Hidden Tricks Inside a Story-Driven Podcast (Or, How the #$%& Does NPR Do It?!)

Note: On May 27, I launched Traction, a narrative-style podcast for NextView that I'm hosting and producing (iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud). The show is about the clever, unusual, or sneaky ways startups gain traction. I'm learning a ton as I go and wanted to share as I do so. Note that I'm no audio expert, so I'm sure there are more polished processes and official terms for this stuff ...

For better or worse, I'm obsessed with the NBA. (I added the "worse" part because, well, I'm a Knicks fan. This should also explain all the jokes I make on this blog about bourbon being an important asset to my content marketing workflow -- being a Knicks fan ensures I'm usually well-stocked just to survive the average season this past decade.)

Anyways, I remember back in college when an old girlfriend of mine told me she just couldn't get into basketball at any level. "It's just a bunch of guys chasing a ball back and forth."

At first, I bristled, but then I tried to explain the nuance of the game that I so love. The next play to unfold was a basic pick-and-roll.

"Watch the big guy on the Knicks in the middle of the paint," I said. "See how he's coming to the top to set a screen? He'll block his teammate's defender, which sets up a few options. The defense could just switch who they're guarding, but that means the faster Knicks guard could take advantage of the slower big guy now guarding him. The defense could stay home and try to fight through the screen, either under or over it, but that leaves the guard open for either a jumpshot or a drive. And in all cases, the big guy could pop out for a shot or dive to the hoop for a pass and dunk."

She blinked at me.

"See?" I said. "It's not just a bunch of people running around. There's a plan! Awesome, right?!"

Needless to say, I watched the rest of that season alone. With my bourbon.

Here's my point: It can be really tough to appreciate something if you can't see all the moving pieces that make it work.

In content marketing, few mediums require this level of nuance -- while offering more pitfalls if you lack it -- than podcasting. And podcasting, as we're all already tired of hearing, is exploding.

So, having clearly not learned from my experience explaining basketball to my college ex, I'm once again going to explain the nuances of something -- creating a narrative podcast. And with my bourbon at the ready, here goes nothing ...

What IS a narrative podcast in the first place?

A narrative podcast is the type of show usually associated with NPR. They don't sound like typical radio shows, where talking heads interview guests and/or rant about things. Instead, they tell honest-to-goodness stories.

Below, I've embedded or linked to a few episodes of Traction to showcase more specific examples of the tricks or tactics I tried which, hopefully, improved the show.

(Here's where I need to insert a billboard-sized caveat that, although Traction and NPR's many shows are in the same broad category of narrative podcasts, mine is not even in the same ballpark as NPR in my mind. I'm not even in the same country. I'd maybe concede the same planet, but even then, it'd have to be, like, Jupiter. So let's just consider Radiolab, This American Life, and all the other shows and producers and hosts sitting at the Big Kids Table to be in another league entirely. Ditto for the Gimlet Media shows like StartUp, Reply All, and Mystery Show.)

Bull, meet China Shop. You have some catching up to do. Enjoy.

That was basically me, with delusions of NPR-style grandeur. But as I hacked away at my show, guzzling coffee at my favorite cafe, gesticulating wildly at my computer, scaring away most patrons at said cafe, I realized: this stuff would have been easier if someone had just ... showed me.

So without further ado (and man, do I love me some ado), here are a few random things I learned and tricks I tried that you might not notice -- the podcast pick-and-roll, if you will -- that add up to a more successful episode.

Note: You'll see the same episode embedded multiple times below. Don't worry -- each will play from a different spot in order to show you something specific.

Also, if you spot any place I can improve -- or if you have a more official podcast industry term for something -- I'd love your take in the comments.

1. A sneaky way to get your guest to relax.

If you’ve ever been interviewed for a podcast, you know that trying to speak with a microphone thrust in your face can feel … weird. This can lead to all kinds of strange-sounding voices coming from your typically normal-sounding guest. Among the most hilarious are the Bad News Anchor Impression, the Timid Whisperer, and the Rambling Man (seriously, when can I ask my next question, dude?).

