.
Rolf: So there’s a lot of people chasing the wind, so to speak.
Tim: Yeah, or just a lot of people doing the same thing. Which is anathema to how I like to compete. I compete by finding a space that people just neglect entirely, or think won’t work. It’s a much easier game. It’s like playing chess against an opponent who isn’t there.
Rolf: This has folded back into your brand. I want to get back to some final nuts-and-bolts things, but really your podcast folded back into Tools of Titans, and your new book, Tribe of Mentors. Is that book also an offshoot of the podcast?
Tim: It’s an offshoot in some respects. So Tools of Titans was a choose-your-own-adventure guide to the highlights of the podcast — with some additional material. That ended up turning out exceptionally. I was really happy with how Tools of Titans turned out. It’s a lot of my readers’ favorite book that I put out, which is both exciting and depressing at the same time. Because the other books were so much harder! But I’ve learned in my advancing years that maybe you don’t have to redline for everything. Maybe that’s not the greatest indicator of eventual quality or value to other people. So Tools of Titans was a huge win for me — the most successful book launch I’ve ever had.tribe
Rolf: How is that measured?
Tim: Total units of sales. More than 100,000 copies in the first week alone, and then it’s still going very strong. I think it’s still in the top 200 or 300 on Amazon, and just kind of hovers there.tool
Tribe of Mentors was a different exercise. I took eight of my rapid-fire questions from the podcast, that I’d refined in over 300 interviews to be both listener and guest favorites. I slightly modified them, added three more of my own — all of which are intended to help me personally — and sent them out to 200-plus people, recognizing that not all of them would respond. I asked them to answer their favorite three to four questions — or more, if the spirit moved them.
Tim: This is actually a beautiful illustration of what I was talking about earlier. We were talking about choosing projects based on the skills and relationships you develop. All right, so I interview 300 people, which means I know 300 people. That shouldn’t just be a simple statement. I have become friends with almost everyone I’ve interviewed. We’ve done business deals together, we’ve traveled together. I’ve really developed long-term relationships with these people, because in almost all cases they had a great experience in the interview — and then I delivered on the promises I made in the beginning. What a novel concept! But apparently it doesn’t get done a lot.
So I have those relationships. Then I have the skills — i.e. the questions I’ve refined over several years — and so I took those questions, explained what I was trying to do with the book to these 300 people, and said Who do you think should be in the book? Before you know it my book is half done, based on that alone. That also comes back to guest recruitment. Now I would say 70% of the people I’ve had on the podcast come through past guests.
Rolf: Do you get publicists [approaching you] now?
Tim: I do get publicists reaching out, which is totally fine — and actually very useful, as long as their playbook can be adapted to my format. Many of them are going to coach their clients to come in and say, “As I wrote about in my book, coming out November 21st, Tribe of Mentors: Short Advice From the Best in the World…” And to drop that every 30 seconds, which would make me insane. Thankfully I have that pregame conversation with everyone, and generally if they’re on my podcast they’ve had enough experience in the world that they totally get it. So yes, I do now have publicists coming to me, and I have made it clear that I’m also not going to be podcast number 10. It’s just not of interest to me. So if we’re going to do it, I want to be number one, and I want to come out probably two weeks before the book comes out — it’s usually book pitches.
Tim: That was book-related. Man, did I luck out on that. That’s an example of where circumstance and luck seemed to the outward world to be a genius plan in action — which was my episode coming out the day she won her first comeback match in the U.S. Open. And people were like, “Oh my God, amazing timing, genius!” And I was like, OK, I’ll take credit for it, but it was just pure dumb luck. I was very happy with that episode, she’s very smart.
Rolf: It sounds like the concept of good-faith helps. You do an interview in good-faith, you have certain principles and operating procedures…you keep good-faith on that and the actor who enjoys his interview experience recommends another actor. I assume.
Tim: It’s actually better than that. I keep saying “300 interviews” — the reason I got to 300 interviews because of the snowball effect of maintaining this goodwill and having that pregame talk, and then delivering. And also — key point — unless they volunteer and ask how they can help, I never ask people to promote their own episode. That’s a huge pet peeve that I have, is like, “Hey, I want to have you on my podcast — oh, can you do all the promotion for your own episode and share it with your audience and do it three times a week?” And I’m like, Why would I do that if I’m coming to you for public relations with a public that I don’t already reach? It doesn’t make any sense for me, and it’s very frustrating. I deal with that constantly, so I almost never ask people to promote — unless they say, “Hey I’d love to promote, let me know when it’s out, and I’ll do what I can.”
