Podcasting for the Creative-Minded: How to Avoid Yet Another Talking Head Show

Deep Dive into Narrative Podcast Production

“Hey. Welcome to my Medium post. It, um…I write about creativity and content production here, and uh… oh, Jimmy is here too. Hey Jimmy. How’s the weather over there?…”

You’d never start an article that way.

So why in the name of all things cheesy do so many business podcasts start that way? It’s no secret that podcasting is exploding right now, along with the phrase “podcasting is exploding right now.” And everywhere you turn, very smart businesses are recording very smart businesspeople discussing very smart business ideas … and it all feels like cramming a fork in your ear to hear it.

Look, I couldn’t be more excited about podcasting, including all the white space it still has left to claim and own as a creator. I host two shows — one for NextView Ventures on startups, and my own about creativity in business. Hell, I even wrote a poem about an experience I had while podcasting!

(I got 99 problems, and they’re all pretty bad, you guys…)

But despite all that, I’m even MORE excited about the creative nascency of the medium. There are just so many awesome interpretations of what a podcast could be that are currently untapped and unknown. It’s awesome.

However, as we continue to experiment, there’s one proven approach to creative podcasting that you should already know about: narrative podcasts.

The what and why of narrative podcasts

Narrative podcasts are, as the name implies, story-driven shows — as opposed to interviews or gameshow-like recordings. They rely on heavy editing to splice together the right story, pulling from interviews and other recordings, sounds, and music. Many feature a host who narrates the story, almost as if everything else happened in the past.

NPR is, of course, the gold standard here, though narrative podcasts can run the gamut in terms of tone and, increasingly, who created them. Entering the fray just this past year were Slack and GE, for example, and several other brands have made significant upgrades to their shows to move away from low-production, mostly interview-style episodes to more story-driven features.

So why are narrative podcasts so great?

In addition to sounding wonderful because the focus is more on storytelling than pontificating, this style is perfect for all three groups involved in a typical show production.

1) Brand/host/producer: You’re in total control of the final product. You can stand out by making your show sound different than the rest, and you don’t need to rely on a guest sounding pithy or engaging all in one take.

2) Your guests: They can relax knowing that editing can make them sound great. They can pause to think, speak naturally with ums and uhs, and even ask to redo answers. It’s about getting the best quote recorded, not the best end-to-end conversation. (If they ramble, for instance, that doesn’t derail your show as it would in other formats. You can simply lift out the best content.)

3) Listeners: They stand a greater chance of sticking around to enjoy the show. Podcasts are a linear medium. They experience a podcast from start to finish. In a written article, you can introduce all kinds of other stimuli on one page — images and graphics, embedded videos and audio, calls to action in dozens of forms, and more. As of today, little technology exists to change the way we consume podcasts. So narrative storytelling addresses the ONE thing you need to worry about as a producer: listener drop-off. Can you get listeners to the end? Can you maximize the time spent listening, not just optimize the vanity metric of downloads? Stories are built to do that.

Podcasts are a linear medium — you can’t skip around or skim. And your only options to engage are Play or Stop. So as a podcast creator, your job is simple yet hard to achieve: DON’T LET THEM HIT STOP!

How to create a narrative podcast

If you’re like me, you’re not formally trained in radio production, nor do you have a budget to make others in the industry blush.

So, here’s a lean process you can use that won’t cost more than $200 to $300, but requires some (smart) elbow grease.

— Pre-production —

Select your equipment.

For me, that means:

  • Two Shure SM58 microphones ($99 each) with foam windscreens ($2) to soften certain sounds, like the pronunciation of hard Ps, that could sound harsh or loud.
  • A mixer. I bought a simple Alesis MultiMix with four microphone inputs just in case I need that many. I typically use two. A mixer allows you to use multiple microphones for better in-person audio, as well as adjust certain aspects of each individual’s sound.
  • Recording and editing software. For recording, I use GarageBand in person and Skype remotely, via the plug-in from Ecamm called Call Record for Skype. For editing, I use GarageBand for Traction but work with an editor on Unthinkable, and he uses ProTools.

Recently, as I’ve been traveling more and want to avoid lugging equipment around, I switched from these things to simply:

  • An Apogee MiC 96k microphone. You can also buy the popular Yeti or Snowball mics that are similarly USB compatible (though less portable than my Apogee).