As the producer, it's your job to ensure the final episode is great. You therefore need to put your guest at ease and get them speaking naturally, but that can be really hard. So, I found that asking a simple yet fun question to start your interview can do so. It both tests their volume level before you start drafting. 

My trick is to simply ask each guest, "Do you have any pets?" (If they say no, I ask who their favorite pet was, or whether they want to get a pet, etc.)

Why do I do this? Because anyone who has a pet will positively light up, smile (and therefore relax), or even laugh before launching into a description of little Sprinkles at home. You can quite literally hear someone smiling on the microphone, and once they're that comfortable thanks to this questions, I begin my normal interview. (I edit out the pets question afterwards.)

2. Hosts shouldn't try to be interesting. They should instead be interested.

Most podcasts (especially business shows) feature hosts full of bluster and opinion. They fancy themselves the star, or else they want to act like their favorite talking head from TV or radio. This is NOT the case in a narrative podcast. Instead, a good host for this type of show is on the sidelines alongside the listener, pointing out various things, guiding you through someone else's story.

The opening of Episode 3 of Traction is a good example of this approach. My goal wasn't to insert myself so much as provide a framework for the story of NatureBox -- I wanted to make sure you knew why this was interesting. It had nothing to do with me or my thoughts and smarts (or lack thereof). Marketers and, especially, executives who host a show might struggle with that, but they need to resist the urge to be the center of attention IF they plan to do a narrative show.

3. Start with a hook. Skip the bland basics.

It routinely blows my mind that companies or hosts start their podcasts with monotone, irrelevant babbling. They comment on the weather, on their personal lives, on their favorite TV shows, etc. — very, very few people can start a show that way and make it compelling to a listener. And since podcasting is a linear medium — i.e., you can only really consume end-to-end, as there aren’t disruptions you can insert like in a blog post — you need to be worried about listener drop-off.

Nothing gets listeners to drop off faster than a terrible opening.

So instead, try using a hook — some kind of engaging quote, compelling anecdote, or quick-hitting facts or statements to reel in the listener. This works across all mediums, by the way, not just audio. 

For an example, here's the beginning of Episode 1 of Traction:

4. Add music in any number of ways.

Playing with music for your show can be tons of fun — it can also distract from or even ruin the story. But there are a few ways you can use music to your advantage, for instance...

a) To make a single section more compelling. Example at 4:04 here. (Will autoplay at that point.)

b) To snap an audience back to active listening if things begin to drag. (See link above -- several seconds into that clip, the song stops playing when I say the word "boom.")

c) To transition from one story to another. Example from 4:17 to 5:36+, starting when my guest Lee Hower begins talking about Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX), then changing into a second track when Lee mentions Reid Hoffman (PayPal, LinkedIn, Greylock).

c) To deliver a joke. Example at 3:21 here. (Will autoplay but wait a few seconds for the music to hit.)

d) To add some drama and/or emotion to the story. Example at 28:26 here (though it's a light-hearted use, not heavy-handed drama.)


4. Rearrange your quotes to tell the best story, regardless of when during the interview they said something.

There's nothing worse than someone who is about to tell a complete, engaging story but then they veer off on a tangent that derails what should have been an amazing tale. Additionally, you'll also find that what makes a great story arc on a podcast isn't always how someone delivers the details -- not to mention, you might need to ask clarifying questions to get more details afterwards, which turns the story into a string of information that lacks good flow.

As a result, you can and should rearrange the quotes of your interview subject, not to take things out of context by any means but rather to deliver their story.

For example, at 11:56 in this episode, Lee talks about how the early team at LinkedIn invited all their friends to join the young social network as its first users. You can hear me interject a few seconds later -- something I added during post-production work -- to bridge the gap between something Lee told me early in our interview and something he said later. The later part completes the story of what it was like to invite their friends into LinkedIn. During the live interview, however, that quote came minutes later.

How to Create a Narrative Podcast

These are just a few lessons I've learned as I crash my way through this stuff. For a more exhaustive how-to, check out my latest post on Content Marketing Institute -- A Crash Course in Narrative Podcasting

Posted on June 4, 2015 .