Listen & Learn: how to absorb podcast knowledge

Mathew Lowry
Published in
6 min readSep 25, 2017


I’ve been listening to podcasts for ten years. But something’s always nagged me. How much of what I hear do I actually absorb?

This is a heavily updated repost of my latest Top3ics newsletter. It’s not a copy/paste repost, because Before you Repost it, ReThink It.

This edition of Top3ics focuses on getting the most out of podcasts, and so, as I mentioned in my last post, includes a new tweak to my personal content strategy.

Earlier this year I curated my Inboxes to focus on learning more about cognitive biases. This led me to the You Are Not So Smart podcast. It’s great, but I ended up buying the book both because it’s time to Pay4Content and because I suspected that reading it would help me better internalise what the author has to teach.

How much goes in one ear and out the other?

My Inbox Curation process is explained in my recent piece for The Mission: Why you need a Personal Content Strategy. This also explains why I write the Top3ic newsletter: to better absorb, every few weeks, the very best of the content which I curate every day as it passes through my PCS process:

Whether you read, curate or create, you need to manage the content that matters to you if you want to extract maximum benefit from it.

But this process misses podcasts

I listen almost every morning on my exercise bike, in the Metro or during a stroll around the park. But at best all I do is make a mental note to do something with what I hear.

But mental notes are useless — they evaporate the moment I reach my desk. How much goes in one ear and out the other?

Hence I devoted the next edition of Top3ics to figuring out how to integrate podcasts into my personal content strategy. For a summary, skip ahead, or read the full edition to learn how and discover three great podcast episodes from NPR, You Are Not So Smart and Harvard Business Review.

Start with the transcript

Midway through listening to the second podcast for my edition, I realised that the key was to process its transcript — or any other text-based description — into my process first. So, from now on:

  • when starting a new episode, I’ll first read the transcript
  • if it looks good, I’ll curate it — i.e. annotate and tag it in my Diigo library (here’s a library item on one of the podcasts I processed, published onto my Hub via an IFTTT recipe)
  • the annotation process will prime me to seek and better retain the most interesting points when I actually listen
  • moreover, I’ll include a tag in Diigo to trigger another IFTTT recipe, auto-generating a ToDo based on the library item.
  • that ToDo shows up in my GTD (Getting Things Done) system. It doesn’t just ensure I listen to the podcast — it also provides me with my notes and a link to the transcript
  • post-listen, with the podcast fresh in my mind and my notes in front of me, I’ll add any further thoughts to my Stored library item, and consider pushing it further down my funnel — e.g., covering it in Top3ics, or a longform blogpost.

Don’t skip the audio

This begs an obvious question: once I’ve annotated the transcript, do I actually need to listen to the audio?

I explored this with the third podcast I covered — an HBR IdeaCast on the ethics of using AI algorithms. It was my first attempt to follow the above process: I first annotated the transcript, and only then actually listened to the audio.

With the audio fresh in my memory and my notes in front of me, I saw a clear difference in how I consumed these two different forms of the same content.

the audio provides a stronger emotional connection to her knowledge. That should help embed it in my mind

My notes, created as I annotated the transcript, didn’t reflect how much I appreciated the personal story — and hence the perspective — of the interviewee: data scientist Cathy O’Neil.

They didn’t capture, for example, her frustration that the real world didn’t work like maths, where things could be proven correct and false, and where mathematicians thanked each other for pointing out their errors. Cathy had her moment during the 2007 financial meltdown. A physicist by training, I had a similar moment the same year (as described recently and last year).

But I was only reminded of this when I was listening to her voice. I’m betting that the audio provides a stronger emotional connection between me and her knowledge. That should help embed it in my mind.

Update: refining the process

The full process should only be applied to the very best podcasts — those reaching the far end of the above personal content strategy funnel.

Since writing my edition of Top3ics to explore the above process, I’ve figured out more practical steps for integrating podcasts into my process (Tip: the following won’t make complete sense if you don’t already understand the Inbox-Curation/Scan/Queue/Store/Share process):

  • subscribing to a podcast, of course, is Inbox Curation. Replacing a few podcast subscriptions is now a checkbox item in my repeating ToDo to regularly change my media consumption profile
  • the episode descriptions in my podcast software are now included as part of my Inbox Scan
  • my podcast software allows me to Favourite individual episodes, so my software’s Favourites menu is my Queue of podcasts, which move to the next stage of my funnel
  • all episode descriptions link to online descriptions and (ideally) transcripts. Reading them filters out those I don’t need to actually listen to. The one I do want to process further are therefore Stored. This involves annotating it, creating in the process a ToDo to listen to it (thanks, IFTTT)
  • of the podcasts I do listen to, only the best are processed afterwards, further embedding their knowledge. I can return to add details to my Stored description, and/or develop it further in my next Top3ics edition or longform post, just as writing this post has helped me refine the process.

One final trick: my podcast software allows me to share a particular moment in an episode with any software on my phone. The final step, above, can thus be focused on the most valuable part of an episode.

For example, this morning I heard on my bike something in a YANNS podcast that wasn’t in its description, and hence my notes.

It’s child’s play to share that moment with DoIT, creating a ToDo in my Inbox (left). Once in front of my PC, that ToDo took me straight to that moment, so I could update my notes with the podcast’s most valuable insight, rather than listening to the entire episode again.

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Mathew Lowry

Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Editor: Founder: Personal Hub: