How to Be the Leader Your Podcast Needs By Speaking Up

how to say no to people who want to be on your podcast and other ways to maintain control of your show

At the beginning of my career, I had to wear a suit, which made me feel like a kid playing dress up. I never got used to it. I worked in a skyscraper near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and remember walking through our lobby one day with a colleague. He started asking my opinion and said something like, “Since you’re the communications expert.” And I thought, “I am?” I may have even said that loud. 

I didn’t feel like an expert at the time, but in his eyes I was. And I was able to help him because I did know more about communications than he did. 

As podcasters, we might not always feel like we know what we’re doing, but we are often at least a step ahead of most of our guests. Our interviewees are looking to us for guidance, so let’s give it them. 

On episode 29 of Podcasting Step by Step, I talk about how to step up and be the leader your podcast needs you to be by speaking up and managing guests and potential guests the right way. 

Subscribe to Podcasting Step by Step for free.

The noisy guest

On Podcasting Step by Step, my guests and I have talked about how podcasting has made us so much more confident in all aspects of our lives. 

One way this happens is we finally start speaking up when we hear our guests typing or shuffling papers. At first we were too shy to speak up. We didn’t want to seem bossy or rude. But you can only edit bad audio for so long before you say enough is enough and politely ask your guests to stop making noise. 

And guess what? They are grateful for that guidance. I’ve never had anyone get mad at me for telling them the mic is picking up their pen tapping or for asking them to find a quieter room or to turn off the fan. They have no idea you can hear those sounds. They’re looking to you for guidance as the professional. 

That’s right. To them, you’re the podcasting pro

You are a podcaster. Own this identity. Write it down: “I am the kind of podcaster who will do what it takes to create a quality show my audience loves.” This means speaking up when something goes wrong and fixing it in the moment. 

If your internet signal drops and cuts off something brilliant your guest said, don’t hope it will magically sound OK later. Ask them to repeat themselves. We’re in control of our podcast. We can’t expect anyone else to know what’s going on, or to be in charge of the conversation. That’s on us.

The long-winded guest

Another time to jump in is when your guest can’t stop talking. 

Some people are naturally long-winded. Others talk too much when they’re nervous in an interview. You can try to prevent this by asking more specific questions. 

Instead of: “Tell me about your travels.”

Try: “Tell me about the first trip you took without your parents.”

If you’re asking great questions, but your guest still speaks at-length, don’t be afraid to interrupt them. Chances are, they’ll be grateful. Some people don’t know how to stop so they just keep going. You can edit out your interruptions. 

If you don’t chime in during the interview, you’ll have two bad options to deal with later: 1) you’ll have a ton of editing to do to tighten up the conversation 2)  you don’t edit enough and your audience suffers through an episode that is 30% too long. Yes, there’s a chance that your chatty guest is sharing nothing but gold, but those chances are slim. 

Throw your guest a lifeline. Jump in and rescue them instead of watching them drone on until they awkwardly stop

The overly self-promotional guest

Some guests can be overly self promotional. They’re really keen to promote their book or their website or their podcast, but instead of talking about it naturally, they come off sounding like a sales pitch. 

To try and avoid this, when you’re inviting the guest to be on your show, ask them if there is something in particular that they want to talk about or that they want to pitch. Then right before the interview, let them know that you’ll promote them in the intro and the outro, and that you’ll bring up what they want to talk about in the conversation. This can reassure them that they’re not going to have to find a place to jump in and mention their product/services/whatever. 

Hopefully most of your guests will be great and understand that their message is what will motivate listeners to seek out more information on them, and that hard sells are a turn off. This has been my experience. If your guest gets overly aggressive in mentioning their website or product, cut some of those references. 

The hijacking guest

A lot of new podcasters worry when their guests ask if they can share audio of their interview. Maybe they have their own podcast and want to run the episode there. As long as they mention that the interview is from your podcast and promote it that way, it’s great when guests share your content like this. It’s free advertising for you and the most popular podcast networks like Gimlet and NPR do this all the time. It’s a win-win for you and the person you interviewed.

However, when people try to hijack your content, that’s a problem. 

Another example of things I did wrong at the beginning of my podcast career: One guest, suggested that she write the blog post for the episode. She pitched it as being helpful and splitting the work, but I knew this was a marketing move on her part to get all the website traffic to her site. She was a great interview. I really enjoyed talking to her. She was also a force of nature who I felt uncomfortable saying no to. And part of me thought, well, I have a lot going on, it could be really helpful for her to do the show notes, and so I agreed to letting her have the show notes on her site. 

But this didn’t make sense. If someone wants to play your podcast on their podcast giving credit, that’s a bonus advertisement for you. But me pointing my listeners to someone else’s website for my show notes...I should not have done that. 

When we interview people, we should always mention our guests’ website and contact info, but we should do our own show notes and point out listeners to our websites. 

Even if our podcasts are pure creative outlets and not marketing vehicles for a business, we should still treat our podcasts like a business. They’re both about building relationships with people. If I have my business hat on, I’m not going to direct people to another business’ website. My customers/listeners would be so confused. Why are you sending us away? Sometimes if you’re working on a specific collaboration this might make sense, but in general, point listeners to your own website. 

