If you send me an email with a dozen fonts and twice as many colors. I'm not going to read it. Or if I do read it, I'm not going to be happy about it. If the maître d' at the steak house is wearing a ripped up Stryper concert t-shirt, I’m canceling my reservation.
Yet I love it when my two-year-old granddaughter writes me notes using every colored marker she can find. And most of the people working the coffee shop down the street look like they just got back from a drum circle.
That doesn’t mean I’m fickle. That means I’m responding to tone.
Uncovering Your Podcast’s Tone
Yes, both content and context are important aspects of your podcast. But it’s the tone of your show that acts as the delivery-device that translates the sounds (and sights) to thoughts, ideas, and feelings inside your listeners’ brains.
Yes, it’s that important.
But the tone of your podcast is complex and made up of elements you might not even consider as all that critical to your podcast’s success.
Music Is More Than Something To Hide Background Noises
It’s arguable that the theme music you’ve chosen for your show has the biggest role in setting the overall tone. Hard-hitting, over-driven guitars wheedling away in the background at the start of the episode sets a particular tone. A mellow piano sets the opposite tone. And a quirky, plucky ukulele means something else entirely.
The theme music of your show is a signal to new listeners, but also a strong branding element for repeat listeners. If your goal is (and your goal should be) getting people to become regular listeners, remember that regular listeners are going to hear that music every single time they listen to an episode. That music is going to set their mind up to receive what you have to say. In essence, it’s priming their brain to receive the content you’re about to share. Does your theme music put them in the right frame of mind?
The same goes for transition music used inside your episodes. Perhaps you have a bit of music (sometimes called bumpers, sweepers, or stingers) that plays to signal the transition from set up to interview. Or maybe you use a short clip to separate different segments of your show. That little bit of music, even if it only plays for a couple of seconds, is part of the tone of your show. Does it fit?
Voices Carry The Tone
Think about the portions of your episodes that are “canned”. By that I mean elements that are truly canned that you add via drag-and-drop from a library. But I also mean elements that are mostly canned but do change a bit. Much like my consistent intro of this show, and the mostly-consistent outro.
The words used in those canned bits impact the tone. As does the length of those bits. A very long intro might be appropriate for longer-form content, or for shows that are educational in nature. Conversely, short intros might fit better on shorter content, or for more niche shows. But those aren’t hard-and-fast rules. Instead, they’re a function of the tone you want to set.
How those words are voiced is huge. With some high-energy voices, you can almost hear the smile on the face behind the microphone. Yet that might not be the tone you’re going for if you’re producing a somber show. The cadence of the words spoken also sets the tone in a similar way. Sure, slow and meticulous voices are easier to understand. But how well would that work in a pop culture show that’s supposed to be light and airy? A pro-announcer will lend a certain amount of… well, professionalism to your show. But does a James Earl Jones-style voice fit for your show that’s centered on SE Asian politics?
EQ Settings Make Some Podcasts More Equal Than Others
Getting the right EQ is huge in music, and nerdy audio people will obsess for hours finding just the right tone. There’s a big market in “presets”, letting creators push a button to drastically change the sound of a composition.
Savvy podcasters will also spend a significant amount of time adjusting EQ settings of all the voices and elements that go into a show. Adding brightness and warmth where needed, knocking out some of the bass here, and maybe some well-placed but subtle reverb to give a sense of space to the final composition. It’s a fair amount of work, but it has huge implications to the overall tone of an episode.
Setting Tone Beyond The Sound
There's more to a podcast than the sounds the listeners hear. All of the not-audio parts of your show also set the overall tone of your show.
Yes, I mean the show-level artwork and the episode-level artwork. A huge amount of tone is conveyed when someone discovers your podcast in an app before they ever listen. For subscribers deciding which of the dozen episodes in their queue they should listen to right now, the displayed artwork, a title, and maybe a snippet of the episode summary is all they have to go on. Does the tone there match the tone of the actual audio?
But I also mean the artwork you carefully choose for your website, newsletter, or social shares. What imagery, fonts, and colors are you using for audiograms? What about pull quotes? And how do un-planned shares look when your listening audience takes the initiative and shares to their own network? What can you do differently to make sure those shares not only look great, but also convey the tone of your show?
Did You Intentionally Set The Tone Of Your Podcast?
When you take a critical look at all of the elements I mentioned in this article, try to remember why you made each choice. There’s a very good chance that you won’t remember. And I’d hazard to guess that for some, the decision was somewhat automatic. Many choices (if not most) were done because someone thought it sounded cool. Others are made because someone is trying to emulate the tone set by another popular podcaster.
I’m OK with “that sounds cool”. And I’m OK with borrowing the style from another show. As long as those decisions are made with intent, that is. And perhaps even if it wasn’t done with intent, but it works. I’m good with that too.
Dissecting the Discordance Inside Your Podcast
Discordance isn’t always a bad thing, though it usually is. Think about an orchestra or even a three-piece band playing with one player out of tune. That’s bad. Or strum a guitar chord with one string flat or sharp. Or do a run on a piano that hasn’t been tuned since the Nixon administration. The notes played might be technically correct, but it’s going to sound unpleasant. And you’re going to stop listening.
Your listeners might have that same disconnect when your punchy theme music plays under a soft-spoken episode intro. Or they’ll see the garish colors of your attention-grabbing audiogram and then be taken aback when they a heartfelt testimonial of a survivor of abuse. That’s bad too.
Not all discordant tones are unpleasant. Sometimes a very abrupt transition serves as a reset. Or discordance can draw attention to something that’s supposed to be off within the episode. As long as the discordance is intentional, done on and with a purpose, go for it! Sometimes we need surprises.
My fear is that you might read this and assume I want everything in your podcast to be clean, pristine, and polished. I assure you I do not. Some shows are purposely designed to be almost toneless. Others are intentionally crafted with changing tones from episode to episode. And if that's the intention you put into your podcast, fine. Lean into that.
But if it wasn't your intention, you owe it to yourself to ensure you're getting the right tone out of every single aspect of your show. And remember; anything that doesn’t work or doesn’t convey the right tone can be changed. How you change it is a topic for another time. But you can change anything and everything about your show until you get just the right tone.
It's all about intent and intentionality. Maybe you don't need a tune-up of your show. Maybe it just needs a tone-up?
Perhaps you've listened to a friend’s episode and noticed a problem with the tone that doesn’t work for you. If you can find a way to do it without being too passive-aggressive, send them this episode and let me be the heavy.
And if you've been enjoying my content for a while now and feel it’s worthy of your financial support, I would certainly appreciate that. You can go to BuyMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra and help keep the show going.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.