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Is There a Set Podcast Opening Format You Must Follow for Your Podcast?

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A cold open is “…the first piece of audio that listeners hear after pushing play,” explains Carrie Caulfield Arick in her Medium piece “COLD OPENS: Podcaster, you’re doing teasers all wrong.” I brought this piece into The Podcast Host’s Podcraft Community forums recently to get other podcasters’ opinions on the matter. There was quite a bit of chatter about the what, how and why of cold opens in podcast episodes and that’s what I’ll be sharing with you today.

What’s a Podcast Cold Open?

There was a little confusion in the Podcraft Community about what a cold open was, and what type of podcasts are using it at the beginning of their episodes. Kimbra, Co-Host of Skeptic Psychic, honed in on a great comparison.

Kimbra Rodriguez's explanation of a cold open, "I can understand that, it's like those trailers for movies and shows that give too much away."

I’ve heard cold opens in many types of podcasts, including but not limited to interview, audio drama, narrative non-fiction, news and other formats. In addition to the debates on if and how they should be used, there are very strong opinions on how long they should be. For example, this cold open in my own Geopats episode with Stephen Jondrew of Better Podcasting is 35 seconds long. I selected it to start the episode because I liked the connection moment it emphasizes. I suppose saying that here is a bit of a tease in and of itself, right? But according to Carrie’s rules of cold opens, I reveal too much in this one. And she might be right.

But before we dig into that, let’s agree that a cold open is a kind of teaser at the beginning of a podcast episode, but NOT a podcast trailer type of teaser.

What Can Podcast Cold Opens Do for Your Listeners and You?

Let’s go back to Carrie’s Medium post because there’s some very useful story crafting advice in there. For years, she hated selecting these cold opens for her podcast editing clients because there seemed to be no purpose to them. But over time she honed in on what purpose these cold opens could do for listeners.

Create Listener Investment in Your Podcast Episode

Here’s how she explains it:

“Essentially, we’re priming the listener for something: the mood, imagining a scene, sharing what’s at stake, sharing the lens we’re looking through…

…and forcing them to ask some sort of question that they now need to be answered.

Expanding Your Podcast Workflow

I know what you’re thinking, I’m suggesting that you add another item to your episode workflow. And yes, this does increase your workload, but in a really valuable way. At least, if you’re interested in building long term listeners for your podcast (which I think you are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this post, right?)

But be glad that it doesn’t increase your podcast workflow as much as extra panels in a comic strip. Carrie used this panel analogy to explain the misuse of podcast cold opens in her post. But, James of My Amazing Woman disagreed with the analogy in this Podcraft thread.

James of My Amazing Woman's input on Carrie's comic strip-podcast analogy: "As it's meant in this article, teaser doesn't apply to my show. So, why am I commenting? Because of something in the article that she got wrong. Sunday strips needed to be created in such a way that the panels could be rearranged for different newspaper configurations (and some panels cut). The irrelevant panel that annoyed her dad was one that added a little something if kept, but could be lost if needed. The Wikipedia article on Sunday comics explains it more with examples of the layouts involved. "

For me, both discussions about comic strips sound like dynamic ad insertion conversations, so I’m going to move on for now. But just remember, your podcast, regardless of format, is an act of storytelling. And with all storytelling, there is planning and shaping that needs to be done….slowly.

podcasting next steps

Your Podcast Is an Act of Storytelling

Yes, I’m repeating myself! This is important.

Your podcast is telling a story.

Your Podcast Adds Value to Listeners’ Lives

That story might be in a conversation, through characters in an audio drama, etc. Although cold opens can exist in any podcast format, it doesn’t mean they should. Tanya of The Fullness Podcast explained why in her response to this Podcraft conversation.

But there’s a story. And it’s your job to shape that story as best as you can for your listeners. I know that this is your podcast. But, it exists out in the world for others to gain value from it in some way. Otherwise, you would just save the audio files on your computer and be done with it.

My favourite part of what Carrie’s saying in this piece is that you need to build up to that story’s narrative arc, the value moment.

Give Your Listeners a Task to Complete or a Question to Answer

In my prior life, I was a language Instructor. I taught English in Asia for a decade and then First-Year Writing at American universities to international students. I learned early on that when I just talked about something the students were bored. But when I gave them a task, they were on fire with curiosity. Our brains can’t resist solving puzzles. It’s part of why Wordle is so popular right now: puzzles consume us. A strategic cold open can be a puzzle.

There’s a Bigger Question to Ask About Cold Opens in Your Podcast Episodes

Another apt point that Carrie makes is that podcasters want cold opens because it’s what so many other podcasters are doing.

Stop that! You don’t need to have a cold open. What you need to do is make decisions about your podcast based on your content, not current formatting trends.

What you need to do is spend time thinking about the WHY of what you do in your podcast with your content for your listeners.

As a teenager, I used to complain that my friends were doing something and that was the reason I wanted to do it. My mother used to say, “If they decided to jump off a bridge, would you jump also?” Did your mom say this? Look, I’m keenly aware that I sound like I’m saying the equivalent of this to you right now. And I have to admit, she had a point. And so does Carrie. Making your own choices is much better for you in the end.

But don’t just make decisions about how to start your podcast episodes once, make them often. And ask yourself, how can I open this episode so that the story builds up to a glorious narrative climax?

podcasting from space

The Rules Depend on You

Personally, I think the most powerful takeaway from Carrie’s article is a reminder to make conscious decisions about our podcast format (including cold opens). So take a few minutes and ask yourself some very real questions about what, how and why you are doing what you do with your podcast format. And, by all means, do let us know what you decide in our FREE Podcraft Community when you make these decisions. We’d love to know what choices you’ve come to.

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