Other helpful resources:

  • Music: Try the amazing Marmoset for a huge library of searchable, filterable, use-however-you-want songs. Incompetech.com also offers a music library.
  • Sound effects: I love freesound.org for all kinds of random noises — awesome, searchable database.

Research your subject and draft your questions.

Much digital ink has been spilled on this, so I’ll refer you to Copyblogger’s great post on podcast preparation.

Treat your interview like a journalist treats hers — have the story in mind, and go get the quotes you need to support your story. This cuts down the time you need for a call or interview, and you can have more purposeful questions (and follow-ups) prepared. Rather than a talking head show that always re-tells the same bio for every guest in excruciating detail, you can skip right to the meat of what you want your guest to say. (Possible Exception: If you feel they can bring some kind of unique commentary or color to their bio, sure, ask about their work. But I highly suggest avoiding anything you can find through secondary research and using voiceover to add that in later.)

To make this step easier, I often like doing a 10-minute pre-interview call a week or so in advance. I just want to ask them some big, open-ended questions and see if they can rattle of something meaningful. This helps me understand the type of interview I’m about to have — or even if I need to avoid having them on the show altogether.

Quick Aside: What’s your episode “rundown”

It’s super helpful to have a framework to your show.

For Unthinkable, I’ve worked with Andrew Davis my executive producer to come up with the following framework. NOTE: This is VERY specific to the tone and topics in my show, but sharing here hopefully gives you a better idea of what I mean by framework:

KEY:

  • TRT: Total Run Time (entire episode)
  • RT: Run Time (that segment)
  • BLOCK: Section of the show — 1 block has 1 purpose to it.
  • BLOCK TRT: That section’s total run time.
  • SEGMENT: The pieces of the script within a given block that I need to write or record.
  • GOAL: What the section is FOR (soooooo crucial but so often overlooked).

OK, that’s pre-production.

You’re now ready to record your narrative podcast.

— Production —

If you’ve completed the pre-production steps, this part should be the easiest of the process. To keep things brief, here are a few reminders:

Tune your volume … and your guest … to your liking.

As the producer or host, it’s your job to make your guest feel comfortable, and it’s your job to ensure the final episode is great. If you don’t like the answers or the episode, it’s your fault, not the guest’s (hence the importance of both pre-production research and post-production editing).

Once I’ve thanked a guest for spending time with me and finished any (non-forced) small talk, I do three things:

  • First, I explain the show’s goal and topic and describe the listeners so the guest understands who she’s addressing.
  • Second, I tell them that it’s a post-production-heavy show, so it’s okay to stop and think or even ask to re-do an answer. This removes some pressure.
  • Third, I have them state their name, where they’re from, and what they do. I don’t always use it, but it helps to have it recorded just in case.
  • (BONUS FOURTH) If a guest seems nervous or not natural

Even though I remove this question later, I find that it causes people to relax, smile, or laugh, and start raving about their favorite pet. (If they don’t have any, I ask why, and if they ever did or ever will.) You can practically HEAR someone smiling on a podcast so this creates that tone while preventing guests from launching into their overly formal radio voice.

Interview your guest(s).

Lean on your research but don’t get overly wedded to it. It definitely helps to have at least some experience, particularly as a journalist, conducting interviews. You need to roll with what they say, pursuing interesting stories off script and using follow-up questions to get better answers if they’re being vague or omitting details.

You should also launch right into the bigger, more important questions to set the tone of the interview. It’s harder to slog through all the mundane details or throwaway banter and get somebody to then start reflecting deeply on something. Just as your episode won’t bury this important material, your interview shouldn’t either.

— Scripting, editing, post-production —

This is where the narrative-style show truly breaks from the more common or basic interview that you execute and publish.

After you finish recording, you have this amorphous lump of audio to whittle into a meaningful story.

The editing process for the show looks roughly like this:

More specifically, here’s what you’re doing as shown in GarageBand:

You start with 100% of the raw audio. (With me so far? See? This can be easy.)

>>> Be sure to save an extra copy as a backup. <<<

Next, time-stamp the best parts of the audio while cropping out (deleting) the rest.