So in hindsight, when that guest asked about doing the show notes, I should have thanked her and said, “No worries, I’ve got this.”

The want-to-be guest

When you start to grow in popularity, people will start emailing you to get on your show. Some people are obviously not good fits. If you usually interview women who just graduated from college and the person trying to get on your show is a mid-career salesman, is he the best fit? Probably not. Has the person trying to get on your show (or their PR person) even listened to your show — or are they just emailing everyone? 

Things feel more complicated when a fan writes to you, telling you how much they love your show and which episodes are their favorite (this could be true, this could just be a good pitching tactic) and asking if they can be a guest. Maybe they’re pitching a topic you’re not super into. People pleasing podcasters anguish over this. “Should he be on my show? I feel bad saying no -- he just wrote me such a nice email! Maybe I can make it work if I just do this…I don’t really want to do this, but how can I say no without hurting this person’s feelings...”

Stop. We shouldn’t be spending any energy on how to craft polite rejection letters. You have enough going on. 

  • If someone seems like a great fit, tell them you’re interested and you’d love to talk more.

  • If a guest feels like the wrong fit, say something like, “Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. Your book/podcast/etc sounds so interesting! It’s not the right fit for my particular show, but I’m sure the right audience is going to love it.”

Or you don’t have to respond at all. 

If someone, especially a fan, takes the time to right a considerate pitch that kind of makes sense but that I don’t think is the right fit, I’ll respond. If it’s a PR agency pitching someone who is obviously wrong, or someone sending the same generic pitch to everyone, I’ll ignore those. 

Focus on this: Does the potential interviewee have something to say that will add value to your listener?

Who is your ideal guest?

It’s easier to say no when you are clear on who your ideal listener is, and also when you know who your ideal interviewee is. On my travel podcast, I primarily focus on expat women. Sometimes I deviate from that, but it’s always my choice. For example, I just interviewed a local tour guide in the town where I’ve been living since January. This seaside town has so much to offer and is only an hour from London, and I know my audience would be curious about this place. 

But usually I interview other traveling expat women like myself. So if a male fan of the show writes in and asks if he can come on the show to talk about his family’s two-week trip to Ireland, I can easily say, “Thank you so much for listening to the show. I’m glad you had a great time in Ireland -- what a beautiful country. On my podcast, I focus on women who moved abroad, rather than shorter family trips. But if our travel paths cross in real life someday -- how lovely would that be! -- I would love to talk to you about Ireland. Thanks again for being a fan of the show.” 

Another way to vet guests is to put a form on your website that potential guests can fill out. You can ask things like: 

  • What’s your favorite episode of my podcast and why? 

  • What topics would you want to discuss on my show? 

  • Why would my audience find value in this? What makes you/your story a good fit? 

The bad guest

What do you do when you interview someone and it just doesn’t work? The conversation doesn’t flow. Your guest is unprepared and answers, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know that much about that” to your questions. Maybe something just feels off. Or after listening you realize there’s not enough substance there. You can’t publish an episode you’re not proud of or that would waste your listeners’ time. So what do you do? 

A lot of podcasters just ghost. I’ll be honest, I’ve done this myself. You just don’t use the interview. That, of course, is not the mature way to handle things. Alternatives could be:

  • creating a blog post instead;

  • experimenting with a narrative episode by pulling the best soundbites from the guest and speaking around that; 

  • interviewing a few other people on the same subject and including sound bites from all of them. To cut down the work for you, you can focus on one particular question from the original interview, and then ask the other guests that same one question. You could also set up a way for those potential guests to call in their answer and leave it as a voicemail. There’s a service called SpeakPipe that lets you do this; 

  • writing to the guest and saying that, while you enjoyed the conversation, upon listening back to it, there wasn’t enough there to create a whole episode. This, admittedly, feels really awkward because they did give you their time. This is why the blog post, while more work for you, could be a nice alternative. Whatever you do, don’t lie and say the audio was bad or that you accidentally deleted it. What if they say, “Oh, I recorded on my end, as well. Here you go.” Just be honest.

To sum all this up

  • Interrupt guests when you need to get the conversation back on track. If you hear them rustling around on their end of the recording, tell them this is getting captured in the audio. They won’t be mad; they’ll be grateful you care about making them look good. Plus, you’ll be respected as a podcast pro when you take audio quality and interviewing seriously.

  • Tell guests that you’ll promote them in the intro and the outro, and that you’ll bring up what they want to talk about in the conversation. If they get overly aggressive in mentioning their website or product, cut some of those references. 

  • Don’t waste your time and energy overthinking how to speak up and how to say no. Just do it. We’re the ones creating stress in our minds about how people will react. Rational people will not get mad if you turn down their offer to be a guest on your show. They probably will not give this a second thought. 

  • You owe it to your audience to vet your guests. Your audience trusts you and gives you their valuable time, so make sure that you don’t waste it. 

  • We need to show up as a leaders. This might not feel natural at first, but if you push through being scared and focus on who you’re serving, you’ll start to feel comfortable speaking up. As I always like to say, changing how we act, changes who we are. When we act like leaders, that’s who we become, and that’s how we maintain control of our podcast so we can keep serving our audience.