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Unthinkable Media: Make Shows, Not Pieces

Stories, ideas, and podcasts for driven makers and marketers.

By: Jay Acunzo on May 23rd, 2018

The Most Crucial Question Marketers Should Ask Before Launching a Podcast

Marketers everywhere are figuring out whether or not launching a podcast makes sense for their brands and their goals. There’s a lot to consider, and therefore, a ton of questions to ask. But one question is the most foundational and crucial thing to ponder — and I don’t see marketers asking it often enough. To understand what I mean, let’s first visit the world of pickup basketball.

Whether you’re an adult playing in a league at the local middle school (always weird to experience), or a weekend warrior trying to get in a good run at the local park (who brought the Icy-Hot?), basketball players the world over have all experienced That Guy. It always happens the same way: You walk up to the court and notice That Guy right away. He just LOOKS like a great player. He’s got a headband, an arm sleeve, some sweet new LeBron James shoes, and a bag full of the latest and greatest fit-tech and protein bars.

Then a funny thing happens. The game starts, and That Guy can’t play.

But … but playing basketball is what basketball IS!

Too often, a marketer acts like That Guy. He asks experts about what recording tech they use and how they schedule their podcast guests and what clever ways they promote their podcast and how they show ROI. They want a slick looking logo and a beautiful landing page for the show. They want to LOOK the part of a podcaster.

Then a funny thing happens. The microphone turns on, and That Marketer isn’t any good on a microphone.

But … but being good on a microphone is what podcasting IS!

For every question I get about podcasting, I ask the same follow up question before answering: “Are you any good on a microphone?” That is half the battle. Check that — it’s 99% of the battle. Literally everything else is incremental. If you have a great host, the rest gets so much easier. Just think: Would you rather listen to a dull host with great audio quality, or an engaging host using so-so tech?

A podcast is really just three things: A show-level concept, an episode-level format, and on-air talent. Of the three, the host is by far the most crucial thing to get right. Whether the person is an inquisitive interviewer or an inspiring storyteller, the very first thing to decide as a marketer before launching your podcast: Are you any good on a microphone? If not, who is?

A great podcast requires performance talent. Everything else is incremental.

Of course, there are ways to get BETTER as a performer on that microphone. Here are a few of my favorite techniques…

1. Great Hosts Honor the Golden Rule at All Times

Audio is a strange medium for many in that it shouldn’t be hard … but it’s incredibly hard. You never have “talker’s block.” Voice is the most natural way we communicate as humans. But that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be great simply by speaking into a microphone. However, if you keep the Golden Rule of audio in the back of your mind, you’ll start to make the best decisions possible for your listeners.

Audio is what I’d call a “linear” medium. There are only two ways to move through the piece as a listener: forward and back. There are really just two core actions they can take too: play and stop. So, if you’re lucky enough to get someone to hit play, you have ONE JOB as a host…

Make sure they don’t hit stop.

In other words, the Golden Rule of audio is this:

Get them to the end.

Audio is intimacy that scales. You can turn digital connections into real-world contacts — any host who attends an event has experienced the weird-but-wonderful moment when a listener talks to them like an old friend. Your podcast should hold people’s attention for a significant amount of time. It’s a beautiful thing for marketers who are used to acquiring attention 30-seconds at a time. Once you hold someone’s attention and build trust, all the other things a marketer hopes to achieve get easier.

But you have to remember the Golden Rule. You have to get them to the end.

This is a mental reminder more than a technique, but if you keep it in mind, you’ll make all the right choices. For example, if your goal is to get them to the end, should you really front-load all your boring housekeeping? Shouldn’t you just start the episode with a cold open or a teaser or agenda? Maybe, you should avoid lengthy summaries of the guest’s bio, or even tinker on a new intro style that sounds different from your competitor shows, all of which use pull quotes from their guests to begin. Whatever you decide, whatever task you’re facing, you’ll become a far better host if you remember your one job:

Get.

Them.

To.

(Wait for it…)

(Almost there…)

(I want your attention a little bit longer now…)

The End.

2. Great Hosts Relate to the Audience

This may seem obvious, but it’s shocking just how many hosts assume too much of the audience. There are overt assumptions and implied assumptions. Overt assumptions is when a host describes something, be it an industry term, a news story, or a concept he or she introduced in a prior episode, and they fail to define it for new listeners. (That’s a troubling aspect of most podcast players: They don’t start you in a particular order. They start you with the most recent episode. It’s akin to dropping in on a new TV show mid-season. Even if your podcast isn’t serialized, there are still recurring tropes, segments, and “characters” that new listeners may not understand. If that’s the case, you’ll lose them.)

