(Readin' time: 16 minutes and 29 scintillating seconds)
OK! We've talked about equipment. We'll move onto more consequential things now, after I touch on a few questions from the last email.
One Q I got more than once was, "What! Why no love for the Blue Yeti mic?"
It's not a bad mic at all. I've never used one, but I'm pretty sure the Yeti is what Aaron Mahnke uses for "Lore", so you can't argue the mic is ill-suited to podcasting!
I just don't recommend it as a blanket recommendation because it--like almost all large diaphragm condenser microphones--is more demanding. It demands better mic technique, and it's more able to pick up room noise in the form of background noise, fan noise, street noise, and echo.
I don't know how Jonathan Stark sounds so great with his large diaphragm mic (an MXL-branded mic, IIRC), but I suspect it has to do with his secret history as a performing musician and the good mic technique that cultivated. I'm pretty sure with the same mic, I'd sound like a mouthbreathing, lipsmacking mess.
Second Q: "What about other software for recording, like Screenflow or Quicktime?"
Oh for sure, there are lots of other tools you could use and things would turn out great. I know Paul Jarvis used Quicktime for many of his podcasts, and others use Screenflow. And I'm surely leaving out many many other possible software tools. So yeah, my previous list was not exhaustive at all.
My main recommendation with respect to software tools and podcasting is: if you use the tool for live interviews, have a backup. The more famous your guest, the more you're going to want to have a tested, ready backup in case your primary tool decides to take a dirt nap during or right before an important interview.
And even with a good backup tool/workflow in place, things as simple as a minor version update to your primary tool can cause unexpected problems, especially if the tool has to integrate with Skype or is fussy about integrating with external audio hardware. So the remedy here is to not assume that something that was working perfectly the last time you used it will work perfectly this time. Leave some extra time before those important interviews for troubleshooting stuff that has mysteriously stopped working.
Do I sound like someone who has been through the wringer with this stuff? I guess that last two paragraphs were therapy for me.
And then, as if by magic, the day before I publish this, Merlin Mann hands me on a silver platter a pristine example of what happens, and what you feel, when your podcast recording software takes a dirt nap on you. Listen to the first minute and a half here: www.merlinmann.com/roderick/ep-333-the-turtle-just-goes.html
Lets talk about show format and topic selection today.
Talk about a consequential decision!
Well, that's one way to look at it. You can think about your choice of topic and show format as choices that shall be carved in stone for all time, but this choice can also be about as permanent as chalk on a chalkboard, if you want. It's not a face tattoo, after all!
What makes a topic interesting
Underneath most questions about show format and topic are three underlying questions:
- What is your podcast for?
- Who is your podcast for?
- How hard are you willing to work to make your podcast interesting?
You need to answer questions 1 and 2 before you answer question 3, because questions 1 & 2 set the boundaries within which you need to answer question 3.
What can a podcast do?
If we try to classify the world of possibilities for a podcast, we get the following groupings, which are ordered based on why I suspect you might want to invest in creating a podcast, and--critically--are not mutually exclusive:
- Generate leads
- Serve an audience with a free gift of knowledge
- Give you a structured space within which to explore and refine your thinking in public
- Promote a specific service offering in a way more focused on that specific offering than #1 on this list would be
- Build your professional network
- Serve as part of a "multichannel" content marketing approach (ex: you write blog posts, then you record yourself reading them and publish those as a podcast, or you talk about them with a friend and publish those conversations as a podcast)
- Get better at public speaking
- Meet and talk to interesting people who you invite to guest on your podcast
- Build fame/authority (I can't help but immediately mention that this is a terrible goal because fame or authority are really second-order consequences of doing something else well, and trying to "do fame/authority-building well" is like trying to push a rope. The way you actually build fame/authority is by being excellent or consistent or generous in doing something that others need or value and want to tell others about.)
- Monetize purely through sponsorships
There are probably more categories we could create here, but I'll stop at 10. You can see that there are lots of reasons you might invest the time, effort, and money it takes to create a podcast.
I think this variety of reasons-why partially explains the current popularity of podcasting. It's an incredibly flexible medium which allows creators to try lots of fun things, and the wider-than-video reach of audio is an additional amplifying factor.