Rolf: I do a lot of podcasts, and that’s quite common.
Tim: It’s such an easy differentiator. It’s like do the fucking work yourself. Do the heavy lifting, so they don’t have to. Make it easy, and then they will recommend your show to their friends. It’s playing the long game. I struggle to come up with one case where I’ve asked someone to share an episode of theirs that was published through my podcast. As you said, you interview an actor, and they recommend their friend, another actor… It turns out people who very good at what they do know people in many fields who are very good at what they do.
Tim: Yeah, that’s how I met Laird. I went to work out with Laird the first time with Neil Strauss and Rick Rubin. And then you get to know Laird, and Laird knows a bunch of amazing people in different worlds, and on and on it goes. Or you meet, say, Peter Attia, who is a doctor, a very close friend, I’ve had on the podcast several times. One of the most brilliant people I know — also hilarious — and he introduced me to Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL commander who’s gone on to create his own digital universe. Has done exceptionally well, and his first public interview ever was on my podcast. And then lo and behold Peter also knows director Darren Aronofsky, who directed The Wrestler, Black Swan and so on — Darren’s a fascinating guy, and I had Darren on the podcast, and Darren ended up in the book. At some point, hopefully I’ll go out and have a bunch of tequila with Darren and we’ll probably find somebody else. Maria Popova introduced me to a number of very fascinating people, and it doesn’t take many to build up that goodwill. But so few people do the pregame and the follow up.
It’s such an easy way — or maybe it’s not easy, it’s simple; maybe that’s why people don’t do it — it’s such a simple way to distinguish yourself.
Rolf: I think this is something that can be unique to podcasting, too. Because you aren’t ABC local channel 5, you’re not the Wall Street Journal. It’s not an institutional approach to talking to people. And there aren’t institutional expectations, just the expectations that you have, and your own definition of what’s really fucking good.
Tim: Yeah, and another benefit of running lean — and I have people to help with a sponsorship now, and also scheduling and production and so on, but a super lean team — I own everything. I don’t have to get any approvals. So, for instance, why don’t more producers offer their guests final cut? Well it may be in some cases that they want to get the salacious sound bites that they can capitalize on. There is a lot of that — there is too much of that, which is precisely why I didn’t want to inject any of that negativity into my podcast. Secondly, if there’s a staff with the director and then supervisor and a boss, you as the interviewer can’t just unilaterally decide to give people final cut. That might make other people’s jobs difficult — or it might obviate the need for certain jobs. “Uh-oh, wait a second, but we have two full-time editors! Gotta keep those hands busy!”
It’s just so much cleaner for me, and where was the time — and still where I am now — to just say, You know what, I don’t want to fucking do X, I won’t do X! Or like recently, very sadly, one of my friends died — just maybe a week ago — of complications related to metastasized pancreatic cancer, and I just recorded a podcast with him two weeks or so earlier. I had to go back, as you would expect, and re-record the intro, and change things quite a bit.
It was really difficult for me. Almost all of my podcast episodes now have sponsors, and the sponsors have like a 90% renewal rate — it’s a very successful show for sponsors. I just told my team, I’m like Yeah, no sponsors this episode. It’s poor taste, I just can’t. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. So yeah, just yanked ’em. No sponsors. If they get pissed, tell them they can wait. And if they don’t want to wait and they get really upset, tell them they can take a walk.
Rolf: Well that’s an ethical call: You don’t feel right doing that. I think one reason why more traditional interviewers don’t give that first right of final cut is the old journalistic ethic — the institutional ethic, which is well-meaning, and goes back 100 years, where you don’t interview a politician and let him choose what’s included or not. If you take away the institutional level of the broadcast, then the ethos becomes personal. Final cut is not a problem because these are good-faith conversations. You’re not trying to get the politician to really talk about the bond issue, you’re just having a conversation.
Rolf: Is your podcast year-round, or do you go season-by-season?