The “implied” assumptions are even more dangerous. These are when you assume the role of the host is to be the star. It’s not. In reality, a great show host is the guide. She stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the listener and points out interestingness and clarifies or distills complexity. She’s a vessel, someone who has uncovered something — an idea, a story, an interesting guest — and she’s here to share that with you. Yes, the host can be the lone voice, and yes, they can be a celebrity or grow their celebrity through the podcast. But they must relate to the audience in order for that audience to agree to go on the journey with the host the rest of the episode — or the rest of the series.

One of my favorite examples comes from Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, co-hosts and co-creators of the all-time great show, Radiolab. In an episode titled “Memory and Forgetting,” the pair tries to understand the science of memory, explaining it to the non-scientific mind using metaphors and stories. Robert opens the episode by saying, “I think most people think of memory like a filing cabinet.”

Right away, he aligns himself with us, the listener, from where we currently stand. We’re most likely to think of memory — the subject of the episode — in a certain way. We have some preconceived notions about today’s topic. Robert starts by acknowledging that, discussing it in brief detail using the show’s signature blend of story and sound design. Now that he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with us, he can walk with us each step of the way until the lightbulb goes off in our minds that, ah ha! Memory is X. But make no mistake: For us to successfully understand X, the host can’t just hand us the answer. We have to arrive there logically, in the right order, and in our own minds. That’s the difference between great hosts and most brand hosts: The latter just hands us information before we understand why that’s the answer at all.

In other words, a great host goes on a journey with the audience.

3. Great Hosts Go on a Journey With Your Audience

Shortly after Robert describes memory as a filing cabinet, Robert’s co-host Jad begins a journey. He kicks off the exploration of what memory truly is. To do so, he says, “Maybe — and this is what we’re gonna look at this hour — maybe [memory] is not as mundane as those metaphors [of the filing cabinet] would suggest. Maybe memory is more creative.”

To which Robert responds, “Creative?”

And then a voice of an expert cuts in (“Yes!”) and away they go on this journey to debunk our preconceived notions and to truly understand memory.

Back to Jad for a second: Why does he say maybe? HE KNOWS THE ANSWER! Jad has spent hours researching this subject. He’s done all the interviews. But he still acts like he doesn’t know the answer yet. Why?

Because we don’t. We as listeners don’t yet know the answers that the host knows. And to get us to continue to listen, Jad teased new possibilities rather than simply handing us the answer. If he had done so, not only would he lose the ability to bond with us and develop that wonderful intimacy over time, he would have confused or frustrated us because, again, we don’t yet know what he knows. So, within one single episode, Jad and Robert take us on a journey.

But they — and other great shows — also take us on a journey across episodes. This is what’s missing from so many podcasts from brands too. The host should be a guide not only into one episode but into a subject that the listener deeply cares about in their lives. A show is a great vehicle to explore something important, not simply talk to experts about a bunch of topics relating to one’s work. If you talk about social media marketing, for instance, why not “journey to the far reaches of the social web to uncover the world’s most creative social media experiments”? If you cover sales, maybe take a specific angle: “going inside the processes and workflows of the best salespeople on earth to learn how they spend their time.” Sure, you’ll cover some of the same sub-topics that your competitors do, but by having a firm angle on the show, you can position each episode as an unfolding journey, enticing subscription and boosting anticipation … rather than relying on each and every guest to be bigger and more well known than the last.

Go on a journey with your audience.

As you do, make sure you do something else along the way…

4. Great Hosts Signpost Important Details

Signposting is an audio technique that hosts can use to ensure listeners don’t miss crucial details. It’s the act of pointing something out in plain language, whether before the thing is introduced or afterwards. If a listener misses a key detail, they’re left wondering what just happened. They get confused or lost, but by the time they resume listening, they’ve now missed even more of the episode. Missing important moments can derail the entire listening experience, and signposting solves this problem.

For instance, in the Radiolab episode about memory, Jad later narrates a quick section between two guest quotes:

“And that’s what everyone thought … until … 2000. One day, LeDoux was in his office, and a guy walks in the door.” [A clip from the guest, Joe LeDoux, plays next, wherein he describes that moment.]

There are a couple signposts inside that snippet from Jad. The first and the most subtle one is the pause and the word “until.” He puts emphasis on the word, as if he’s saying, “Everything was as you’d expect UNTIL!” — bum-bum-BUUUUMMM! Something is about to happen. If you were zoning out, better snap back to attention.