Most business podcasts will combine several of the 10 reasons on my list. I'll pull a few examples from my own stable of podcasts and a few from the heavy rotation list of my podcast player:
- consultingpipelinepodcast.com: Lead generation + Free gift of knowledge + Enjoy talking to interesting people
- theexpertiseincubator.simplecast.fm/: Free gift of knowledge + Promote specific service offering
- offlinepodcast.rocks: Free gift of knowledge + Explore and refine thinking + Get to talk to a friend regularly (this wasn't on the list above :) )
- 2bobs.com: Multichannel amplification of written content + Free gift of knowledge + Generate leads
- www.thebusinessofauthority.com: Free gift of knowledge + Generate leads + Explore and refine thinking
- www.merlinmann.com/roderick/: Kidding; not a business podcast. :) But one of the reasons Merlin and John have mentioned for doing this podcast is that they're friends who get an excuse to regularly talk to each other. And they monetize it through sponsorships.
- exponent.fm: Free gift of knowledge + Explore and refine thinking + Generate leads
- www.akimbo.me: Free gift of knowledge + Generate leads + Monetize through sponsorships
As you survey the podcast landscape, you'll see a variety of reason-why motivations, but I think you'll almost always see multiple reasons-why bundled in the same podcast. And this can create a tension, especially if you see the "generate leads" and "free gift of knowledge" reasons-why coexisting in the same podcast.
The tension, I think, is pretty easily resolved. In escalating order of how artful you need to do to pull it off:
- Make the podcast itself the most generous, well-executed, helpful free gift of knowledge you can possibly make it. Then stick your commercial message talking about your services or how someone can become a lead at the very end of each episode. For an example, listen to any episode of Akimbo and mentally edit out the sponsor reads (which will just leave you with Seth's commercial messsage for his offerings), and you'll get the idea.
- Do #1 above, but also insert a mid-roll commercial message for yourself or your services. Doing mid-roll ads without being annoying takes additional skill and that's why I put it second in this list.
Now this question arises: if you've never done a podcast before, can you really figure out your reason-why in the abstract?
Maybe. Or maybe you just have to try it and iterate your way to a podcast that's aligned well with a strong reason-why. I think we'll get some clarity on this question as we now return to the larger question here: How can you make the topic of your podcast interesting?
You can't answer that question without also answering this question: who is your podcast for?
In fact, this is really the first question you need to ask and answer. I presented the what and who questions out of order earlier so I could make this point: the what question might seem more important--and it is important--but the who question really is the more fundamental question.
Who is your podcast for?
Knowing who your business podcast is for will make every other question about the podcast easier--or even possible--to answer.
So maybe you decide the podcast's primary purpose is lead generation combined with being a free gift of knowledge. If we tried to describe most business podcasts in one sentence, that'd be the sentence.
After making this choice about the show's purpose, you still have several important questions like:
- What free gift of knowledge will be interesting or compelling to your show's intended audience?
- What form of lead generation will be genre-appropriate for them and be effective at generating leads?
To illustrate the second question, I call to mind MBMBAM's gone-but-never-forgotten sponsor reads for a sex toy company. I've never laughed so hard during a podcast sponsor read. The hosts absolutely go nuts with these sponsor reads, mining every comedic opportunity the subject matter presents them with.
In the genre of comedy, this is a 100% fit. In the genre of generating leads from an audience of business decision makers, uh, not so much.
It's obvious: you can't answer these questions about show content without knowing who your audience is, and not just at a superficial level! You need to understand them at a pretty deep level so you can understand what will both motivate them to become a lead and respect genre boundaries so they don't ignore your show (or break those boundaries in a way that serves your purpose).
I don't have any real shortcuts for you here. I believe one of the best "moats" in the world of professional services is deep insight into your clients, and one of the best competitive advantages is deeper insight than your competitors. And just like any relationship, this kind of insight takes time and effort and dedication.
But if I had to cough up one potential shortcut for you, it's this: good artists create, great artists steal. Meaning, find out what podcasts the audience you want to reach already listens to, try to understand what those podcasts are doing well, and imitate what they're doing well (but weave in your own unique approach or voice or personality or something unique and "you" so it's not just a straight copy job).
Philip is still working on answering the "what makes it interesting?" question. Please bear with him.
Let's recap. You've got (I hope) clarity on who you're trying to reach. You understand them pretty well. This drives your thinking about the purpose of your show, and certain sub-decisions like how you might handle commercial messages.
But now we squarely face the elephant in the room: topic selection. What topic(s) should your show focus on?
What is structurally interesting?
In answering the topic question, I think it's helpful to think deeper in the form of this question: what is inherently interesting to us modern humans? What is structurally interesting?
I'll leave aside things that generally don't improve the human condition, like rubbernecking at a car wreck, hearing about exciting but rare events like bank robberies, etc. In other words, 80% of the stuff that the news media focuses on.