Tim: It’s year-round, six episodes a month on average. That makes it easier to plan an editorial calendar. Whereas, in the beginning, the first hundred episodes — maybe 200 episodes — I was flying by the seat of my pants. So I might have four one month, eight the next, ten one month, none the next — it was all over the place. I wouldn’t necessarily strive for a very high degree of structure in the beginning. But I’ve settled at six episodes a month. I feel like anything beyond that, in the interest of, say, scaling monetization, is a disservice to regular listeners, most of whom can’t possibly absorb that many hours of audio in a given month. And it will cause — and I’ve seen this happen, with other podcasts — a degree of anxiety among regular listeners, who then stop listening altogether.
So frequency is currently six per month, keeping in mind the length ranges from 90 minutes up to three-plus hours. I’ve found the sweet spot is 90 minutes to two-and-a-half hours. Metabolism of glucose in the brain seems to tap out at about two-and-a-half hours for most folks.
Rolf: So you’re done with the interview itself, and you go back and record the intro to the interview. Tell me how you do that.
Tim: First, I would just say on the music side, there are podcasts that do very well without intro music. That’s not the right place to invest a lot of a lot of calories. The introduction that I record afterwards is typically around two minutes long. In the beginning I will normally give my usual 10-to-20 seconds of explaining what the Tim Ferriss Show is, in case it’s a new listener. Not all shows do this, but it’s important for me to distinguish why this interview-format show is different — it’s the practical/tactical takeaway nature of what I’m fishing for. Then I will look at the conversation, any notes I have, anything I’ve highlighted that I think might tantalize and excite my listeners. I will normally type that out in Evernote.
So here’s what happens: I think this will be the most useful way to describe the process. Find a guest, let’s say via Twitter. We go back and forth — and that direct contact is very important. Just as a side-note, I think that going after celebrities is largely a waste of time if you’re going through proper channels. So if you’re going through the publicist, who then goes to the agent, who then goes to the manager, who then goes to the celebrity? It’s just never going to happen, or it will take forever. That is a huge time-sink. I would encourage people to mostly ignore celebrity unless you can contact them directly. If you look at my top 25 episodes — most popular — at least half of them are from or featuring guests that my listeners had never heard of before.
Rolf: So who are some of your counterintuitive top guests?
Tim: Jocko Willink — hugely, massively popular episode. Legendary Navy SEAL commander from the special ops world, had never done a public interview. Now has his own podcast, has had multiple bestselling books. He has become an industry to himself. Debbie Millman, who is certainly in the design world, I think, very well respected and well-known — but not a celebrity per se. She is one of the top-five most-popular and most-downloaded episodes of all time. In that episode, I noticed — and this is coming back to guest prep — in looking at past interviews she had done, in reading the texts, I noticed that she never talked about her childhood. It was always one or two lines, then they moved on to something else. So I asked her in the pregame conversation if we can delve into her childhood a bit because I never saw it discussed. She said, “Maybe, let me see how I feel” — and it ended up that she talked about extensive sexual abuse that she had suffered as a child, for the first time publicly on my podcast. That type of very vulnerable conversation also happened with Shay Carl, who is a YouTube phenom, raised Mormon, who talked about his battle with alcoholism for the first time.
But coming back to the process: I find someone on Twitter, let’s say, introduce them to my assistant via email. My assistant then has a podcast prep document, which outlines the nitty-gritty of getting ready for, say, a Skype interview: Make sure you turn off Dropbox, Slack — it’s a checklist of sorts. Here are a few options for audio, if you would like a mic we will gladly mail you an ATR2100. I routinely use Amazon Prime to mail mics to people. And then my assistant will also ask for a few different biographical pieces, for instance the preferred headshots, preferred bios, all of which she puts into a Dropbox folder. Then she goes into Slack, into the Tim Ferriss Show channel, and has, say “Rolf Potts prep material” linked to Dropbox. So now everyone on my team has access to that prep material.
I do my research — reading of interviews, watching interviews — and I prepare for an interview with you, let’s say.
Rolf: Your “team” meaning your editor and producer?
Tim: My team meaning my assistant, if there’s any follow-up required; my effectively CMO, who handles all my sponsorship interaction, as well as editorial-calendar scheduling — and he quarterbacks to editors. So he would take the raw files, take the dropbox link, send it to an editor, and they would piece it together. Also I have a researcher who sometimes gets involved.
