Passing The Mic


You have your mic setup, a guest you’ll be talking to over the internet, and you are ready. You are both recording the conversation on both ends to allow for maximum quality. You’ve prepped your guest on what you’ll be talking about and for how long. You’ve ensured that everything is working. Nothing can go wrong. You take a breath, hit record… 

And it’s a mess of you and your guest talking over each other.

Thus is the tangled web of latency.

Latency is the time it takes for a message to be sent from one location to another. The higher the latency, the more time it takes for the message to arrive. 

For instance, an in person conversation has a latency of about 0ms (technically the speed of sound), while sending a message to your friend a few houses down via an effective carrier pigeon has a latency of about the speed of a pigeon.

Note: Now if you are reading this article and thinking that “I record everything in person, I don’t need to worry about anything” I encourage you to skip down to the section on psychological latency. 

Where latency gets confusing in online calls is that the latency is that the latency works in two ways. When you say something to them, it may take 50ms for them to hear it, and when they are reacting to what you are saying it may take 170ms for you to hear it. You are talking to your guest in the past, and the guest is talking to you in the past, and you are reacting to your guest reacting to you in the past.

I have recorded conversations where there was about one to two seconds of lag time. I know it was that long because I could hear some small feedback from the guest’s headphones.

I understand that I might be making this issue to be more complicated than it is, I mean, it is just latency, but at the same time this very issue absolutely ruins plenty of podcasts. It isn’t just a problem with amateur podcasts, you can see it on professional ones, as well as news shows.

How annoying is it when two people constantly keep speaking at the same time and have to spend several seconds trying to figure who is going to talk and then have to spend another several seconds remembering their point. It is the verbal equivalent to trying to walk by someone and you both mirror each other and can’t get out of each other’s ways.

The only good thing about this problem is that it is pretty easy to solve. The answer?

Don’t pretend like you are having an in-person conversation.

This is the single biggest piece of advice you can go by. You aren’t having an in-person conversation, stop acting like you are, accept that there is latency, and work with it.

This piece of advice may sound obvious, but it is going to get you 80% to having easy flowing conversations, or at least conversations that would sound about as flowing as they would be in person.

An essentially part to guest prep is to tell them “we are recording online, there is going to be latency, so it is going to be very easy to talk over each other, so whenever you say something to me, assume it takes about five seconds to get to me?”.

You might be reading and think “five seconds? That is way too long!”, and it is, but keep in mind that you aren’t telling your guest to wait five seconds before speaking, there aren’t going to be these five second gaps, you are just making them aware of the latency in general and that the guest is more sending a message than having instant communication. More so, the brain has a very tough time judging time when trying to be entertaining on a podcast, to the average podcaster about 20 nanoseconds of dead air feels like 3 minutes.

And yes, to be completely truthful, there might be slightly more dead space, but that little bit of dead space is far preferable than the pain and agony you will unleash upon your listeners with the carnage of two voices colliding over and over.

There is more to latency than just that, and that is psychological latency. This is the time it takes for the brain to process when to speak, when to interrupt, and when to shut up. Psychological latency is not just present in Skype calls, but also real life.

Issues with this sort of latency are more common over the internet, as reading body language and subtle breathing cues are much harder, but the solution to this will work with both in person and over wires.

Pretend like you are talking over walkie-talkie

At face value this advice sounds stupid but hear me out.

You know how in the movies when soldiers talk over a walkie talkie and they always end their talking with “over”? You know why they do that?

Technically, it is kind of a limitation of the system as you usually can’t speak and listen at the same time, but more accurately, it is to prevent more than one person than talking at a time. Even if you modified the system so that you could speak and listen at the same time, you would still say over. Really, the walkie talkie engineers designed the system with that limitation built in to overcome the issue of people talking over each other in the first place as well as knowing when to talk.

So am I saying that you and your guest should your sentences with “over”?

No, of course not, though that would be funny. Though at the same time, I kind of am saying that. You should always be focused on passing the conversation by uses of metaphorical “over” statements.  

Though this is somewhat obvious, what this means in practice is asking pointed questions with a clear end. The way to think about it is that you are giving your guest the cue to jump in and respond. Take note of the below.

“What did you do when you lost your job?”

The question provides a cue for the guest to jump in and respond. It is very clear, and they won’t have an issue interpreting it.

On the other hand, if you said:

“What did you do when you lost your job, because yeah, it must have been tough, nobody likes losing their job”.

This happens so much, especially over the internet. Why it happens like that over the internet comes back to physical latency, the host is asking a question but so sensitive to dead air that if they don’t hear a response a nanosecond after the word “job” that they start trying to fill dead space. Instead of this making things better, this confuses the guest as well as not adding anything to the conversation, and at worst the guest starts to respond the nanosecond after the word “job” only to be interrupted by the host and then there is two seconds of awkward talking over each other, and then another six second of the host trying to let the guest know that he can talk.

Once you spot this a couple times, you will see it everywhere and you will realize why it is happening. This can be considered as the guest saying “over”, but then not committing.

Again, the solution is to communicate in some obvious way that you are done talking, but also to actually be done talking.

Questions are easy ways to transition. Keep in mind that questions don’t actually need to be questions, rhetorical questions for instance are very useful.

Other methods are to raise your voice at the end of the sentence, to lease a pause, or just stop talking on a high note.

A good structure that works is a tell/react dynamic. If someone is telling a story or explaining something, that person’s goal is to tell to get a reaction out of the other person. One person keeps in charge of heading the content, while the other person.

I will go into more detail on other methods in future articles, but that should make it clear enough to get the general sense of it. It isn’t that hard, but it does take awareness.

Lastly, make sure you communicate this with your guest. This is all pretty easy to get and apply once you are told, but it is one of those things where if you aren’t made aware of it then you have this huge blind spot. It is like if you don’t explain to your guest that you’ll be asking questions on the audiences behalf, yeah it is pretty obvious that you’d be doing that, but at the same time there area thousands of professional interviews where the guest is completely confused as to why the interviewers is asking questions that they already know the answer to.

I can’t promise that this advice will make a bad podcast great, but at the very least it will be a bad podcast listenable.

If you have any extra tips or advice, please leave a comment. Also, are you trying to set up a podcast and wondering what you need to begin with? Check out my post here and also our gear recommendations here. 

Written By: Nathan Pepin