So outside of things that stoke fear, uncertainty, and doubt, what is structurally interesting? Well, as I was whippin' up some eggs for my wife and I this morning, I came up with this list:
- Applied Insight
Let's dig into each of these a little bit. If this article happens to intersect with you at a time you're thinking of how you might design a new podcast, then check each of these forms of structural interest for compatibility with your audience and your goal(s) for your show. Hopefully at least one of them will light you up with specific ideas for a good podcast structure.
There are really two structural relationships to risk that can make something interesting: risk reduction, and performative risk.
Risk reduction is where you help your audience reduce or manage risk. This is inherently interesting because it aligns with one of the primary survival-related drives of the human species. In other words, learning how to reduce risk aligns with a built-in human motivation which is to... reduce risk! Now just make this highly relevant and topical to your audience and you have built-in interest in your podcast.
The flip side of the coin here is performative risk. We love to see other humans do something risky and--at a minimum--escape harm and--if possible--perform the act with beauty or grace or in some other way we find appealing.
I think of Cirque de Soleil here. A big part of the show is performative risk combined with beauty, and no matter how many times I see a Cirque de Soleil performance, it feels fresh and interesting every time. I'm not a sports fan, so take this as just a comment from the peanut gallery, but I think the entire appeal of sports could be summed up under this same umbrella of performative risk.
So what does performative risk look like in a podcast?
I think of this show called Conversations With People Who Hate Me. Here's the show's premise:
"As a writer and video maker who focuses on social justice issues, Dylan Marron receives a lot of negative messages on the internet. In his podcast he calls some of the folks who wrote those messages, and other times he moderates calls between strangers to ask one simple question: why? Sometimes awkward, often political, and always fascinating - Conversations with People Who Hate Me takes contentious online conversations and moves them offline."
I know, I know. The above is not a business podcast. But often interview-based business podcasts will include an element of performative risk when the host asks their guest a challenging question, or intentionally takes a stand they know is in opposition to their guests viewpoint, or something like that. I think of Kara Swisher's generally assertive, sometimes provocative interview style.
Incidentally, performative risk is what gives public speaking its rapid trust-building power. The risk part doesn't substitute for having something worth saying and worth your audience's time and attention, but it does augment the power of having something meaningful to say.
Performative risk can devolve into gimmicks, but it can also be source of evergreen interest.
Routine, addiction, and familiarity have the same effects as something interesting.
A personal example: I am addicted to caffeine, and I am interested in playing guitar. If you look at my meta behavior patterns around these two things, they are very similar.
I prepare for playing the guitar by undertaking various activities: buying tools and materials, learning techniques, etc. I prepare for my twice-daily caffeine addition in very similar ways: lately, buying tools like a conical burr grinder, trying out different coffee roasts, experimenting with grinding and pouring technique, etc.
See the similarity? At a fundamental level, an addiction doesn't look that different than an interest.
So it's not untrue to say you can make something interesting by making it addicting, or if someone chooses to make it a part of their routine or if they start to enjoy that thing's familiarity. The end result is the same: they'll stick with it.
I realize full well that many addictions are harmful or destructive. And I realize the very idea of addiction itself implies the addicted is not in control of their behavior, and that can be harmful in itself.
But the mechanics of addiction can be seen in a neutral, or even positive, way.
How might a podcast become addicting to its audience, or how might it hook into routine or familiarity? Some ideas:
- My now-on-haitus podcast The Consulting Pipeline Podcast was at its height of addictive power when I published daily.
- Variable ratio reward schedules tend to be addictive. Gambling businesses figured this out a LONG time ago, and slot machines are the perfected entelechy of this idea. What if your podcast incorporated the same principle?
- Publishing on a rigorously predictable schedule could build a new routine or hook into an existing routine for your listeners.
- How your listeners feel after listening to your podcast might contribute to it becoming a familiarity anchor for them.
This whole idea of making your podcast addicting or part of a routine or a familiarity anchor is subtle nuanced stuff, but I include it here because it really is a big part of how we humans decide where to deploy our attention and effort, and knowing that may help you create a more interesting podcast.
We humans also have a default solution-seeking behavior. We just seem wired to seek solutions to problems we are aware of and feel some urgency around solving.
If your podcast can be part of a solution your audience is urgently interested in, then you have made your podcast structurally interesting to them.
This approach to building in interest is perhaps most compatible with the "Free gift of knowledge" reason-why for a podcast.
How many sales copy headlines containing the word "secret", or promising to teach you the secret to $THING (getting more clients, doubling your rate, writing proposals that win, etc.) have you seen? In this context, a secret is a tease for some sort of promise. If the tease can be paid off in a substantive way, fine. If not, it's a cheap tease that weaponized your curiosity against you.