Rolf: Do you have a research file? Do you have someone who does online research before the interview?
Tim: There are a few different things that I do. I had no one help me with prep until maybe 20 episodes ago. I did all the prep myself. I still do a lot of prep myself, but I’ve found a format that works very well for my researcher to help me prep. What he will do is watch three or four long-form interviews, and his job is very specifically to pull out what he feels are the home-run stories. He will identify, say, five or six really good stories that the interviewees are clearly comfortable telling, that they seem excited to tell, and he’ll provide me with cues that can be used to line up those stories.
Unlike Inside the Actor’s Studio, where James Lipton knows the answer to every single question he’s going to ask — he never deviates in the order of his questions — that is uninteresting to me. It’s very effective, but it’s not what I want to d. So I will have 90% questions I do not know the answer to, but then I want to front-load the interview with a few “golden nuggets” that I know are guaranteed crowd-pleasers. And those are some of the stories. It also allows them to warm up. That [information] will be put into a Google Doc, and dropped into the Tim Ferriss Show channel on Slack. So, a “Rolf Potts, Interview Review with Stories” Dropbox link.
Once we’ve recorded the interview, what happens next is that I export the WAV files as separate tracks into a “Rolf Potts” audio folder, and I allow those to synch via Dropbox, so that they’re backed up. Then I go into Evernote, and I create a note called “Rolf Potts Podcast.” At the top I put “Headlines” in all caps. There are a number of sub-headings in this document. You have “Headlines,” “Edits,” “Audio Files,” “Blog Post.” After the interview, while it’s still fresh in my head, I’ll write down a couple of different potential headlines that could be used — both for uploading to our audio host, but also for social testing.
Rolf: Headlines meaning the title of the episode?
Tim: Right. So it’s “Episode 313” or “Rolf Potts: Master Traveler” or “Storytelling on the Road.” Who knows? “Tactics from a Global Traveler.”
Rolf: I think “Travel Tactics, Time Wealth, and Lateral Thinking” was the name of my interview with you years ago.
Tim: Yes, and I tested multiple headlines, via social.
Rolf: You asked people via social media?
Tim: No, I put out multiple posts with different headlines, same image, and see which gets the highest number of re-tweets. And the winner — I will take that final winning headline, and replace whatever placeholder blog-post title I had, and maybe even change the name of the episode in, say, iTunes and so on. All right. So I have the headline ideas.
Next is “Edits.” Why do I put edits before audio files? Because I want to make sure everyone sees the edit notes — some of them can be important, like “Oh, no, I talked about this lawsuit we shouldn’t have talked about. We need to cut that out.” Or, “Oh no, Tim’s stupid goatee was scratching up against the audio at this point and I told him to knock it off, so let’s cut that little interjection.” Or somebody made some joke about their wife or husband that they know is going to bite them in the ass, it’s like, “Let’s take that out.” Rough time-code, and any notes related to edits. Then next we have “Audio Files.” Audio Files is a link to the Dropbox audio folder. And it might still say “intro needed” — so they know that the intro is coming.
Then the “Blog Post,” and the Blog Post is effectively a script for my introduction — at least, the initial text. So it’ll say, “This episode features none other than Rolf Potts” and then I’ll put your Twitter handle in parentheses after that, and we’ll have your preferred bio, which I’ll probably tweak a little bit, just to be in my voice. “In this wide-ranging conversation we cover a lot of topics, including” — I look at my notes — “Oh, we really talked about whatever it might be.” You know, “creating Japanimation while on psychedelics” — fantastic, that’ll definitely get some play, that’s going to be one of the bullets. And I’ll lay out five bullets. Sometimes I will throw a caveat in, which is very common. For instance, it is incredibly frequent that it takes ten minutes to just get warmed up. I realize that it’s going to be slow for people in the beginning, so I’ll just say, “Takes us about ten minutes to get warmed up, be patient, it gets really meaty.”
Rolf: You’ll say that in the intro?
Tim: I’ll say that in the intro. And, “Without further ado, please enjoy my conversation with Rolf Potts.” I’ll do, sometimes, four or five takes of that and choose the best one. Then I drop it into Dropbox with the rest of the audio files, and off to the races. I will then — it sounds like a lot, guys, but it happens very, very quickly — take a link to that Evernote doc, and go to the “Tim Ferriss Show” channel on Slack, and put, you know, at Adam, who handles this, “New podcast ready for editing,” in all-caps, “Rolf Potts”, link to the Evernote document that will have everything he will need, and everything the editor will need, and then my job is done. I do not do live sponsor reads; I prerecord all of that, so that I know I have the best read that will convert the highest. And my job is done.