The second signpost is more obvious and overt. Jad says, “A guy walks in the door.” Unlike the previous example, where Jad uses silence around a word and performs the word a certain way, this signpost is obvious — and arguably easier for anyone to replicate. He basically tells us that, hey, something is about to happen, and it’s an important detail. A guy walked in the door. Pay attention to that moment and that guy. He holds a clue in our journey to understand memory.

You can signpost as a narrator, like Jad, or as an interviewer. If you do your research on your guests (and holy cow, please do so), then you should have a bunch of quotes and stories and examples to talk to them about. A simple signpost in the moment, as an interviewer, might sound like this:

Host: “So, Jay, you create and host podcasts for brands, and my all-time favorite show is Example Podcast. I particularly love how you open those episodes. Can you talk more about that?”

Did you spot the signpost? How did this host set up the listener to catch a crucial forthcoming detail? Read it again. Any idea?

“I particularly love how you open those episodes.”

Well that begs the question: Why? How does this person open those episodes? This is pointing out a particular detail of something the host knows and the listener doesn’t know … yet. We’re about to take the next step in the journey to hear about it. And as we take this journey together with a host, that host has to remember to do his or her job as an interviewer.

5. Great Hosts Ask the Right Questions to Extract the Right Content

I’ve heard hosts complain before that the guest was “too corporate” or “not charming” during an interview. But if your guest isn’t giving you what you need to create a compelling episode, that’s not their fault. That’s YOURS.

A friend and former MTV producer once told me about a time his boss scolded him for appeasing the show’s guest too much. “You have to watch out for the final product, the final episode,” he told him. “This is YOUR set, not theirs.” The boss went on to explain that if you get the right quotes and moments from the guest, everyone wins: the audience, the team producing the content (you), and the guest or subject. Don’t let a guest ramble — interrupt them gently. Don’t allow them to be corporate — tell your own stories or joke around before or during the interview to put them at ease. (I like to ask people, “Do you have any pets?” I tell them I want to hear them talk so I can engineer their levels. I’m not engineering any tech though. I’m engineering them.)

Above all, ask the right questions to extract the right content. I like to use a three-pack of “arrows” in my quiver if and when I need to shoot them.

First, I ask open-ended questions. “Tell me about…” or, “How did it feel to…” are great examples. Then I shut up. I allow the person on the other end to form thoughts and speak. However, they can sometimes sound corporate or simply wax eloquent, getting too theoretical to make a compelling episode. For instance, I might say to an entrepreneur, “Tell me about the process of acquiring your first few customers.” He might then respond, “Well, I think in general, when you’re just starting out as a founder, you need to…”

Blah. I’ve lost them. They got too generic. I want the specific story details. So I’d follow up by shooting my next “arrow” and ask them: “Can you give me any examples?”

Still, some people wiggle out of that one too. So then I can fire the last arrow. I call this “putting them in a box.” I create a scenario or recap the details I already have. I erect a few walls of the box. Then I give them only one logical route to escape it. I might say to that startup founder, “Okay, just so I understand, you had just launched, and you thought that Instagram could be a great customer acquisition channel. You had almost no budget, but you had to acquire a few customers within the next few months, or you were sunk. So you open an Instagram account … and then what?”

There are very few ways they can answer other than giving me exactly what I want: the juicy details.

Regardless of how your personal style manifests as a host, don’t obsess over the incremental stuff: the tech, the marketing, the ROI, the design. All of that is important, but all of that comes later. The foundational aspect of a great show is a great host. Don’t be that guy or gal waltzing up to the basketball court, decked out in the latest gear. Don’t simply LOOK like a player. Understand how to play. Understand how to perform, interview, tell stories, and engage listeners as a host. Because that’s what podcasting IS.

The one question you need to ask before starting their podcast: Are you any good on a microphone?


Hear the world’s most creative marketers as they deconstruct their own podcasts and describe their decisions and techniques:

Check out “Showtime,” a show about content that holds our attention. Available in The Maker Channel. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Overcast, Google Play, or wherever you pod.

Here’s a sample featuring Brian Peters from Buffer:

You don’t need more tips & tricks.

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Founder of Unthinkable Media. Believer that exceptional work happens when you find and follow what makes you an exception. Ex-Google, HubSpot, NextView (VC). Speaks on stages and into microphones for a living. What a weird and wonderful life. #MakeShowsNotPieces

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