Alright, it's not sexy, but we need to talk about podcast structure. By that, I mean how you put together the meat of it, how you organise the topic, and how you guide your listeners through it.
This isn't about tech in any way; this is content design, and it's one of the most important things that people miss in creating engaging material.
The right format has huge benefits for the listener; engaging them, helping them learn, prompting success, bringing them back for more. It also has huge benefits for you; saving time, easing the writing process, growing your fanbase, increasing your sales.
How can a simple structure do all of that? As my Aberdonian friend would say, “Let's tak' a keek”.
This is Chapter 3 of our Content Stacking series. Find the introduction here.
What Type of Content Structure?
In the last chapter, I talked about how to break down your content idea. That's one type of structure that brings a whole lot of benefits. In that case, you're creating a bullet-point list that outlines the topic of your series, the subtopics within, and then the points you want to hit as you explore each subtopic.
That's invaluable, but it's not the type of structure I want to talk about here.
The structure I want to cover is a plan you'll use for EVERY episode you create. It's the over-riding structure that guides how you create each blog post, each podcast and each video that you produce.
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This starts, again, with thinking like a teacher. Last time, I talked about breaking down the big ideas. Now, I want to talk about how to deliver each of those big ideas. Or alternatively, the learning outcomes, although I hate to use the term again. It's the right one, though, even if you don't teach (again, check the last chapter for why this applies even if you're not teaching).
Why You Should be Teaching a Thing
I'm going to start, as usual, with how this applies to those that teach. That means the vast majority of us out there Podcasting right now, whether your doing that through an interview, entertainment or simply speaking.
The point is that:
The more effectively you can teach, the faster your audience will grow.
Teaching isn't just about helping people to learn. It's about helping them to do something with that learning that leads to success. The more you can help your audience to succeed, even just a tiny little success each time, the more addicted they'll become to your content. And what do addicted consumers make? Fanatical fans!
The Laws Behind this Podcast Structure
There's a tonne of science around learning, as you'd imagine. I had to wade through stacks of papers and books during my PhD and it's actually really interesting discovering how human beings really learn. Especially adults.
Because, learning is hugely tied to success. To succeed in anything, you have to learn how to achieve that aim. It might be a physical activity, or something purely intellectual – solving a problem – but either way, it's good for our audience. We help them succeed, we look awesome. So, how do we do it?
Here are the principles. Once, we've covered this I'll show you how it translates to a structure.
1. Show Them Where They're Going
Adults learn most effectively when they know where they're going. We hate to be uncertain. We really hate to confused. We loathe being lost.
The problem is, we get lost easy. The way around that is sign-posting. That means going by the old school 3-step plan on how to structure a lesson:
1. Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em.
2. Tell 'em.
3. Tell 'em what you told 'em.
Give your audience a really quick outline of what you're going to cover. Give them a summary of it, an overview, a map of what's to come. It's just superficial right now, but that's the map that prevents them getting lost in the detail when it comes.
There's an educational term for this: scaffolding. You give the learner an outline – the big picture really – with no details, first. Do that, quick and simple, so they can hold the whole thing in their head at once. Then, when you break down the detail, they can hang that on the scaffold. If you do the alternative, jump right into the detail, then people struggle to piece all of the little details together. They have no way to tie it all together. That's when they get lost.
2. Put it in Their Context
Adults learn most effectively when they figure out how the subject applies to them. How it affects them and what it means in their own life.
If you put a subject in context, it means your audience can integrate it into things that they already know. The alternative is that they'll try to create knowledge in their brain that's brand new. As you'd imagine, constructing brand new knowledge in your brain is hard. But, building on top of existing knowledge is much easier. That's why you need to show them how it applies to them.
3. Make Them Do Something With It
This is the final big idea, and another that's backed by a whole slew of science: adults learn most effectively when they do something with the thing they were just taught.
Building on the last point too, it's even more effective if they do that thing in their own context, their own real life, so it has real consequences.
Applying your teaching, doing something with it, is what cements the learning in your audience's head. If they can do that in their real life, so it really does help them in some way, then it has an even better effect. It sticks, really sticks, because they can see it at work in their own context, in their own life. Again, that's building more and more on things that they already know, integrating the new knowledge with the old. This is the final step, and really helps the learning to take hold.
The bonus is that if they achieve something real through your task, it not only proves you know what you're talking about, it also gives them a big sense of achievement. The crazy little success endorphins that this releases have massive power to persuade the learner that your content rocks. That achievement and those little chemicals team up to help you turn your learner from a casual browser into a rabid, fanatical fan.
A Podcast Structure for Success
So, how does this apply, really? Here's how it breaks down, for me.
The first part of your podcast structure is an introduction which takes the form of a topic outline. A lot of people think they do this already – “Welcome to the show, I'm blah-de-blah-de-blah…” But, think about the principles above: do you show people where they're going?
Make sure your intro contains a summary of everything to come. Do this quickly and simply, in just a few minutes – a full overview of the topic to come. This should be complete enough that it stands on it's own for anyone that wants a brief intro to the topic. And it will…. we'll come to that in future chapters.
But right now, even if the listener tunes out after the intro, you want them to have at least a surface level picture of the entire topic you're about to cover.
This is the detail. Here's where you cover the real meat of the topic, and you'll have outlined this in your Content Idea planning session from the last chapter. If you're already podcasting, writing, vlogging, then you're doing this already.
But, often, this part is what makes up the entire show. That's what we're changing today…
Next, we want the context – what does it mean for them. Obviously, you're talking to 100s or 1000s of people through your content, so you can't do this individually. The best alternative, in many cases, is a case study.
Tell the story of 1 or 2 people who've put your theory into action. Show a brief background, show what they did, and show the results. Try to make the people in those case studies as close to your audience avatar as you can. That means when people read or listen, they'll get at least a few, “Man, that's just like me! Maybe I could do the same…”
Your own story counts – talk about how you've put this into practice yourself. But, try to include someone else too, someone completely normal. If you can bring in some real listeners, representatives of your audience, then all the better. It's even more likely, then, that the rest of your audience will identify with them.
Finally, you can run through a few examples. Show how it applies to listener of type A, listener of type B, type C, type D, and so on. Without going overboard, try your best to show how it applies to everyone that's listening. If you manage this part, it'll have a huge effect.
This is the big one.
Give. Them. Something. To. DO.
I talked about why it works above, so please, in every bit of content you produce, ask your audience to do at least one thing with it.
This might be simply to give you some feedback on the topic:
- “Have you put this into action? What happened?”
- “What do you think of this?”
This will, at least, get them thinking about the topic, and that helps it to sink in.
Even better, give them a task. Give them an activity that puts it into action. The best case is that you can create an assignment in their work, that has real consequences.
For example, in my beginner's podcasting series, I teach people how to script an episode, and then ask them to write their own script. But, I don't set them a random subject, as you'll often find in school or college (Ever had to write a 5000 word essay on the history of the Spanish Orange trade….?) Instead, I ask them to write a script for a subject that they teach themselves, or plan to podcast about. Simple, obvious, but effective. They create something that they can actually use, while cementing the learning at the same time.
Why a Structure Will Help YOU
I've covered why a structure is a great thing for your audience, and, of course, that's good for you. It'll start creating fanatical fans for you along the way.
But, there are more direct benefits for you too, which I want to show you, just briefly.
First, this can save you time. When you have a framework to put your content into, it makes planning and writing easier.
It saves on mental effort. Again, a framework gives you something to work with – there's no blank page. That means you don't have to think as much every time you create something new. It's like a little tyrannical boss saying, “Right, do this, this, this and this.” When you have that, you don't ponder, you don't procrastinate, you don't wring you hands. You just DO it.
It also makes you consistent. Following the same podcast structure, each time, keeps your quality high. There's much less opportunity to dip – it just doesn't allow for it.
Finally, it makes you free. I love this quote from Aristotle:
“Through discipline comes freedom.”
Less time, less effort, less worry about quality – all of that FREES up mental space to be more creative, more innovative and more successful.
Now, Put it in Your Own Context
Of course, as I always do, (you know why now!) I have a task for you.
This is a starting point. You'll need to think about your own context. I've talked a lot about that above, after all! Think about this structure and adapt it for your subject.
Maybe case studies don't work, you might need to think of another way to put things into context. Perhaps tasks are a little heavy-handed, and you want to start off a discussion each time instead.
Whatever your topic, use this as a starting point. Get out Evernote, Word, pen and paper, and plan out your next episode. Think about how that topic fits into this structure. Think about putting it into context, and what kind of task you might set.
Once you've done that for a specific episode, you can think about how to make that more generic. Perhaps you'll do a feature, every week, that's an interview with a listener – that's your ‘putting it in context'. Perhaps, every week, you'll run a competition: “Send me a photo that includes natural light.” That's your task.
If you go ahead and do this, I guarantee you that your content will improve and your audience will love it. It's got the ‘science bit' after all. How can it fail?
And…. a strong podcast structure ties into how we're going to be creating prolific content in a future chapter. But I'll tell you about that later. In the meantime, enjoy the structuring.