Rolf: So then your assistants edit, do the blog post, all the rest of the stuff?
Tim: All of that is handled by other people. In the beginning I did it all myself. So I know how to do it. But it’s not the best use of my time right now. My time is better spent on figuring out how to create the next master class — which requires quite a bit of planning, if I’m going to do it really well.
Rolf: I think my audience will be curious, even though I’m a long way from this point, at what point did you shift into monetization? And how do you manage that now? I mean, from the sound of it, it’s worked really well for you. So what insight might you have, as far as when to and how to monetize?
Tim: Just to give people a top-line assessment: The podcast currently generates more revenue on an annual basis than all of my books combined — several-fold. I don’t think that would have been possible if I had been distracted early on with trying to monetize. I’ll explain why.
When you have very few downloads, the available pool of prospective ways to monetize are all a bit hokey — and in some cases they’re affiliate deals. You’re not interacting with, generally speaking, sponsors who are going to be able to scale with your show if it becomes very successful. The most critical sacrifice that you make when you focus on monetization too early is you start doing things just because you think they will be popular and get a lot of downloads — and your creativity, in my opinion, is highly compromised. The work becomes secondary to the pitch that you make to advertisers. I’ve seen this happen to quite a few people — and, by the way, all those people have stopped podcasting, that I’m aware of.
On the other hand if you get to the point where your podcast is getting say 100,000 downloads per episode — which is a very respectable number — you have done a proof-of-concept on a number of levels. First, you’ve demonstrated that through the craft alone you have created a product that people like. By the way, if you can’t do that first you’re only going to have few months of monetizing maybe — and it’ll peter out, because you haven’t created something that has a good product-market fit.
So you get to 100,000. Second, you have numbers that can get the attention of companies that spend millions of dollars on podcasts. Some people who are listening to this podcast may never have heard of these companies, but nonetheless they are very fast-growing and put a lot of budget into podcasts. Like MeUndies, the underwear company — they make great underwear! — they started with me really early on, 99 Designs, another that started with me really early on. If you listen to podcasts — let’s just say the top-50 on iTunes — you’re going to hear, at this point, the same 20 companies.
Tim: Those companies have the budget and the willingness to grow with you, so that when you get to a million downloads an episode, or 500,000 downloads an episode, you don’t have to start from scratch and find new sponsors, which can be very time-consuming. This also brings up the question of whether or not you should have an ad-sales partner or do it yourself. If you do not have the business-building or business-management experience, I would probably advise that you look at companies to partner with — whether that’s a Panoply, or a Midroll, [which are] probably the best-known. I’m very comfortable selling, and putting together sales pipelines, and training people to sell my products effectively. It was a very easy decision for me to decide to do it internally. I can handle the processes, I’m not scared of by accounting, and any types of accounts receivable, and so on.
Rolf: Did you start out doing it yourself, or once you monetized you had a team?
Tim: I did not have a team, initially. If it’s The Tim Ferriss Show and I stop doing it, it’s hard to continue with The Tim Ferriss Show. I asked “What would this look like if this were easy, and sponsors approached me?” The way it usually works is, We get X, Y, and Z episodes, we pay you net-30 or net-60, which means 30 or 60 days after the episode runs, you give us analytics access so we can look at the numbers.
So what I decided — and not everyone has the luxury of doing this — but I do not regret it, it was the most important business decision I made for the podcast, I said, I’m not going to give a bunch of people analytics access — because that just creates a meddling that I don’t want to contend with — and everybody has to pre-pay. You are going to get your money’s worth, or I’ll give your money back. Super simple. But as a very lean solo operation at that point, I don’t have the desire or the capacity to deal with a bunch of accounting — and chasing you down just in case somebody gets sick or whatever it might be, I don’t want to deal with any of it. So prepay; if it doesn’t work I’ll give you the money back. I’ve done that with every single sponsor since. That also narrows the field of entities I can interact with, because if I’m going through intermediaries, like a creative agency, that causes all sorts of issues. The whole pay-up-front thing doesn’t go over very well when you have intermediaries.
