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4 Tips to Podcast Greatness

Ever try to find great podcasting tips online? Go ahead and Google it. I’ll wait.

Let me guess – you’ve just been hit by an avalanche of articles telling you all you need is a decent mic, some recording software, and a little technical know-how.

Choose your topic, learn about Libsyn, and you’re all set to start your own killer podcast. As for content, it’s not that different than blogging out loud. Easy, right?

Wrong! It’s a big, dirty lie.

Who am I to say that?

I might be new to the podcasting scene, but I’ve got almost two decades under my belt as a radio broadcaster: on the air, producing shows, coaching talent, and audio production. I know what makes great audio, what compels people to listen, and it’s not your extensive knowledge of metadata.

There are so many podcasters out there – even some of the biggest names – who just don’t get it.

The nature of audio is this: when you’ve stripped your listeners of the one sense they rely on most, their vision, you leave them vulnerable.

They can’t look to you for the visual cues they rely on in everyday life. You’ve become a voice in their heads, almost like their own inner commentary. Because of this, the line between you and your listener is blurred, and it’s far more intimate. This is why audio loves honesty.

Audio loves what feels raw and real and true, especially stories and metaphors that paint a picture to fill in what’s missing – sight.Click To Tweet

Audio is theater of the mind.

Yet, as intimate as being inside your listener’s head is, you’re still competing with what is right in front of them, and their own thoughts. If you lose your listener, it’s difficult for them to catch back up with you.

Think of audio as being like a train. It runs its course from beginning to end. There’s no going back a few words and re-reading, and no chance for a listener to ask for clarification. And all it takes is one small, boring section, or a distraction that causes them to miss a crucial point, and essentially, they’ve just been thrown from the train.

Sure, they can rewind blindly, but that kills the experience and takes more effort than many listeners are willing to invest. What if they’re washing dishes, or working out? You need to be very thoughtful of how your audience will consume your audio, and have a plan for how to keep them on track.

Don’t let this worry you too much, because the beauty of podcasting is that you can cheat. And by cheat, I mean set yourself up for guaranteed success. Spend some quality time with your audio in post-production, and it can be the difference between ‘okay’ and ‘awesome.’

You can edit your audio after the fact to make it more entertaining, compelling, and to give it much better flow. You can even cut out the parts of the interview that don’t meet your standards for excellence. Post-production is a little like writing, and the audio you captured is your rough draft, waiting to be revised and polished.

But what about that audio you captured? How do you get the best first draft you can? And then, how do you decide what stays or goes?

You’ll figure out what works for you and your audience, but to give you an idea, here’s an overview of my process for editing our new, interview-based podcast, Business Reimagined, which officially launches in just a few days.

Step One: Get the Audio

While you do need a decent mic and recording software, there are already a ton of articles detailing this. You also need to make sure your room is quiet, and possibly even install dampeners to kill the echo. I use Audimute in my home studio.

Forgo the wind pants and other noisy clothing, and get a solid chair that doesn’t screech when you shift your weight. Spend some time practicing proper mic technique, such as backing away from the mic when you’re louder, and moving in closer when you’re quiet.

Invest in a pop filter to mitigate plosives and sibilance. Hydrate well, beginning first thing in the morning to prevent annoying, smacky mouth noise.

Before your interview, record a few seconds of audio and play it back, to check levels and make sure it’s working properly. (You’d be surprised how often it isn’t.)

For capturing audio, I would highly recommend recording yourself and your guest in separate tracks. It will make your editing life so much easier.

Now for the actual audio. Keep in mind that entertaining and compelling doesn’t mean cracking a joke every ten seconds. Nor does it mean you should, in any way, try to sound like your local radio deejay. In fact, I’d advise against it.

Part of the charm of podcasts is that they’re made by real people, so that’s what you should be – real. Be free with your smile. The physical act of smiling can easily be heard in audio, and it translates well.