We're moving onto shaky ground here. Experienced direct response marketers will tell you that curiosity is one of the most powerful motivations for buying. And they might be right! I've certainly bought things merely because I was curious and wanting to experience it firsthand.
But using curiosity can easily turn your efforts to connect and build trusting relationships with prospective clients into a circus sideshow.
Much of the reason I listen very regularly to Conversations With Tyler is curiousity. I don't think an interview with Eric Schmidt is going to give me a bunch of actionable takeaways for my life or business, but I am very curious about what questions Tyler Cowen will ask such a famous and accomplished person, and I'm curious what sort of answers the famous person will give. Maybe there's like one insight in there that actually applies to me. That's a mediocre ROI in terms of insights, but in terms of the enjoyment I get from satisfying my curiousity--which is like scratching an gnarly itch--it's a fantastic ROI.
So maybe there's a podcast topic that lets you leverage secrets and curiosity in a non-shitty way?
OK, moving far away from shaky ground now. :)
When someone listens to an interview (in a business context), one or both of two things is happening:
- They're gaining access to the thinking, stories, or sense of presence of the interviewee.
- They're getting more or better insight into the interviewee than they'd be able to do on their own because the interviewer is a better interviewer than the listener is.
The combination of an interesting guest who doesn't give too many interviews and a competent or great interviewer can lead to all sorts of moments of realization and surprise for listeners.
So if you're designing a new podcast, you can design one that gives your listeners access to people, ideas, and stories they wouldn't otherwise have access to.
"Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ekhh. God." - Summer, "The O.C."
I love that line from The O.C. The actual genius of This American Life is that it made seemingly ordinary people and their stories interesting and compelling.
I'm not saying the highly-produced format This American Life uses is the only one that will work. Far from it! A well-prepped and executed live-to-tape interview can also be super interesting.
I am saying, however, that people don't have to be famous to be interesting. A podcast can give your audience access to experiences, stories, ideas, and insights they might not otherwise have, and those things might come from seemingly "ordinary" guests.
I have been on a very long quest to find the original quote I'm about to reference, and have thus far failed. But I'm still trying. I'm five nine's sure I heard Spaulding Gray say once somewhere: "Everyone is interesting if you figure out the right questions to ask them." Or it was something along those lines. And that has really stuck with me. It's informed a lot of how I approach my work. And I think embracing the idea that everyone can be interesting can lead to a really interesting podcast!
What I love so much about Ben Thompson's podcast, Exponent, is how he applies his point of view (PoV) to the river of tech news, and this combination of a relatively fixed asset (his PoV) and a moving river of events (the tech news) produces a constantly interesting show.
Reminds me of this:
The kayak here is like Ben Thompson's PoV, and the river is like the river of ever-changing news he has to apply his PoV to. His Pov is relatively fixed, but the river is ever-moving, and the motion of the news-river lets Ben do all kinds of intellectual tricks with his PoV that are--to me at least--very interesting. This is what I mean by "applied insight".
Insight itself might or might not be enough for a podcast. In the case of 2Bobs, it is! But sometimes the substance of the insight needs the considerable spice of current events or case studies or some specific context to bring it alive.
A podcast can shortcut things for your audience. Specifically, it can shortcut:
- Your audience staying current on things they care about but might be overwhelmed by keeping up with original sources for.
- Your audience learning new things.
So in the first case, we have most of the super short-form daily news update podcasts, like "The Daily" from the NY Times.
Maybe your audience needs something like that? Great examples of this exist in the newsletter world (check out Last Week in AWS), and there's no reason why you couldn't serve your audience by creating a podcast that helps them stay current. They'll likely assume you're very well informed about their space, to boot, which might help flip the power dynamic in a sales conversation with any leads your podcast generates.
You can also give your audience a learning shortcut, which I often refer to as a free gift of knowledge.
The final source of interest is: entertainment and personality.
Some people seem to be born with it, but it is possible to learn to be entertaining. And if you have an advantage in this area, do use it!
But I don't have much to say on this point because I think there are easier ways to make a podcast structurally interesting.
Alrighty! We're most of the way to 4,000 words here, so I think I'll wrap this installment of this series up.
Tomorrow I'll talk about something else from my TODO list for this series, which includes:
- Interviewing guests
- Seasons or ongoing or miniseries
- Audience growth
- Publication questions: frequency, scheduling, etc.
PS - Did I miss anything on my list of ways to be structurally interesting? If so, hit REPLY and let me know.