Production Values for Audio Podcasts, Part I

There are a number of production values that narrative podcasters find effective for grabbing listener attention and keeping their audiences engaged in the story; you could think of these as technical elements of professional audio quality. They range from techniques for improving content when applied to script writing to methods applied to audio recording and editing. The most successful professional podcasters use these elements to create immersion in the audio environment and to eliminate audio distraction. The result is the creation of a kind of audio theater. Here are four basic practices to embrace while creating your narrative podcasts.

Set the scene first

Many times, podcasters can get too enamored with their content or story and find themselves in too much of a hurry to get to their learning moments. For narrative podcasts to maximize their retention capabilities, you must immerse the audience in the story emotionally.

One way to do this is to take some time to set your scenes before jumping into content. Paint a verbal and audio picture through a soundtrack that creates an environment for your listener. Present the background information listeners will need to understand the context of a scene and get to the most out of the story. This can include describing a setting with vivid details, or perhaps explaining the way a character is feeling or thinking in a given moment.

Often, you can also use sound effects to help underscore the scene setting, such as ambient audio of a location that lies underneath the dialogue audio, or music clips intended to set the pace of the scene (i.e., frantic music if a scene is action-packed or serene music if the main character is having an important realization.) However, remember that the ambient audio or music must support the environment and story, not distract from them.

Hook the audience

You only have a couple of minutes at most to grab the listeners’ attention and engage them in your podcast. Knowing this, it’s a good idea to start your podcast with something interesting.

One common technique is to play around with story structure in order to present a cliffhanger at the very start of your story. This can immediately increase the drama of the story and give listeners a reason to keep listening. One well-known example of this technique was used in the first season of the podcast Serial, which tells the story of a murder in the late 1990s. The narrator told listeners from the very beginning who was convicted for the crime, then worked backwards to determine if the conviction was correct. Presenting a resolution at the very start of the story, and then questioning it, served to quickly pique the interest of listeners and keep them listening to learn more.

Another way to achieve this ongoing interest is to create recaps at the start of each episode: Splice together interesting clips of things that happened in the previous episode or episodes. This also gives you the ability to remind listeners of important events that have already occurred that may be relevant to the part of the story they are about to hear.

Vary character voices

Remember, with podcasts, the only sense you are able to appeal to is a person’s hearing. Knowing this, it’s important to focus on the way your podcast sound, not just from a sound quality standpoint, but also from an auditory flow standpoint. Having a single person talking for a long period of time gets boring. Utilizing more than one character voice can give you the ability to keep your audio flow fresh. Instead of having one character explain something, have multiple voices combine to discuss a topic.

You can always switch up which characters are providing information to the listener. Pay attention to how each character’s voice sounds as well; try to get varying types of voices. For example, switching the gender, accent, and ethnicity of characters whose voices follow one another can give you a way to break up the doldrums of a single type of voice rambling on.

Talk like real people

This is a concept we have touched on a bit previously, but I cannot stress enough how important it is. If a podcast feels fake, listeners are going to disengage. You need to script dialogue so that you can ensure your voice actors are delivering the lines and messages as you intend, but you don’t want your podcast to actually feel scripted. Writing and recording dialogue that sounds how people actually talk is extremely important.

Often this involves straying from some of the tenets of “professional” writing. Don’t be afraid to use contractions or colloquial terms and slang. Don’t be afraid to interject pauses in speech, or characters stumbling on words or showing emotion in their speech, as these are things that real people tend to do when having conversations. Even though your dialogue has a script, you want the script to read like a natural, normal conversation between two or more people. The more realistic your characters feel, the more emotionally attached to them your listeners will become.

These are just a few methods you can use to increase the quality and enjoyability of your narrative podcasts. In the next article, I will add a few more production techniques that you can use to achieve these goals.

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