You can either do this yourself within your editing program OR include it in your script.

If you’re like me and script the entire episode, it might look like this:

Voiceover/narration, etc. etc.

(Name of Interviewee) 3:45 “So I went down to the store” → 4:04 “and I just couldn’t believe it.”

If you crop things yourself, it might look like this within GarageBand:

As you listen to the recording, you want to identify the best quotes from the show. I find it’s easiest to crop as you go and rename each section, along these lines:

At this point, while you listen and time-stamp/crop, you’re thinking about the end story because you’re hearing the material you’re molding into that narrative.

This step makes the next part easier.

Write your script.

Yes, you should write a script. I don’t know about you, but the podcasts that make my skin crawl usually have a host stumbling around going, “So, um, so YEAH! Let’s get started. Um … let’s see.” There’s no room for that in a narrative-driven episode, so your script puts the polish on the disconnected audio snippets.

Because I now know the quotes with which I have to work, my writing looks something like this example below, which is pulled from Unthinkable’s episode “The Muse Is An Excuse” featuring CreativeLive CEO Chase Jarvis and The Muse marketing director Elliott Bell.

(I bold the names of an audio snippet to play at that point in the script. I also use capital letters and ellipses to signal where I should emphasize a word or pause for effect.)

Chase 11:03–12:30 “I think of it in two ways.” → “But it’s on my calendar”
Seriously. Take out your calendar RIGHT NOW. What kind of things are listed? Reactive work? Mundane tasks? Stuff you got PULLED into? Chase says that’s no way to push yourself creatively.
Chase 14:45–15:23 “I put it on par with how important is your personal health” → “relative to how much time most people will allocate to that kind of stuff”
Chase 30:56–31:22 “Yanno that part of you that you’re trying to develop” → “We all have the same amount of time”

This script helps me add the narration that’s so important to these shows. I recorded this on a second audio track to avoid accidentally overwriting the other audio and to better manipulate things like volume.

A quick word on hosting and scripting this kind of podcast: A great host, in this case, isn’t overly present. The host is not the driver of the story but rather the listener’s guide to it. The host is on the sidelines, next to the listener, pointing out stuff that’s interesting.

Here’s what the audio looks like for this part. Note the second layer containing the narration:

When you’re done with this step, you effectively have an episode that you could publish. But there’s one more magic element to great narrative shows — music.

Finally, add your music or other sound effects.

As you follow these steps, you’ll start to hear where music could be an asset. There are a few common reasons to add a song, instrumental track, or sound effect:

  • To highlight transitions between stories or points being made — For instance, in one episode of Unthinkable, I wanted to increase the emotion and drama and lead into the final section of the episode, which shifted focal points from the prior section. Click here to listen to that transition.
  • To snap a listener to attention — I hinted at this earlier, but there are times when starting or stopping a song abruptly can prompt your audience to snap awake and continue listening to the show. Remember, as a linear medium, you need to be thinking about listener drop-off at all times. (For example, if your guest says the word “boom,” you could play a track softly during the story leading up to that word before abruptly cutting off the song right at that word.
  • To introduce sections of your show — Intro music is an obvious example, but there are other ways to do this. Maybe you do a listener-email segment or a Top 5 list in each episode. Playing the same music leading into each segment tells the listeners that something different is happening — and recurring listeners learn to anticipate the goodness that’s coming upon hearing the music.

The choice we face today in podcasting

Creating narrative podcasts is unquestionably harder than simply recording an interview and uploading it as is. So we all face a choice: Produce something that sounds like everyone else (fork, meet temple) or do what’s hard and strive for originality.

If you’ve read anything written by me before, you already know where I’m going with this. (And if you haven’t, then, hey! Welcome! Take a seat. I’m gonna need, like, 10–12 minutes a week. Now then…)

Do what’s hard.

Strive for originality.

Push yourself to understand the medium, have empathy for the listener, and create a special podcast.

Quite literally, the best time for all of this is right now.


Listen to Unthinkable, the show for craft-driven creators in business:

Featured by Stitcher on their home page, ranked #3 on iTunes New & Noteworthy, & called “the This American Life of marketing shows” by an unsolicited reviewer.

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