The Case for Umms and Erms

What’s the deal with presidents and their love of a good “erm”? You’ve got Justin Trudeau’s infamous address that saw him utter fifty “umms” in just over a minute, and then there’s the fact that Boris Johnson’s “erms” are so prominent they feature on a printed face mask! On the surface they might be annoying to listen to, or they might give the impression that the offending speaker is ill informed, but an article in New Scientist magazine actually explains the important purpose these filler words serve, and that they might, in fact, be linked to intelligence. But none of this matters if you’re editing a podcast, and your guest has done nothing but “erm” all the way throughout. Intelligent or not, it can sound pretty annoying, and you’ll probably want to go in and cut them all out. But don’t get too carried away!

Podcast editors know that there’s so much more to editing than cutting out “ums” and “ahhs”, but it’s still a massive part of the job. However, if you’re too haphazard with your cuts, you can make a conversation sound incredibly robotic and unnatural. Some “erms” flow between the words that proceed and follow them, making a seamless cut nigh on impossible. What’s worse than an erm? A bad edit that’s obvious to the listener. An important rule in editing is that the listener shouldn’t notice there’s anything missing. But more than that, some people actually put “erms” to good use. A good “erm” is one that allows the speaker to quickly shift gear, to change the topic or pace of the conversation. If you get rid of that “erm” you undo the intended effect.

If you’re stressing out over an “erm” that you just can’t seem to cut out, don’t stress! Leave it in and put your time to better use focusing on the actual content of your show.

Why you should say yes to a radio or podcast interview

Having spent ten years working as a journalist for the BBC, I’ve made an insane number of cold calls to business owners and event coordinators to ask: “Would you speak about that on the radio?” Far too often, the answer was a hard and simple “no”. Now I get it, you’re a bit shy, you’ve never done it before, you’re worried about being grilled, or being asked unexpected questions… or the classic “I don’t like the sound of my own voice”. But these are all pretty arbitrary reasons for saying no. I didn’t like the sound of my own voice when I started, and now I love it. Or at least it’s tolerable now. But seriously, this list is only of concern to someone who hasn’t appeared on the radio or a podcast before — because anyone who’s actually done it always says, “When can I do that again?!”

Maybe you’re not worried about any of those things. Perhaps you’re a sceptic and what to know “what’s in it for me?” Well, I’ll tell you!

Free publicity. $563 billion was spent on advertising globally in 2019… why not take some free publicity when you get the chance? Say you’re a small business owner, who for some reason has grabbed the attention of the local radio station. You might get a call out of the blue, and quite rightly you might put up your defences. The worry is that you’ll say something wrong, your comments will be taken out of context, or you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of the argument. But don’t overthink it. Compared to written journalism, it’s extremely difficult to take what you’ve said on the radio out of context, because it’s you saying it — but if you’re really concerned, only accept interview requests from the outlets you trust. Just think of what you gain if you say yes! You’ve had the name of your business broadcast to thousands of people in your area, people who have never heard of you now know your name, and customers can now put a face and personality to a previously faceless company. No matter your industry, the business case is clear.

Self-development. Business leaders the world over are clamouring for a chance to stand on a stage in front of a 300-strong audience, whether it’s at their local TEDx event, or at a university lecture, and you’re thinking of passing up the opportunity to speak to thousands? Added bonus: a radio interview prepares you for the moment you’re asked to stare your audience in the eyes — and, trust me, it’s not nearly as scary! You get the chance to improve your conversational skills and get comfortable with your message by bouncing off a trained journalist or broadcaster without ever having to see the people you’re talking to. It’s a no-brainer! You’ll also be able to build your portfolio, adding each appearance to your accomplishments list on LinkedIn, or your personal website. And if you’re good, you’ll be asked back time and again, positioning you as a thought leader in your field.

It’s fun! As I said earlier, I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t want to have another go after appearing on a podcast or radio show. Whether it’s for a brief four-minute news piece, or an hour-long, in-depth interview, you become the star of the show. You get to talk about an area you’re truly passionate about with a person who’s literally trained to be a good listener, so it’s kind of like therapy! And who knows what it could lead to? One psychotherapist I regularly contacted for opinions on emerging trends and topics ended up setting up his own podcast after discovering his passion for the world of audio. Another guest I brought back regularly for appearances on a Friday night magic show applied and was shortlisted for the BBC’s New Voices scheme. Just give it a chance, and if you don’t like it, you never have to do it again. But say yes, and you never know where it could take you!

How to be interviewed?

There’s a good chance that at some point in your life you’ll be asked to speak to the media. It could be because of the position you hold in your job, it could be because of your hobby or a sport you play, or you might simply be collared on the street by a roving journalist with a microphone or TV camera. Whatever the reason, whether you’ve pursued the media opportunity or it’s just landed on your lap unexpectedly, you should make sure you’re prepared. So how do you do that?

