Sunday, May 24, 2015

Stop Wasting My Time - Please Fix Your Podcast!

There has been an explosion of podcasts in the last few years. Whatever you are interested in there is a podcast for it. 

Medieval Castles? Yep. Haute Couture music? Yep. Recruiting? Yes.

I am a huge consumer of podcasts. I listen to everything from tech podcasts through to arts and much in between. It broadens the mind, apparently.

My background is in radio production and music engineering. I have worked on (probably) thousands of radio programmes, features, and live broadcasts.

I will talk here only about the subject matter podcast - it is about a particular thing - rather than the personal interview ('life and times'), documentary, or news interview ('just answer the question please'). Those are much more difficult and most of them require a lot of research and planning to execute well.

Subject matter podcasts also require research and planning but are limited in scope and your guest can be a great resource to help you identify the key points that need to be covered.

Please don't take any of this advice personally. :-)

General Guidance

Podcasts should have a beginning and middle and an end. The most important part of the interview is the setup at the beginning and there are two main ways to do this.

The first is the formal introduction. You hear these on radio all the time: "My guest this morning is Joe Bloggs. He is a specialist in micro macro blah blah blah, and he has just published a new book exploring the micro macro world of blah blah blah."

Include any information that is relevant to this interview and that adds enough context for the listener. 

The second is the self-introduction. In this case you ask the guest to introduce themselves. This is slightly trickier and is more appropriate when they are an expert. It is OK to get them to practice this and to coach them to get it nice and succinct. He is how I'd intro myself for a podcast about building the Radio NZ website: "I'm the webmaster at RNZ - I have been doing that for 10 years since I lead the project that rebuilt the site to include news and audio. My background is in sound engineering, and I have managed some large technology projects for RNZ.  I'd always done programming and web stuff on the side, which was the reason I got chosen to lead the original web rebuild project back in 2005."

Try to keep the introduction to less than 30 seconds. 

The middle part of the podcast is the interview proper; you ask the questions and the guest gives the answers. It is the important bit, the reason someone would listen. Think of yourself as a guide and facilitator. You are there to help guide the course of the interview so that the listener can follow the subject, learn something,  and to get the best out of the interviewee.

This is where I hear the most problems. Don't assume your listener knows the field you are discussing. This is a particular problem for the specialist podcast. There is a balance to be drawn between talking down to your regular audience, and making things understandable for new listeners.

Experienced interviewers will sometimes talk about the shape of the interview. It will have high points, low points, but an overall arc that keeps the listener engaged. The best way to learn this craft is to listen to the best. I'd recommend listening to the way Kim Hill works, or Simon Morton for specialised content. 

The end of the podcast is simple. Thank the guest, refer listeners to notes about the show on your website (you do have a website, right?) and perhaps preview next week's show. 

Listen back to the podcast to compile (or add to) the show notes, and to edit. Don't take notes in the interview, except to capture something the guest said that you want to come back to.

Here are some of the problems I hear in podcasts and my solutions.

Problem: The sponsors' messages at the start of the show are too long. The worst I've heard is 5 minutes.

Solution: Spread them out through the show if you can. Perhaps have just one sponsor in the intro and charge a premium for that placement. 

Problem: The guest is over-introduced/not guided.

A two minute introduction is way too long. Also, the first question to not ask your guest is, "what have you been up to". I don't care. I want to hear the guest's thoughts on the topic you've carefully outline in the title and description of the podcast. The worst example I've heard of this was a one hour podcast that spent the first 30 minutes discussing their respective housing, commuting and job situations. Sorry, but I don't care if you are both internet stars. I don't care about this stuff. Life is too short.

Problem: Too many anecdotes from the host.

Solution: Don't tell any. We want to hear from your guest. If you must tell an anecdote it should be there to move the interview along or provide a transition between sections of the interview

Problem: Too many hosts 

Solution: By all mean have multiple hosts, but one person must take the lead in the interview. I did hear one podcast with two hosts where they broke the interview into blocks and each host asked a series of questions based on their own areas of expertise. This provided a nice contrast and was an effective way to deal with a some complex technical questions.

There is some mental overhead whenever a new voice is heard in a podcast, so try to minimise this unless it is a panel discussion.

Problem: The sponsors messages within the show are too long. The worst I've heard is 6 minutes.

Solution: Limit the length of in-show sponsors messages to 15 seconds for a mention or 30 seconds for an endorsement. Tell me only one thing about why I should care about this sponsor's product. Better to have 6 short mentions in a one hour podcast than one of 3 minutes duration. 

Problem: Fawning over the guest.

Sometimes the host cannot get past their delight about being in the same room as the person they've admired for many years. They end up not talking about anything substantive.

I once heard an interview with Tom Peters where the interviewer spent considerable time telling him how wonderful he was, what an honour it was, and how influential he'd been. Everyone knows that. Get the guest to tell me something I didn't know. For example, what are they working on at the moment? Do they think they made a real difference in their field? Do they have any regrets? Are they still making a difference?

Solution: If you really, really cannot stop yourself remove it from what you post online.

I am going to give you an example of how an interview with a 'big name' person should be done. In this podcast Sarah Green from HBR interviews Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg from Google about managing talent.

She gets straight into the interview after a brief introduction and only at the end does she introduce a personal note (about a Star Trek reference in their book), and then wraps up the interview. Go listen now.

Problem: The podcast rambles. Two hours is too long. 90 minutes is pushing it unless the guest is riveting or the discussion is on-fire. You may have thought it was at the time, but listen back and be honest with yourself. You don't have to fill any particular time-frame. This is not a live radio spot.

Solution: Prepare. Plan, Do some research into your guest to get some ideas for interview questions. Once the interview of over, edit ruthlessly. There is an expression in the industry about killing your babies. You have to cut weak content, and sometimes content you are really attached to. 

Ask yourself these questions: Is this moving the interview or story forward? Have we already covered this?

Problem: Too many jokes.

Solution: Unless this is a podcast about telling jokes, avoid. Jokes can really destroy the flow of an interview. They have to be good. Really good, and relevant. Jokes that are part of the context of the interview, told by the interviewee are the best. Jokes with a tenuous and oblique connection should be avoided.

Problem: Useless or quirky podcast titles.

This creates a massive problem for people looking for good content. Should I listen, or not? Is it worth pressing play? Who can say? This is compounded by a poor or non-existent introduction.

This fine if you are Big Bang Theory; you already know what you are getting when you watch.

Solution: Use good title and summary text so the potential listener knows what the topic being covered is and the name and brief qualifications of the guest. If must have a title with alliteration (for example) still give the listener the information they need.

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I have only just touched the surface here - there is a great deal more that could be said about how to conduct an interview, how to plan, and problems to avoid. Hopefully this overview of some of the key issues will help you improve your own podcast.

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