Why Most Podcasts Suck

By Scott Westerman
First off, please forgive the strongly worded headline. Once in awhile, I feel compelled to be uncomfortably direct. This is one of those times.

It was a particularly lengthy drive to Chicago this weekend. Road construction along the I-94 corridor alerted my Waze to reroute us via the Indiana Toll Road. So I had lots of time to consume a cadre of podcasts.

Most of them were terrible.

Wikipedia reckons that there are more than 115,000 podcast out there today. It’s never been easier to create content. But the rules of relevancy, usability and appeal still apply.

It’s about your audience, not you.

Many podcasts seem to be an opportunity for people to listen to themselves talk, about themselves, at length. Unless you are an exceptional entertainer with a fascinating life, the appeal of your podcast will be dependent on your guests and the value of the information you intend to impart.

I saw an interesting guest promoted in one podcast overview, but the first third of the show seemed to be the host meandering through a field of narcissism, to the point where I lost interest.

Put yourself in the listener’s head. What would they want to know?

TIP: Keep your introduction brief and get to the meat of the content.

Do your homework.

I hear so many podcasts where it’s clear that the people just turned on the recorder and started talking.

Find out all you can about your guest ahead of time. Research the subject. If there are things you need to know before showtime, you may want to do a quick pre-interview a few days before.

If you cover more than one subject, storyboard the show, assigning times to each segment. Here’s an example of one introduction format that’s quick and makes you want to stay tuned:

“On the program today, Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. We’ll look back over his epic adventure and find out what an astronaut does for an encore, after he’s gone where no man has gone before. The latest iPhone iteration launched this week. We’ll talk to someone who’s got one about what’s new and whether it’s time to upgrade. And we’ll review the latest installment in the Avengers film franchise. Will you be there opening weekend? Our movie critic gives you some intel, with no spoilers attached.”

You may have figured out that there are 5 segments in the show: The Introduction, two guests, a movie review and the goodbyes. Map out how much time you’ll assign to each segment, remembering The Law of Attention: People have little time and lots of distractions.

TIP: Write out an introduction and stick to the script.

Ask brief, to the point questions.

I actually heard this “Question” almost verbatim today: “So I want to ask you about how you and your wife met, because I know it was at a class you two were taking, a lot like how I met my wife although it wasn’t in a class, and you guys have been married for so long and have been so many places, we’ve been to a lot of the same countries but you’ve seen a few more, so talk about when you first met, and was it love at first sight, and by the way, have you ever fought, because I’ve never seen it?”

Ouch! He could have done it like this with much more power: “Your love for your wife is legendary. How did it all start?”

Few were better at the art of asking questions than Larry King. Comedian Albert Brooks used to characterize Larry’s style with this two word question, “Why comedy?”

Mike Martel, writing at LifeHacker.com distills it this way:

Know what you want to learn before you ask the question.
Don’t ask “Yes” or “No” questions
Dig deeper by asking follow up questions
Use the power of silence. People will give you more information, if you wait for it.
Don’t interrupt, unless absolutely necessary. See my first rule, above: It’s not about you.

Some of the best questions start with “Why did you decide to..” or “How do you..” Follow up to get more detail if you’re not clear about what they have said. “How did that make you feel?” or a simple, “Because..” can fill in the blanks.

And don’t be afraid to go off course. Sometimes your guest may reveal something very interesting, off the beaten path.

Tip: Ask questions in a single sentence. (With no commas!)

Attention spans are short. Keep your programs short.

I have yet to listen to an 85 minute podcast that was worth staying with it to the end. People are divided on how long a podcast should be. 15 minutes seems to be a target if your audience will be listening in a vehicle. But be mindful of the shortening attention spans in this age of sound bytes. Unless your subject is uber interesting, stop when you’ve covered enough ground to tell the story.

Tip: Shorter is always better.

Remember, too, that this is just one guy’s opinion. If you think your podcast is working, follow your gut. These suggestions are just a few gleanings from what I’ve read and learned over about 10 years of podcasting experience. But you are the CEO of your personal brand. As John Goodman told Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, “have it your way”. And have fun!

We could go into more detail, but I want to model the behavior I’m espousing. There are some links attached for those who want to dig deeper. But suffice to say that a good podcast is a lot like a good speech: Be brief. Be brilliant. And be gone.

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