The most important thing is to go in with a lot of energy. Try to be a more energetic version of yourself. This means when you’re talking, sound enthusiastic — it often helps to talk a bit louder than you would normally. Smiling whilst you talk will help with this too. Of course, if the answer is serious you should lose the smile, but don’t lose the energy.

Don’t be afraid to take pauses to think — it’s much better than constantly filling in the spaces with ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’. Don’t rush your answers, speak slowly, but not at a snail’s pace as that can be boring — just quick enough that each point is clear.

Think about the length of your answers. The worst thing for an interviewer is when they ask a long or detailed question, and then you simply answer; “yep”. It throws them off, and they have to scramble for another question, which makes things difficult for both of you. Even if they ask a closed, yes or no question, give a full answer, but avoid going on and on, or repeating yourself — this is particularly important for radio. For TV however, you don’t want to respond with “yep”, but you should keep your answers a bit tighter. That’s because they’re likely looking for a soundbite of no more than 20 seconds long. It’s not always easy to give an answer that’s the perfect length, but as long as you don’t feel like you’re droning on, or have said only a couple of words, you should be alright.

Come armed with a notepad, and before the interview, write any notes you might need. If it’s relevant, prepare some statistics you think the listener might be interested in. Any stats you do have should be written in a way that is clear. If the figure is 10,562, instead say ‘more than 10,000’. And although you might want notes, you absolutely do not want to come in with a script. The interviewer won’t like it, and it will come across sounding very staged, and will turn people off.

Feel free to write notes as the interviewer asks questions, so you don’t lose track of your answer. However you might be pressed to write anything because often questions are kept short and succinct, but it doesn’t hurt to have a pen in hand.

If you don’t know the answer to something, you can say so. It’s okay not to know all the answers. But do try to answer when you can, because ideally you don’t want to say “I don’t know” more than once or twice. Sometimes the interviewer will have phrased their question badly, so feel free to ask them to repeat it — they won’t word it the same way twice. Oh, and don’t say, “That’s a good question.” They know it is — they asked it!

Avoid getting anxious, nervous or becoming argumentative if the interviewer asks a difficult or challenging question. You don’t want to seem defensive — so always answer questions calmly.

Use as little jargon as possible — say everything in layman’s terms so that anyone listening can understand what you’re saying. Relate what you say to events that people will have heard of.

For radio and podcast interviews, practice good microphone etiquette. Before you go on air, or before the recording starts, your levels will be tested. Often people speak too quietly during level check, or say singular words. Even if you only had a coffee for breakfast, when they ask the question, lie! Give them an elaborate spiel about what you had, they don’t actually care what you had, they just want to check how loud you are.

Also, make sure you speak as loudly and clearly as you will be speaking during the interview. It’ll mean you can be tested properly and you’ll sound perfect from the very start of the interview. During the interview, stay at the same distance from the microphone as during your level check. If you move around a lot, it’ll render the check useless as you’ll be constantly getting quieter/louder. Stretch apart your thumb and little finger — that’s about the distance you want to be from the front of the microphone.

It really is genuinely a lot of fun to be interviewed, for the most part. Think of it as a conversation, not an interview, because that’s the atmosphere most interviewers want to achieve. Oh, and enjoy it! It will be over before you know it.

What Makes a Good Interviewer?

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For the past decade I’ve been a journalist, essentially making it up as I go along, and this particularly holds true of my presentation style. I’m 28 now, but my foray into presenting began at the BBC at just 19 years old, covering the afternoon show at Guernsey’s local radio station. It was very much a baptism of fire, given the only formal training I’d received was how to pronounce the odd quirky French(ish) Guernsey road names for the travel bulletin. Side note, I was born and raised in Guernsey and still couldn’t pronounce them…embarrassing. But my point is, I was young and had to make it up, so needless to say I don’t listen back to that first show. It left a lot to be desired — not least because I called the band INXS the inks (it does read that way to be fair).

Luckily there was no ‘interview’ involved, so the awkwardness stopped at band names. A lot of music was played that day. Maybe I wasn’t that bad, after all, they wouldn’t have put me on air if I was right? But it gave me a good reason to go away, practice, learn, and develop my own style — one which wasn’t a carbon copy of what I imagined someone should sound like on the radio. The most important thing for me was that I sounded genuine. That wasn’t too difficult to pull off because anything, and I mean anything, can intrigue me. I always say, someone who’s truly passionate about a subject has the ability to make everyone else passionate about it too — model train enthusiast or otherwise.