Don’t read from a script, or at least, don’t sound like you are. Try to sound like you’re talking to a friend, and it’s a lot easier if you have a guest.

Interviewing someone is a little more difficult to pin down, and comes with practice, but I can give you some of the pointers I’ve shared with Danny.

First, go in with a plan. Research your guest and what they’ve been up to. Make a list of possible questions, or points you want to cover, and be ready to add more or scratch some off during the interview. Let the conversation flow, and you’ll need to master the art of critical listening and knowing where you’re going next, at the same time.

Make your guest, and yourself, feel comfortable. Break the ice by asking easy questions, like things they’ve done, or successes they’ve had. Think about what you’d ask them if you ran into them somewhere other than behind a microphone.

Once you’ve got a good rapport going, you can shift into deeper conversation. Just remember, despite all your efforts, not all interviews are going to go perfectly, or even well, but there are things you can do to keep it on track.

For guests who talk a lot, a common problem is the five second question, five minute answer loop. Don’t let your guest ramble or go too far off topic. If you find yourself getting bored listening to them, your audience probably will, too.

Instead, break it up by asking questions, especially when you sense there’s more to the story. Listen for things that are emotional, involve conflict, or are pivotal moments, and hone in on them. Granted, some of these topics will feel a little uncomfortable, and that’s okay, because that’s what people want to hear.

On the other end of the spectrum, for less talkative guests, take care not to ask questions that can be answered with yes or no. Instead, ask for stories, as in ‘tell me what happened,’ ‘what was going through your mind,’ or ‘what did she say?’

You want to draw out actions, words, and truth. Don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate or speak up when you disagree. In addition to stories, people’s interest piques when they hear conflict.

Remember, an interview is a conversation where you’re the stand-in for your audience.Click To Tweet

Say and do what they would. If something isn’t clear to you, it probably won’t be clear to them, so ask your guest to explain.

It’s also helpful to take a big, hard-to-grasp concept you or your guest just spent several minutes talking about, and either sum it up in layman’s terms, or use a metaphor to explain it.

For example, if you’re talking about unemployment rates, instead of saying ‘25% of people,’ drive it home with something like, ‘for every four people you know, one of them is without a job, and on the verge of having to make that trip to the food pantry so they can feed their kids tonight.’ Make it personal, make it real, make it raw, and give your listeners whose attention has wandered a chance to catch up and understand the discussion.

With Business Reimagined, Danny does the interviewing, and I don’t give him a time limit. I want him to feel free to ask the questions he wants to ask, and follow things that might turn out to be amazing.

He knows that he won’t run out of time and miss questions, and I have a ton of audio to work with. That leaves me free to keep the amazing parts and cut the parts that fell flat.

The editing portion of my process begins next, but before I make a single edit to the audio file itself, I send it off to be transcribed. You can do it yourself if you like, or you can hire a freelancer or transcription company.

With transcript in hand, I listen to the audio and mark things that immediately jump out to me as compelling audio or memorable. Next, I make sense of it all.

Step Two: Post-Production Transcript

It’s tough digging through audio files to find specific sections and sentences, even in a 10-20 minute file. That’s why I use a transcript, and I have it time stamped so I know exactly where in the sound file the sections appear.

So once you’ve got your transcript, you’re going to need a few more things. First, you need to get in touch with your inner goldfish. That’s the part of your brain that has the attention span of… well, a goldfish.

Next, commit to cut, so you can keep that goldfish engaged. Know that you’re going to drop what’s boring, even if that means the entire interview.

And finally, get some highlighters. Three, to be exact.

On my first pass through the Business Reimagined transcript, I highlight in purple the sentences that contain the major points I want in the finished product. I usually stick to two or three points for a 25 minute podcast, depending on subject matter, and overall cohesiveness.

On my second pass, I grab the blue highlighter, and mark the audio-friendly parts. These are words and phrases that grab attention, displays of emotion, including the notes from my listen-through.

