“Life is show prep.” Those are the immortal words of my friend Kris Smith who, along with his wife Betsy, hosted the Croncast, one of the original podcasts. Theirs was a rambling show, talking about the things that happened in their lives since the last episode. It worked really well from them and their audience loved it, proving that it’s possible to have a successful podcast with very little planning whatsoever.
But no planning can also be terrible. As much as l like Kris, their show wouldn’t have worked without the sharp wit of Betsy. She had a great sense of comedic timing that kept the entertainment value high.
For every successful show that uses the “no-planning” approach, there are hundreds of others that only entertain or provide value to those talking into the microphone.
On the other extreme are the podcasts that believe deeply in the editorial process. Not “editing” in the audio editing sense. But as presenting scripts and audio clips to a group of editors with red pens who relentlessly re-order, slash, and demand more from the text or tape before it makes it in an RSS feed. It’s not uncommon for podcasts taking this approach to spend well over 100 people-hours on a single episode.
Learning To Love Podcast Planning
The reality is that most podcast episodes can be made better with some planning. It’s hard to see that the outcome won’t be better when you at least have an idea of what you're going to talk about on an episode.
Naysayers will tell you that the danger is having things so rigid that the episode sounds like it was scripted. And to them I say… so? Not everyone who podcasts has the skills to wax poetically behind the mic in an empty room. There are plenty of podcasters out there who just aren't great at being spontaneous yet have valuable content to deliver. For them, having a script -- a complete script with no room for ad-libbing -- is fundamental to their success.
And then there’s a middle ground, where some of the episode is scripted and some is more off-the-cuff. That works fine, helping some podcasters get over the “wooden feeling” of their voice, and helping others not be so panicked that they won’t know what to say. Yes, you can mix flexibility in with structure.
When NOT To Break From The Plan
Where some podcasters run off the rail is when they try to mix in ad-libbing as they are following a script. That’s bad, as it’s often glaringly obvious to the audience when these asides occur. Or it frustrates your audio engineer who’s using the script to try and score the episode. Don’t make your audio engineer angry. You won’t like them when they are angry.
But you’re probably ready to reply with this pearl of wisdom from the great thinker Mike Tyson: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. And while that does happen sometimes, it’s not all that common in a typical podcast setting. The chance of someone walking up and punching you in the face (or something less violent yet still disruptive) while you’re narrating your script into your microphone is vanishingly small. Even if the UPS driver knocks on your door or landscapers with loud chainsaws decide to do some tree work 10 meters from your studio (hello, today), you can often pause and start again when the interruption is no more.
You’re Already Planning, Even If You Think You Aren’t
Even if your show is like my show (meaning it’s very extemporaneous), there's still room for planning. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that you're doing planning right now. You just don't recognize it as planning. But I assure you it is.
When you sit down behind the microphone and hit RECORD, you know what your topic is, right? Excluding live-streamers who repurpose the audio of their streams as a podcast, every reasonable podcaster knows the topic they wish to talk. That’s what drove them to the microphone in the first place.
There are special cases, of course. Sometimes the cohost of a show will not know the topic. That’s part of the schtick, where host #1 surprises host #2 to get a genuine reaction. However, host #1 clearly knows the topic, so my hypothesis has not been nullified. I’m going to talk more about topics on tomorrow’s episode, so stick around for that.
Upping Your Planning Game
So as it turns out, having a topic means you’re already doing some planning. So why not take it further by adding in three more easy pieces to your new-found love of episode planning?
- Find your angle - The topic is what you’ll talk about. The angle is how you’ll talk about it. It’s where you want (hope?) the conversation to go. It’s the unique point of view on the topic that only you can bring.
- Strong beginnings & solid endings - Even hosts of the most extemporaneous of shows should understand how the episode is going to begin and how that episode is going to end. The beginning of the audio episode this article was based on, for example, was totally scripted. I read it word for word into my mic. No, I don’t script out the ending, but that’s because, after 290+ episodes, I know what things I need to say at the end to wrap it up.
What about the middle? After all, storytelling 101 says you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. And while that’s true, I also think every podcaster will approach “the middle” differently depending on their ability to vamp or entertain without having notes or a script in front of them. So I leave the middle to you and your creativity.
Don’t Screw This Up
Yes, it’s possible to over-plan, so resist the temptation to do everything the opposite of what you’re doing today. I’m not a fan when interviewers give up their power to the interviewees. But that doesn’t mean I think interviewers should have each and every question scripted out, never veering off that script. That just makes you a bad interviewer. Yes, I think you should have at least three questions scripted out that you read verbatim. But you have to let the follow-on questions be natural, else your episode sound out of touch or distant.
On the flip side, content that needs to be scripted should stay scripted. No, your podcast fiction piece won’t sound “more authentic” if you let your voice talent go off on weird tangents. No, that carefully worded piece of education you wrote won’t be made better if you decide to take a lengthy aside because something loosely associated popped into your head as you were narrating. That’s not the time start ad-libbing.
Don’t change things up just because you’re bored. Or if you do decide to do that, please get some other opinions on it before you release it to the world, OK?
Who Else Needs To Hear This?
It would mean the world to me if you told one other podcaster you know about Podcast Pontifications. Pick up the phone, jump on the Zoom call, whatever. But please personally reach out to someone and tell them to check out Podcast Pontifications. I certainly would appreciate it.
I Want To Hear Your Quarantine Stories, Podcasters!
I have about five audio recordings sent to me from podcasters who are managing to make it through the pandemic, but I’d love to have more to feature on the program. If you have time today (or right now), sit down behind your mic and record a quick one to two minutes on how your podcasting world is being impacted by the quarantine. Then stick it up on somewhere like Dropbox and email the link to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ll be back tomorrow for yet another Podcast Pontifications.