“Don’t be boring!” is advice that’s frequently dispensed to content creators of all kinds. Whether you make podcasts, pretzels or poetry, it can seem as though you’re being dismissed, when a more experienced creator says, “whatever you do, don’t be boring.”
It’s a meaningless statement. Of course you don’t want your work to be boring. But what should your podcast be? “Exciting?”
Terms like “boring” and “exciting” are relative to personal taste. Instead of worrying about what makes a podcast “exciting,” let’s take a second to look at what makes a podcast boring. If your podcast:
- Relies on shock, sensationalism, or being “edgy”
- Meanders, and/or doesn’t deliver what it promised
- Relies on only one kind of sound
your listener will probably let their mind wander and not take in your work, or they’ll turn your podcast off, and listen to something else.
Engagement & Empathy
The opposite of boredom is not excitement, but engagement. You can hook listeners in and get them emotionally involved with your work, by using
- Empathy and psychology
- Experimentation with audio
- Planning ahead and keeping your promises.
When we talk about empathy here, we don’t mean simply being nice or saying, “I’m here for you.” We’re talking about a complex process that happens in the brain.A lot of scientific papers have been written about this process, which we’ll call the use of mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are the parts of a person’s brain that are activated when they see another person experience something. This is how we, as a species, learn all kinds of behavior. We don’t feel exactly what the other person feels, but we feel something close to it.
For example, let’s say that you’re riding a bus to work on a very cold winter morning. Out of the window, you observe a person walking on the sidewalk. We see the person step on an icy patch, slip, and fall. Though we don’t feel the physical impact, we experience a jolt of adrenaline, a sharp intake of breath, we make a noise, and even the nicest of us would think, “I’m glad that wasn’t me.”
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Next, we consider being careful when we are walking on the sidewalk. The more vivid the experience observed, the more likely we are to feel sympathetic physical symptoms that affect our behavior.
Advertising does this all the time. Think about commercials where you see a woman eating food, closing her eyes and sighing with pleasure. It’s no accident that late-night television shows are sponsored with fast-food breakfast commercials. Viewers might not buy the advertised food immediately, but they might after sleeping on it.
Intimacy of Audio
So, we know that a vivid, realistic experience can make your listener empathize with the action in your podcast. This is where you need to think about what audio can do that other kinds of media can’t. What does audio do better than film, live theatre, or text?
Here are some examples of podcasts which use sound to achieve unique goals and pluck heartstrings.
Sound can illuminate places that cameras can’t. Wireless Nights is a production for BBC Radio 4, hosted by singer-songwriter Jarvis Cocker. Because of the intimacy of audio, and Cocker speaking in the second person, the experience can be like traveling to unusual nighttime locations with an intellectual pop star.
Though not a soporific podcast, it’s dreamlike. For the BBC Proms, Cocker performed the show with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. They supported recorded interviews with the survivors of a bathysphere accident, a free-diver who wears a mermaid tail, and a hunter of giant squid. Any of these stories could be told via underwater filming and audio recording. In this case, the intimacy of audio, use of story crafting, and music provide an experience in which the listener is grateful to be able to breathe.
Sound can humanize creatures that are alien to us. Radiotopia’s Radiolab created a podcast episode about how different people and animals perceive color. They brought it to life by using a choir. Each color of the spectrum was a different vocal part, reds being basses and baritones, moving through the rainbow to violet, illustrated by sopranos.
This allows the audience to hear and understand different kinds of vision, even how mantis shrimp can see. Could this be done through film? Of course, and visual art as well. However, not everyone could understand it on a level playing field. The choir helps people with different types of vision understand what others see, as well as what other species perceive.
Sound can put tiny detail at center stage, without distraction from other elements. We have all experienced an awkward silence after an argument. Left alone with our thoughts, we might notice little to no sound at all.
In the audio fiction podcast Unwell, sound designer Eli McIlveen illustrated a post-argument moment of tension. Rich with unspoken drama, we hear all the tiny, usually un-noticed sounds of a household winding down for the night, in summer. Dialogue barely carries the drama here. The creak of an old screen door, crunch of cereal softening in milk, jingle of wind chimes, and chirp of insects all let us feel a warm night, and the tension of feelings unspoken.
Tone & Pacing
Another engagement hook is to be mindful of your pacing and tone while speaking. A conversational tone can relax, while reading directly from a script will formalize. If you suddenly speed up or slow down, this draws attention and highlights what’s mentioned.
Be worthy of the listener’s trust. Plan ahead, and keep your promises. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them in sustainable detail, then reiterate what you told them. If your toy industry podcast episode starts out saying that this episode of your podcast will be 20 minutes about the history of Legos, don’t go off on a 15 minute tangent about the Tv show Ultra-Man, and end up with a 35 minute episode.
If you love your show’s topic, research it carefully, cite your sources, and serve it to them in a way that’s easy to digest.
Many podcasts will open with a couple of minutes of housekeeping business, such as an introduction, thanking sponsors, welcoming new listeners, and mentioning upcoming live events. Keep this short. It’s not unusual for hosts to deviate from the promised topic, making a conversational atmosphere. This is welcoming, but don’t take a lot of time for personal chitchat, or apologies for sound quality or scheduling issues.
Returning listeners will want you to get to the point, and new listeners will think this is a show about something other than what was advertised. For a more in-depth look at this, check out our article on how to introduce and end your episodes.
So, let’s sum up. We know that “don’t be boring” oversimplifies the craft. What are some tactics we can use to make our podcast “not boring?”
- Activate the listeners’ mirror neurons, so they feel like they’re there as it’s happening.
- Create a layered sound environment like the places that your topic explores.
- Humanize your topic, with characters, goals, and conflict.
- Use sound in place of visual elements, such as music and atmospheric effects.
- Be mindful of pacing, your flow of speech, and how much you adhere to the show’s material.
Ultimately, if you basically like your listeners, and create a multi-faceted audio experience for them, they will come back for more.
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