This post offers a quick guide to the most effective things you can do to prepare to appear on a podcast.
The best podcast guests communicate clearly and engagingly. You can do this by
- Understanding the gig
- Planning your message
- Last-minute speech coaching
- Preparing your audio setup
Who is this for?
This post is aimed at podcast guests and focuses on things that you can do in a few hours. I ignore things that would take days or weeks.
It won’t explore editing, marketing or podcast-building in general. That said, podcasters may find this a useful framework for supporting their guests.
Disclaimer: I draw upon 2 years of experience as host of a podcast on education (link) and won’t be citing evidence to back up my claims about what makes a “good” appearance. For virtually every “rule” implied by my advice there is a successful podcast that breaks it - but I believe this guide will generally help guests avoid the main pitfalls and improve the quality of their appearance.
What makes a good appearance?
A strong start. Most listeners treat the beginning of a podcast episode as an audition. If it doesn’t “grab” them, they switch to something else. Hence you should make sure that you start strong. More on this under plan your message >> intro.
To the point. Unless this is one of those “fun, casual podcasts”, your listeners are here to learn something. Give it to them. The best way to do this is to plan your message.
Speak clearly. Improving your public speaking can be a lifelong journey, but there are some things you can address quickly. See below for last-minute speech coaching.
Enjoy yourself! Good vibes are contagious. Minimise nerves and talk about stuff you enjoy discussing.
High-quality audio. It makes you sound more professional. See below for tips on audio setup.
How to prepare
You probably won’t do everything mentioned here. A good strategy may be to:
- Estimate how long each process would take
- Roughly rank them by importance
- Use 1 and 2 to decide which you will actually do and in which order
Understand the gig
Before you prep for your appearance, it is useful to understand:
- Who the podcast’s audience is
- What prior knowledge you can assume
- What the host wishes to get from you as a guest
- Any questions the host knows they want to ask
Hopefully the host has briefed you on these already. If they haven’t, you may want to ask them directly.
Plan your message
This varies based on your confidence level. You may want to fully script some responses, or you may be fine with a bullet-point plan. Just don’t read from a script during the interview. Unless you’re a competent actor, it sounds wooden.
Remember, you want a strong start to avoid losing your audience. Your response to the first question should be under a minute long and should link to your core message (see below).
If you are asked to introduce yourself or describe your history, keep it snappy. Most people aren’t interested in where you went to school or your first job out of university. If some part of your identity/story is key to your message, mention it but do so briefly. You can always give more detail later, when the on-the-fence listeners have decided to stay with you.
The intro doesn’t need to be fully planned in advance: it might be a post-it that you stick to your laptop screen before the interview:
If you do want to plan your intro in advance, make it fun! Build it around an anecdote or a thought experiment or controversial statement that will make people sit up in their seats.
A word of caution
Although keeping the start of the episode “snappy”, even provocative, is a good general rule, we should be aware of the risks of simplifying complex concepts:
Podcast guests should aim to find a balance between engaging and high-fidelity communication. Make people sit up in their seats, but don’t give your ideas a bad name.
I’ve got news for you: most of your audience is only half-listening. If they only remember one thing about this interview, what should it be?
Plan your “elevator pitch” of under 100 words. You want to allude to this in your very first answer, and cover it fully at some point in the interview. It doesn’t need to be earth shattering and it could even be a single sentence (eg. “wild animal suffering is real suffering”).
Also plan your broader message. This could be the 3-4 ideas that stem from your elevator pitch; ideally something you can tick off during the interview to make sure you have covered the important stuff.
Bread and butter topics
Your “bread and butter” topics are the things you love talking about. You are more charismatic and engaging when talking about them, so it makes sense to steer the conversation towards them (as long as they don’t detract from your core message)
Make a list of some bread and butter topics before the interview. You don’t have to talk about all of them, but it can help to have them on hand.
As an example, here are my bread and butter topics right now:
- The ethics of having kids
- Should EA orgs be active on social media?
- The pain of teaching in English schools
- Places to roller skate in London
- Nuclear off-ramp strategies
As you can see, they vary from “serious” to “casual”. Depending on the subject of my podcast appearance, some would be too off-topic to include.
Last-minute speech coaching
You probably don’t have much time to improve your public speaking, so I will focus on low-effort, high-reward strategies.
The biggest podcast speaking pitfalls are:
- Saying “um” all the time
- Using 100 words when only 20 are needed (also known as “waffling”)
- Talking too fast or mumbling (although there are podcast professionals, like Robert Wiblin, who have made fast-talking a virtue)
Here are my strategies, starting with the lowest-effort:
Practice alone. In front of the mirror, in the shower, it doesn’t matter. Practising aloud will help you visualise being in the interview.
Record yourself. Count how many times you say “um”. If it’s more than one per minute, record again and repeat. The best way to tell if you’re going too slow or too fast is to…
Get some feedback. Practise answering podcast questions with a friend, or record a response and send it to them. Be specific about what you would like feedback on: speaking speed? Saying “um”? Waffling? And try to have fun: a side-benefit is shaking the nerves away!
If you’re feeling insecure, remember that speaking skills aren’t everything. Podcaster Lex Fridman has been criticised for his pondering, monotone delivery, yet as someone recently said to me, “his depth of character shines through”. Fridman has over 300 million views on Youtube.
There are some quick, free things you can do to ensure decent audio quality. Here I will assume that you are conducting the interview remotely and that you don’t have access to specialised recording equipment.
Find the best place to record in your home/office. Your main enemies are
- Background noise
- Poor internet connection
You can test background noise and echo by recording short samples in different areas and listening back to them (the best acoustics in my house are in the walk-in wardrobe: the racks of clothes act as perfect insulation). If video is being recorded, you’ll want good lighting on your face and an appropriate background.
Record backup audio. If the primary recording is through your computer (on Zoom, for example), record a separate audio file on your phone. This way, if poor internet connection affects your end of the audio, your local phone recording can be used to replace it in the editing stage. If the host also records locally, both recordings can be combined later to create a higher-quality audio experience.
Remember that editing is a thing. If you get interrupted mid-interview by sirens in the street or your housemate bursting in, don’t worry! When the disturbance is over, just redo whatever you were saying. It takes seconds to correct in the editing stage.
How your preparation might look
Suppose you only have an hour to prepare. Then you’ll want to prioritise the most effective strategies. Ideally this hour won’t be just before the interview: it really helps to have time for ideas to settle in your mind.
Here’s how your hour might look:
- Email the host with some clarifying questions [10 mins]
- Bullet-point your core message and 3-4 ideas that link to it [10 mins]
- Bullet-point 5 bread and butter topics that you might use [5 mins]
- Scout a good recording location, check you have a voice recording app on you phone [15 mins]
- Practise your opening response in the shower [10 mins]
- Write some post-it notes with top tips and place them in your eyeline for the interview [10 mins]
A request for feedback
All feedback is welcome. I would particularly like links to episodes which exemplify some of the things mentioned above.
An offer of help
If you want some assistance in preparing for an upcoming appearance, I may be able to help. Contact me at stanleypinsent [at] gmail [dot] com.
I think a lot of these tips will suit everyone who plans to speak publically. Except for audio equipment of course :)