They can also be references to pop culture, television, striking metaphors, memorable phrases, and so forth. These are the hooks; they snag your listener’s wandering attention.

Here’s an example from episode one of Business Reimagined, our guest being Sean Platt. He’s talking about his wife/mistress relationship with his two writing partners, and uses the TV show Friends to serve as a great illustration.

On my final pass, I grab the yellow highlighter and mark the stories. For my purposes, a story is anything with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. It’s either relevant to the topic, or compelling enough to stand on its own. I’m pretty liberal with this pass, because I’ll tighten it up in the actual audio editing.

By this time, I’ve got a pretty good idea what the episode will sound like, and what parts of the interview will be cut. Would you like to know my top secret hack? I look for the prettiest, most colorful places in the transcript.

Step Three: Edit the Audio

At this point, I need to explain a little about the audio software I use, which is Adobe Audition. It has an interface called a multitracker, and I can work with multiple audio files at once, make cuts and edits to the files, and move the resulting clips around like Lego’s.

Using your transcript as a guide, locate the audio portions you want to use, and stitch them together. An important note: make sure that the edits you make preserve the context and spirit of what either you or your guest are saying, and make sure that you preserve good transitions between subjects.

This is one of the more challenging parts, and from time to time, you can even record extra audio yourself when you don’t have a smooth transition. Often, I’ll send lines to Danny to record after the fact, and drop them in the mix where they’re needed. Make sure your levels are relatively similar, make your pauses natural, and add in your intro and outro.

In the video below, I’ve used our second episode with Mitch Joel to show how I break it down in Audition’s multitracker. At this point, I’ve usually gone through and adjusted the individual sound files for volume and effects, but for this video, I’m just demonstrating how I break down interview audio.

 

Now, I won’t go into constructing your own audio branding like I do, but I would strongly suggest you have some made, complete with a voice over. It’s a one-time expense that will make your entire podcast sound so much more professional.

Word to the wise: make sure you pick a producer who’s willing to work with you and do revisions if you’re not happy with the initial product, and remember, you get what you pay for.

Once you’ve got all your clips in place, mix down the track to a single sound file. Once you’ve done this, give the entire thing a listen, to make sure you’ve not made any mistakes, clipped words, have unnatural pauses, etc.

Listen for anything that’s out of place. You can make minor edits within this track, but if you have a problem with the content itself, you’ll go back to the multitracker and fix it there, then mix down another track. Once you’re happy with the result, let someone else listen to it before you publish it for the world.

Step Four: Behind Every Great Performer is a Great Coach

You need an outside pair of ears that will catch things you won’t, like parts of the content that don’t make sense because you left something out in editing. More importantly, you need honest feedback about yourself, what you did well, and what you can improve. Sometimes, this can be your producer if you hire one, or it can be a blatantly honest friend.

Remember all those articles you Googled earlier? One thing they got right was that your first few podcasts are going to be rough.

But a podcast is a living, breathing thing. You’ll learn as you go, fine tune, and keep your finger on the pulse of your audience – they are your compass.

And once you get a grasp of what you’re looking for during editing, you’ll begin to plan for it when you’re recording. In fact, you can listen to the first few episodes of Business Reimagined to see how Danny and I have refined our approach. He’s improving his interviewing chops, and I’m tightening my process.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but my hope is you’ve caught a glimpse of the future of high quality podcasting that I know is coming.

Podcasting may not have a lot in common with blogging, but there is one very striking similarity. Remember when blogging was new, and everyone was rushing to do it? Take a look at where blogs are today; there’s quite a difference in content and quality.

It won’t be long before podcasters who won’t take the time to hone their craft, or in some cases even hire producers, will be left behind in this fast-moving and lucrative field. The time for meaningful, on demand, high-quality audio entertainment is here, in the form of the podcast. And that’s why I never looked back when I left radio.

So what about you? What challenges are you facing with your podcast? What successes have you had, and strategies that have worked for you? Leave me a note in the comments!

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