Ian Crouch described the phenomenon of a typical Martin Short interview in his aptly titled New Yorker article, “Is Martin Short the Greatest Talk Show Guest of All Time?” He writes, “[Short’s] talk show persona is the purest, the most attuned to and at ease with the restrictions and the comedic traditions of the genre. Nobody tells a vacation story, or a holiday story, or an awards-show story…better than Short does. He sings; he dances; he does broad physical comedy; he tells the best one-liners.”

What I do for a typical talk show appearance, and I’m not exaggerating, is I’ll send in something like 18 pages ahead of time.” You read that right. Martin Short sends in 18 pages of pre-written jokes and then works on those pages with producers, cuts them down, and shapes them into the conversation he’ll have with the host. “What looks like an almost organic chat of TV is really a highly choreographed two-man bit.”

Of course, we are not Martin Short, nor should we try to be. The point isn’t about being charming or funny, or writing 18 pages of jokes. The best performers in the world understand the importance of preparation. There is a harmful myth in our culture about preparation, one that keeps people from being as prepared as they otherwise would be for many different tasks in life. The myth is that preparation is ‘inauthentic’ or gets in the way of your true personality. If anything, being prepared helps you be more of your authentic self. When it’s time to shine, you can just let it fly because you’ve done the necessary prep work ahead of time.

I’m often asked by podcast guests and listeners of The Learning Leader Show, “What makes a great podcast guest?” I usually rattle off some random thoughts and stories. But, this is my first attempt to think deeply about it and document my thoughts. I think becoming a better conversationalist will not only help you as a podcast guest, but will make you a better friend, partner, and co-worker as well. Here we go…

So how does a great podcast guest prepare, and how can you be intentional about how you show up in conversations to build genuine relationships?

1. Research.

The best guests I’ve had on The Learning Leader Show invest time to listen to my podcast and understand the flow of how I interview, the themes of what’s important, some of the staple questions I ask, and the overall flow of the show. They know I’ll probably ask about the commonalities of leaders who sustain excellence. They realize I might close the conversation by asking for a useful piece of life/career advice. They do work prior to the conversation to show that they care about being a great guest.

2. Storytelling.

We Remember Stories. “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” – Mary Catherine Bateson

Think of your favorite stories and how they can bring your ideas or concepts to life. As Matthew Dicks said, “To tell a great story you must fundamentally change from one person at the beginning of the story to another person at the end – the greatest stories ever told are centered around a five-second moment of change/realization/epiphany in someone’s life.”

  • Stories start with forward movement. A time and place. Don’t give us the play-by-play of your entire vacation (most of that is boring). Tell us about a specific moment… What happened? What did you learn?
  • What are the inflection points of your life? When did life veer in unexpected directions? Those moments usually bring lessons worth sharing.
  • Stories are more interesting when they are packed with tension, adversity, and conflict. Think of those moments and be prepared to share them…

3. Interested > Interesting. 

Make it a two-way conversation. Ask questions, be curious, and show interest in the host and his/her point of view. As a host, prior to hitting record, I tell my guests that I will treat our conversation as if I was going out to lunch with them and that these are the actual questions I’d ask if it was just us 1:1. The only difference is we will have hundreds of thousands of people sitting in the table next to us eavesdropping on our conversation :)

Answer “So what: why should I care?” The best guests learn about who listens to the show, so they know what the audience is there for. When you have something to express, be clear about why your audience will be interested in it and speak to that. Be relevant or be silent. (Silence, too, is a great way to learn.)

4. Give generously. Every interaction is an opportunity to add value to people’s lives, whether it’s a guest on a podcast or going about your daily routine. The best podcast guests come with that intent.

Some of my favorite examples

My favorite podcast guests share something novel. I learn something new from them. They create “ah-ha” moments. Here are a few guests who really brought themselves to our co-created conversations.

  • Kat Cole – Kat perfectly described what it means to be a “productive achiever.” She told stories about her life as a Hooters waitress. And all of it related to the type of person who listens to my show. The interesting thing about Kat Cole is that every answer she gives would be a useful social media clip (as Pat McAfee would say, “She knows how to cut a great promo.”) That is very rare.
  • James Clear – James is a master at compressing ideas. He can speak in bumper stickers AND discuss the entire thesis. You rarely find someone who excellent at both.
  • Ryan Holiday – Ryan is one of the best at telling stories about historical figures. Ryan focuses on stoicism and often answers a question with a story about Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, or Epictetus.
  • Admiral William McRaven – He told stories in specific detail. The Bin Laden raid was a great example. He included all the preparation, contingency plans, feelings, doubts… He made me feel like I was with him.
  • Sherri Coale – Sherri is an incredible writer and storyteller. In her book, Rooted to Rise, she shares life lessons by way of real stories and how they’ve impacted her. She does the same thing as a podcast guest and in everyday conversation with her.
  • Geron Stokes – Geron brings huge energy and authenticity. He’s excited to be on the podcast, and shares that by speaking with so much passion in his voice. You can feel it through your AirPods.
  • Brook Cupps – Brook is a great podcast guest because he’s very thoughtful about who he is and how to live in alignment with what he values. He is comfortable in his own skin and that builds trust with an audience. It brings so much credibility to everything he says.
  • Scott Galloway – Scott brings a melodic tempo, has memorable phrases, and biting self-deprecating humor. He’s willing to make bold predictions in order to catalyze a conversation around a topic. Like Kat Cole, Scott Galloway is a clip-making machine.

The Makeup of a Great Guest:

  • People who know themselves well, are self-actualized, and are comfortable in their own skin.
  • They have a spiky point of view (Wes Kao). A spiky point of view is a perspective others can disagree with. It’s a belief you feel strongly about and are willing to advocate for. It’s your thesis about topics in your realm of expertise. Each person has a unique way of seeing the world.
  • They are vulnerable and open to take the conversation anywhere.
  • They are excited to be there. They bring enthusiasm and positivity to the microphone.
  • They are specific. They don’t use vague generalities or buzzwords.
  • They are thoughtful and intentional. The way they respond shows that they’ve thought about themselves, the stories they tell, why they tell them, what they’ve learned, and how it would be valuable for someone else to hear.
  • They are independent thinkers. Most people are mimetic (social media doesn’t help with this) so having truly differentiated opinions is interesting.
  • They look and sound good. They care about the quality of their microphone, their camera, and their lighting. Most recordings happen on Zoom. It’s worth it to look and sound good. It also shows respect for the host.
  • They cite research, quotes, and use data to be reliable and build trust.
  • They aren’t scared. They are not afraid to say I don’t know (builds credibility) or take a stand on something (see above: spiky point of view).

More fulfilling conversations…

The quality of our communication directly impacts the quality of our relationships. Marc Schulz cited the longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever done, on The Learning Leader Show, “Relationships are at the core of human flourishing. Great relationships lead to health and happiness.”

Steadfastly presenting our true selves is what attracts people to us. We can prepare to offer that openness to the people we care about; it’s an attribute we can consciously develop and practice. It’s that same openness that enables us to contribute our unique gifts to the world. It makes for a great podcast episode—and a more fulfilling, engaged life.