Often it’s easy to listen to the presenters and interviewers you like in order to get inspiration — but when someone’s doing something right, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what they’re doing right. Part of working in radio meant I had to listen to different presenters all the time, whether I liked the person’s interview style or not. But that was such an important part of helping me create my own style. If you want to start interviewing guests, and with the ever-increasing boom in podcasting, it’s quite possible you will, then try to do the following.

Let your guest speak. The worst of this is when people say “yeah”, “uhuh” and “mmm” in agreement to every point they make. That’s fine if you’re having a conversation with someone, but it’s unbelievably distracting when you’re listening to it. Your mind keeps getting thrown back to the presenter interjecting and it can make you lose track of what the guest is saying. It’ll feel unnatural at first, to just sit there silently, nodding away, but do it.

Don’t fill every silence. Sometimes your guest will be a slow talker. That’s okay (as long as that slowness doesn’t creep into becoming boring). Your job is to let them fill the silences they leave. Don’t ask another question if you think there’s more for them to say. They might be thinking about how to phrase it and you’re about to interrupt a great point. And if not, people naturally want to fill silences, so if you say nothing, they will — they won’t be able to help themselves. You want an interview to be 80% guest. You shouldn’t be responding after every sentence. If they’re going too far off-track though, or what they’re saying is getting boring, you can tactfully use an interruption or two — remember, it still needs to sound like a conversation.

And on that note — keep your questions short. No matter who you are, the interview is always about the interviewee. Short, concise questions is all that’s needed to prompt your guest. Anything too wordy, or too many questions wrapped into one will confuse them, and they’ll either give you a vague answer that misses the point, or they’ll ask you to repeat. This doesn’t mean you should have all your questions written down. In fact, I make sure I only ever take three to five questions into an interview, and I rarely look at them. If you want to make your chat sound like a conversation, rather than a Q&A, then make it a conversation. Ask questions that genuinely spring to mind, even if you write them down as the interview goes on so that you don’t forget them. Don’t come prepared with a list and end the conversation once the list runs out. Guests will always surprise you with what they have to say, and often there was nothing in your research to suggest they’d say it…you just have to roll with it. It’s unusual but people will often open up more on the radio or in a podcast than they ever do in normal conversation with friends — despite the fact that thousands of people are listening to them!

Put on a radio voice. I know that’s usually what people tell you NOT to do. And to a certain degree, I agree with them. You don’t want to force yourself to have an over-the-top, cringy, stereotypical radio personality, but you equally don’t want to talk in your normal voice. I say that because most people sound a little bit monotonous in their day-to-day speak. We can’t be excitable all the time, it would be annoying. But that’s what people want to hear when they’re listening to a broadcast. You need to develop a version of your voice that is more excited and a little bit louder than usual. You need to sound intrigued by everything. I move my arms around a lot when I speak into a microphone, but I don’t when I’m talking normally. It’s about injecting as much energy into it as possible — it’s a show, make sure you perform! Just be careful not to overdo it.

Write great introduction scripts. An introduction should not just be a run-down of your guest’s achievements. If you were about to interview famous bodybuilder Kai Greene, you could start by saying: I’d like to introduce you to IFBB pro bodybuilder, Mr Olympia runner up, actor, artist and personal trainer, Kai Greene. Green is 44 and has dedicated his life to fitness. He joins me now. Or you could start by saying: You know of bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger — now imagine someone even bigger, even freakier than that — with muscles the size of your head. What on Earth drives someone to take fitness to that extreme? Let’s find out — Kai Greene, former Mr Olympia competitor and actor joins me now. In my view the two are worlds apart. You want to ignite curiosity and intrigue in the listener. Ask them a question, make a bold statement…get them thinking. Once they’re hooked, they’ll stay with you. But if you bore them from the start, they might switch over before the good stuff begins.

Rehearse your script. Also, there’s no point in writing a great script without rehearsing it before you hit record or go live. Give it a few read throughs, and not just in your head — out loud! If you read it a few days before the interview, read it aloud again, right up to the last few moments before you start the interview. You don’t ever want to sound like you’re reading, and you definitely want to avoid tripping up over your words. It’s hard to get away from it entirely, but the more you can make a script sound said, not read, the better. And this is especially important if someone’s written the script for you. It might not be written in your style, so you’ll need to tweak it, or there might be a word you can’t pronounce, and you won’t figure that out if the first time you read it is when you go live. Scripts shouldn’t be long — three to five lines ideally. It takes no time to practice, and it makes a world of difference.

Friendly manner. And finally, and this should be a given but trust me, it still needs to be said…be friendly. Be genuinely interested in your guest when they arrive to meet you, before the tape starts rolling. Engage with them and make them feel welcome. They’re likely giving up their time for free to talk to you, and you should show appreciation for that. At the very least you’ll get a better interview out of someone who feels comfortable with you, and more than that, it’s just weird if you’re cold and detached off-air, and warm and friendly on-air…they’ll see right through you.