I turn down 80 or 90 percent of the companies who come to me. Why? Because I don’t use their products myself personally. If I wouldn’t tell my friends about a product over drinks or at dinner, they don’t end up on the podcast. That means I have turned away millions of dollars — probably at this point more than ten million dollars of sponsorships, who are ready to pay up-front 500,000-plus dollars, I’ve turned away because it only takes one product that’s iffy, that maybe I wouldn’t really get behind otherwise, to lose complete trust and credibility with my audience. So by the time they make it I have a very high confidence-level that they’ll convert well and want to re-up.
The only way, by the way, that you can get a volume discount — because of course people are going to ask — is by buying as many episodes as possible in advance. Because my rates continually go up. So I’m like, You want a discount? I’ll tell you what — the best way to get a discount is to buy a lot of episodes right now, because my rates are going to go up next quarter.
Rolf: So they buy by the episode?
Tim: Right. So I’ll say, I’m guaranteeing, say, 500,000 downloads by week 6 after publication, and I’m charging, say, $60 CPM, which is what I charge — it is very premium — then two quarters from now, after a book launch that ties into the podcast, I anticipate that I’ll be guaranteeing 800,000 and charging accordingly. So if you want to save money buy in advance, buy 12 episodes right now. Then we can schedule out over the next two quarters, and you’ll be saving a 25 percent or so on the cost of your episodes. That works. People do well. Then I will ask those companies, Do you know other companies that are non-competitive to yours that could be a good fit for this podcast?
Rolf: And that works?
Tim: That works. Why? Because it delivers such returns that they look good by referring their friend to a form of advertising that has a very low CPA — cost per acquisition — for new customers. I’ve got to say, compared to all the other smashing-my-head-against-the-wall that I do, like writing books, it’s relatively easy. But that’s by design — it didn’t happen accidentally. I had to resist the temptation to complicate, or to do whatever the consensus is, repeatedly.
Rolf: It sounds like simplicity is just underpinning everything here.
Tim: All of it. Yeah.
Rolf: How do you wrap up your podcasts?
Tim: I generally end with, Where can people find you to learn more about you? Where can they go to say hi to you on social media? Is there anything you’d like them to check out particular?
Rolf: What have we missed? Is there anything else for me — and for me as the avatar for the beginning podcaster — to keep in mind moving forward?
Tim: Do it for yourself. Make each episode interesting to you, fun for you — and it will be fun for the audience. Listeners are not dumb. They have highly attuned intuition, especially with the concentration that can come from audio-only, without the visual distraction. If you are pretending to be interested, it’s very obvious. Choose people, choose topics that you are stoked about. If you’re excited, and you’re good at asking questions, it can be anything.
For instance, I talked to someone who’s also done very little media. He is a master Japanese knife-smith. We talked about knife-smithing the entire time. Very popular episode. It’s not like I did a bunch of market research and decided that on Google Trends it seems that Japanese knife-smithing is the search turn to bet on. I’m just a nerd who loves Japan and happens to love knives — let’s put those two together, PB&J, — hot damn, cool! — and we’ll talk about knives for two hours, and Japan, and nerd out about Japanese proverbs. How many people in my audience are really into Japanese proverbs? Not many. But if I’m really into it, and this gentleman Murray Carter, who became the 18th generation master knife-smith in his lineage from Japan, other people will be interested. You can you can get them interested. So do it for yourself, and the rest falls in line. Don’t try to create something for an imaginary audience that’s different from you. Do not do that.
Rolf: It sounds like maybe one of my take-homes is to have the podcast have a point-of-view. Which is good advice for travel writing and other things as well. We’ll see where my podcast is in a year, and I’m being pretty chill about it. But I think the idea of having a point-of-view — I mean, those are my favorite podcasts to listen to.
Tim: Have a point-of-view, but also: Would you keep doing it, even if you just had your costs covered? Are you developing the relationships, skills, acquiring the knowledge, to make it worthwhile in and of itself? Maybe you just pretend that the audio equipment isn’t there. So forget about the recording component. Just the conversations — would you take the time every week to do what you’re envisioning for your podcast because you’d be that stoked to do it? If the answer is yes, the prospects are very good for the podcast.
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