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The Most Important Question to Ask Before Launching a Podcast

Marketers everywhere are deciding if 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:

“Are you any good on a microphone?”

That is half the battle. Check that – it’s 99% of the battle. 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 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 brand’s podcast: Are you (or your planned host) 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 because 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 can make the best decisions possible for your listeners.

Audio is what I call a linear medium. Listeners can move only two ways through the piece – forward and back. They can hit play and stop. If you’re lucky enough to get someone to hit play, as the host you have one job: Make sure they don’t hit stop.

In other words, the golden rule of audio is: Get listeners to the end.

Audio is intimacy that scales. You can turn digital connections into real-world contacts – any host who has experienced the weird-but-wonderful moment when a listener talks to them like an old friend can attest. Your podcast should hold people’s attention for a significant 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 must get them to the end.

This mental reminder is more than a technique, but if you focus on it at all times, you’ll make the right choices. For example, if you follow the golden rule, should you front-load all your boring housekeeping? Shouldn’t you start the episode with a cold open, a teaser, or an agenda?

Another example: Maybe you should avoid lengthy guest biographies before a guest summarizes their bio yet again, or maybe you should tinker on a new intro style that sounds different from your competitor shows which, for instance, all open their episodes using pull quotes from their guests. I recently deconstructed Buffer’s podcast with one of the show hosts, Brian Peters, and he revealed that improving the intro drastically increased the show’s listener retention. Around 95% of listeners now finish each episode, according to their Apple Podcasts data. What if hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people spent significant time hearing you speak every week? Wouldn’t your work as a marketer get so much easier? It all starts with remembering your main job as a podcast host:




(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 how many hosts assume too much of the audience. They make either overt assumptions or implied assumptions. Overt assumptions occur when a host describes something – an industry term, a news story, or a concept – that was introduced in a prior episode, and they fail to define it again for new listeners. (That’s a troubling aspect of most podcast apps: They start you on the most recent episode. It’s akin to starting with a mid-season episode of a TV show. Even if your podcast isn’t serialized, new listeners may not understand recurring tropes, segments, and “characters.” You’ll lose them.)

Implied assumptions are harder to spot but arguably more dangerous. You can’t spot them by listening to the words a host says. Instead, they’re more subtle, as the problem lies with how a host behaves. Namely, hosts may assume that their role is to be the star. It’s not. 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, the host can be a celebrity or grow her celebrity through her podcast. But the host must relate to the audience for that audience to agree to go on a journey (the rest of the episode or series) with the host. Even the great Jerry Seinfeld admits he only gets a few extra minutes to simply “be” Seinfeld on stage. After that, he has to deliver something valuable to the audience.

One of my favorite examples of relating to the audience comes from Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, co-hosts and co-creators of the all-time great show, Radiolab. In an episode called 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 listeners, from where we stand. We’re most likely to think of memory – the subject of the episode – in a certain way. We have some preconceived notions about the topic. Robert acknowledges 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 and we think, “Aha! Memory is really X.” But make no mistake: For us to successfully understand an episode’s topic, 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 usually hand 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 their audience

Shortly after Robert describes memory as a filing cabinet, co-host Jad begins a journey. He kicks off the exploration of memory: “Maybe – and this is what we’re gonna look at this hour – maybe (memory) is not as mundane as those metaphors (of the filing cabinets) 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” when he knows the answer? He 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 teases new possibilities rather than handing us the answer. If he had given us the answer, 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 know what he knows. So, within one episode, Jad and Robert take us on a journey.

But they – and other great shows – also take us on a journey across the entire show, not merely within one episode. This is what’s missing from so many podcasts from brands too. The host should be a guide not only in an episode but into a subject the listeners deeply care 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 an 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 subtopics your competitors do, but having a firm angle on the show means you can position each episode as an unfolding journey, enticing subscription, and boosting anticipation. You won’t have to rely on each and every guest to be bigger and better-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 give signposts to important details

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

For instance, in the Radiolab episode about memory, Jad later narrates a brief 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.)

Here, Jad introduces a couple signposts. The first and most subtle one is the pause and the word “until.” He emphasizes the word, as if he’s saying, “Everything was as you’d expect UNTIL …” Dun dun duuuun! 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 more obvious and arguably easier for anyone to replicate. He tells us, “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 use signposts 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, stories, and examples to talk to them about. Your simple signpost, as an interviewer, might sound like this:

“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? You point out a detail of something you (the host) knows and the listener doesn’t … yet. Listeners must take the next step in the journey to hear about it.

And as we take this journey 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 a 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 the guest’s 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 explained 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 sound 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 have a three-pack of arrows in my quiver if 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 guests 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 respond, “Well, I think in general, when you’re just starting out as a founder, you need to …”

Blah. The point is lost. The entrepreneur got too generic. I still want story details so I shoot my next arrow: “Can you give me any examples?”

Some people still wiggle out of that one too. Then I fire the last arrow. I call this “putting them in a box.” I create a scenario or recap the details. I erect a few walls of the box. Then I give only one logical route to escape it. I might say to that startup founder, “OK, just so I understand, you had just launched and 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?”

The entrepreneur has few ways to 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. Being great on a microphone is what a podcast really is. Marketers can’t simply be hosts. They have to understand and work hard to become great hosts. Understand how to perform on a microphone, whether that’s narrating, interviewing, telling stories, or sharing your own wisdom. Engage listeners from the moment they hit play and ensure that they don’t hit stop. That’s all this is. Don’t forget it.

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

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute