How to Create a Narrative Style Podcast: A Look Inside the Process
Sarah has been doing her job for 20 years. She thought she’d seen everything. She was wrong.
Halfway through the podcast episode you’re listening to, Sarah, the guest on the show, excitedly describes this moment where she walked into her lab like any regular day. (Wait a second, she has a lab?) There, she greeted George, her grad student. (Hold up: What exactly does a grad student do in this lab? And while we’re at it, where IS this lab?) Sarah continues to describe what surely was a remarkable moment in her work, one complete with breakthrough scientific findings and magical emotional moments. It all wraps together into a beautiful, irresistible story, delivered straight to your ears.
Only … you missed it.
You were too busy trying to answer all these questions in your mind — questions the show itself created but didn’t anticipate and thus didn’t answer. So your mind went wandering to the side, while the podcast episode continued in the same direction: forward.
This is why narrative style podcasts can be so darn powerful to create. A narrative style podcast uses voiceover from a host or voice actor to advance the action in ways the audience finds irresistible. To make a moment irresistible, especially in audio, is to NEVER lose the audience. We need to follow them every step of the way, answering every question they have, though they’re all implied and not asked of us as hosts, of course.
Sure, the host of this podcast involving Sarah and her lab could have interrupted her excited, passionate story to ask those questions. Wait, you have a lab? What do you do there? And tell me about George, what’s he like? What does a grad student do at your lab? Actually, before you get there, where IS this lab anyway?
It’s the responsibility of the host to extract the right content from the subjects to serve the audience experience, i.e., create an episode without holes. But interrupting can be such a delicate thing, and you’d really prefer that someone telling a story (especially considering they’re not a professional storyteller) merely continues uninterrupted. So do you interrupt, or let her meander and lose the listener? It’s a false choice IF you choose to create a narrative show. With just a few short sentences spliced into the middle of Sarah’s voice, the host — YOU — could have added context that was both necessary and very likely to be delivered in way too many words by the guest if you’d asked her.
Narrative podcasts seem like dense, difficult shows to create. But if you have a process and understand that “meta” level framework, they can be quite simple — and deeply resonant.
The Benefits of Narrative Style Podcasts
Narrative podcasts are story-driven shows, as opposed to interviews, talking heads, or game-show-like recordings. They rely on heavy editing to splice together the right story, pulling from interviews and other recordings, sounds, and music. Many feature a host who narrates the story, almost as if everything else happened in the past.
NPR is, of course, the gold standard here, though narrative podcasts can run the gamut in terms of tone. I can share this particular process below thanks to my producing and hosting several narrative-style shows for Unthinkable Media clients, as well as my own show, Unthinkable. And all of this began with my producing and hosting a show called Traction for my former employer, the VC firm NextView Ventures. There, as with Unthinkable after it, I tinkered and tested and banged my head against my desk for months — all so I could bring you this post. (Kidding. Kinda. But you’re welcome.)
So why are narrative podcasts so great? In addition to sounding wonderful because the focus is more on storytelling than pontificating, this style is perfect for all three groups involved in a typical show production.
Brand/host/producer: You’re in total control of the final product. You can stand out by making your show sound different than the rest, and you don’t need to rely on a guest sounding pithy or engaging all in one take.
Your guests: They can relax knowing that editing can make them sound great. They can pause to think, speak naturally with ums and uhs, and even ask to redo answers. It’s about getting the best quote recorded, not the best end-to-end conversation. (If they ramble, for instance, that doesn’t derail your show as it would in other formats. You can simply lift out the best content.)
Listeners: They stand a greater chance of sticking around to enjoy the show. Podcasts are a linear medium. The Golden Rule of podcasting is Get Them to the End. This is far more difficult in audio than other mediums. In a written article, for instance, you can introduce all kinds of other stimuli and mile markers on the page – images and graphics, embedded videos and audio, calls to action in dozens of forms, and headline breaks or bolded text. But in audio, as of today, little technology exists to change the way we consume podcasts. You can hit play, or you can hit stop, so you better focus on preventing them from hitting stop once they begin listening. Thus, narrative storytelling addresses the ONE thing you need to worry about as a producer: listener drop-off. Can you get listeners to the end? Can you maximize the time spent listening, not just optimize the vanity metric of downloads? Stories are built to do that.
How to create a narrative podcast
If you’re like me, you’re not formally trained in radio production, nor do you have a budget to make others in the industry blush with your natural audio talents. So this stuff must become learned through repetition. A smart process, of course, always helps with that.
So, here’s a lean process you can use that won’t cost more than $200 to $300 up front, but requires instead some creativity and elbow grease. As with much of this stuff, it’s what you have between your ears that matters, not what’s in your wallet. (Sorry, Capital One…)
First, select your equipment.
For me, that means:
- Two Shure SM58 microphones (like $100 each) with foam windscreens ($2) to soften certain sounds, like the pronunciation of hard Ps, that could sound harsh or loud. I also bought a pop filter ($10) to be doubly sure the sound is clean. Both together seems to work better than either alone.
- A mixer (optional). I bought a simple Alesis MultiMix with four microphone inputs just in case I need that many. I typically use two. A mixer allows you to use multiple microphones for better in-person audio, as well as adjust certain aspects of each individual’s sound. In recent weeks, I’ve actually circumnavigated the need for a mixer to instead use USB mics directly into my laptop. Either is fine, so long as you play around with the controls on your mixer or in your software (details below) to ensure the best-sounding voices are recorded.
- Recording and editing software. I use Apple’s GarageBand (available for PCs too I believe) for both recording and editing. If I’m interviewing someone remotely however, I use Zencastr instead of Skype or Zoom. The latter two services are VoIP programs, which means you’re recording voices as its being sent over the internet to you. Zencastr, however, records the guest and records you separately, each on the local laptiop, and then deposits both files neatly into Dropbox once you stop recording. Brilliant. And cheap! (If you MUST use Zoom or Skype, I prefer Skype with a plug-in from Ecamm to record the file. Then I import it into GarageBand for editing later. NOTE: If you use GarageBand to record, save often. If you use it for editing, export the entire recording to Dropbox or your desktop before editing, to preserve a backup copy.)
- Music: Try the amazing Marmoset Music for a huge library of searchable, filterable, use-however-you-want songs (paid service). For free music, YouTube’s Audio Library is shockingly great.
Next, research and draft your questions.
Much digital ink has been spilled on this, so I’ll refer you to Copyblogger’s great post on podcast preparation.
Bottom line: Over-prepare, always. Knowing the subject and the story ahead of time makes the conversation a million times better. (Side note: Questions should be more prompts than gospel. Be ready to throw them out and pursue interestingness as your subjects talk. I’ll write another post later on about how to construct great interview questions.)
Third, alongside your questions, prepare a brief list of things you want to tell the guest prior to hitting record.
It’s incredibly helpful to pre-wire guests (and build rapport) before you start the official recording. Wherever you log your questions, jot down a reminder or some brief snippets to tell the guest the following:
- What the show is about
- Who listens / other audience insights
- The kind of discussion that listeners love, e.g. “They really appreciate very specific examples. I will ask for them, but if you can be sure to speak in concrete story and example, listeners will love this episode and share it broadly.” (This is especially useful for B2B shows, because you’re constantly battling the overly polished, PR-like sound bites of your guests.)
- The fact that it’s an edited show, meaning they can stop to think, talk to me directly, and generally have a relaxed conversation. (More details for how to make them relaxed below.
NOTE: Try like hell to avoid sending questions ahead of time. You want them feeling prepared, but not rehearsed. If they DO ask for something, respect that idea of preparedness, while also respecting the listener — they won’t enjoy overly rehearsed answers. When someone insists, I send them 3-5 generic questions, and we may or may not address them on the call.
LAST NOTE FOR PRE-PRODUCTION: It’s also often helpful to conduct a pre-interview call. I sometimes schedule these to (A) determine if there is indeed a story here, which, yes, means I sometimes turn people away after, (B) build rapport and find story threads to pull on later, and (C) prepare the guest for an informal, relaxed interview. I rarely do these lately, because my shows are all business focused and busy schedules are hard to navigate, but when I HAVE done them, I’m always amazed at how much better the final episodes are.
If you’ve completed the pre-production steps, this part should be the easiest of the process. To keep things brief, here are a few reminders:
Tune your volume … and your guest … to your liking.
As the producer or host, it’s your job to make your guest feel comfortable, and it’s your job to ensure the final episode is great. If you don’t like the answers they gave, that’s your fault, not the guest’s (hence the importance of both pre-production research and post-production editing for your narrative podcast).
Again, here is where you want to bust out the stuff you’ve prepared ahead of asking questions (see above for that list of ideas).
Additionally, if I sense that they’re tense or need a bit of a breath, or if talking to them for a couple minutes failed to build rapport for whatever reason, I say the following:
“I’m just gonna hit record but I need to check a few technical things here so I’ll ask you a random question. Let’s see: Do you have any pets?”
This does two things: First, it makes THE MOMENT of hitting record feel less like THE MOMENT and more like a moment. I didn’t hit record and launch into the interview, which can make even the most relaxed individual tense up again — all my hard work for naught. Second, I find that the question causes people to relax, smile, and/or laugh and start raving about their favorite pet. (If they don’t have any, I ask why, and if they ever did or ever will. There’s always a story, or a throwaway bad joke like, “Well, I have three kids under 10, so that’s all I can handle, hahaha!”) Look, it’s borderline corny, I realize, but you can literally hear someone smiling on a podcast as a listener. This question — and others that I’d encourage you to come up with and try — creates that relaxed, warm tone in their voice, while preventing guests from launching into a forced, overly formal radio voice.
Tell them you’re engineering the tech. But know that you’re not: You’re engineering them.
Interview your guest(s).
Lean on your research but don’t get overly wedded to it. It definitely helps to have at least some experience, particularly as a journalist, conducting interviews. Interviewing is a learned skill, which is why I’ll write more about conducting great ones later. But for now, embrace a hard truth: You need to roll with what they say, pursuing interesting stories off-script and using follow-up questions to get better answers if they’re being vague or omitting details. Your scripted questions are mere jumping off points. Your follow-up questions in the moment are EVERYTHING.
This is where the narrative-style show truly breaks from the more common or basic interview that you execute and publish.
After you finish recording, you have this amorphous lump of audio to whittle into a meaningful story.
The editing process for the show looks roughly like this:
Seriously, I can’t recommend that final green part enough 😉
Specifically, here’s what one of my episodes of Unthinkable looks like in GarageBand:
The raw audio. (With me so far? See? This can be easy.)
A rough cut of this person’s interview. I keep quotes I feel will help me shape the story. (It’s useful to have a consistent framework for all your episodes for how you like to tell stories, broken into blocks, e.g. “A Block: a quick story from the guest sharing a difficult moment before they were successful.” Knowing the story structure up front helps you remove the fluff and keep the good stuff.
I then re-name each snippet so I remember what’s inside.
At this point, while you listen and time-stamp/crop, you’re thinking about the end story because you’re hearing the material you’re molding into that narrative. Just as your interview questions were guidelines, not gospel, so too should your story structure or idea from prior to this moment. You now hear what you’ve got, and that can shape the story in new and exciting ways.
Next, write your script.
Yes, you should write a script. I don’t know about you, but the podcasts that make my skin crawl usually have a host stumbling around going, “So, um, so YEAH! Let’s get started. Um … let’s see.” There’s no room for that in a narrative-driven episode, so your script puts the polish on the disconnected audio snippets.
Because I know the quotes with which I have to work, my writing looks something like this example below. Imagine is from an episode interviewing an executive at a health foods snack brand.
# # #
Hey there, I’m Jay Acunzo, and I’d like you to imagine that THIS … was the next item on your to-do list.
KEN: Can’t touch it
…. NOTHING. That’s your food brand. Go try to get people to buy it.
Sound like your idea of a fun weekend?
INTRO MUSIC: Fade in
Well … for Ken Smith, that’s exactly where they began the journey that would lead them to launch HealthySnackCo, a well-funded and well-LIKED startup company that found a pretty crazy way to educate and inspire customers to buy their snacks.
INTRO MUSIC: Volume up
# # #
Okay, so the parts and pieces should be clear, but just in case: The italicized font is my voiceover. Because I can hear what I’ll eventually say out loud, I like to capitalize certain words or add ellipses where I anticipate needed to emphasize something or pause.
The bolded parts are like stage directions, essentially telling me or someone on the team to add in that quote at that time. (Note: I like to write the name of the quote from the rough cut. Not everyone does that rough cut process though, so you still have a huge, raw audio file to work with when scripting. In those instances, I like to write out the time stamp instead, with the words that start and end the quote. So it might read like this: KEN 0:08 “First few words” – 0:44 “Last few words.”
A quick word on hosting and scripting this kind of podcast: A great host isn’t the star but rather the guide. The host is on the sidelines, next to the listener, pointing out stuff that’s interesting, walking with them each step of the way.
Alright, so, here’s what the audio looks like after I’ve written the script and recorded the voiceover (in blue).
When you’re done with this step, you effectively have an episode that you could publish. But there’s one more magic element to great narrative shows – music.
Finally, add your music or other sound effects.
As you follow these steps, you’ll start to hear where music could be an asset. There are a few common reasons to add a song, instrumental track, or sound effect:
- To highlight transitions between moments and/or emotions in the story– For instance, should the interviewer or subject say something about getting happy, maybe you softly introduce some upbeat music underneath the voices. The shift in focus for the listener should be reflected by both the speakers and the music.
- To snap a listener to attention – There are times when starting or stopping a song abruptly through a rough cut can prompt your audience to snap awake and continue listening to the show. Remember, as a linear medium, you need to be thinking about listener drop-off at all times. For example, if your guest is talking about his attempts at designing a big project, you might be playing some soft music underneath, but then you hear the guest say, “And boom: The project finally made sense.” You might opt to rough cut the music off at the word “boom” to accentuate that moment, which also alerts the listener to be mindful of the story and snap back to attention. Hey! Important stuff’s happ’nin!
- To introduce sections of your show – Intro music is an obvious example of this, but there are other ways to do this. Maybe you do a listener-email segment or a Top 5 list in each episode. Maybe every episode is chaptered, with recurring sections week to week. Whatever the case, you can give sections of your show a distinct identity to listeners by playing the same mini-theme music prior to moving to that section. This is the audio equivalent of a blog post’s headline breaks mid-article.
The list of use cases for music rolls on, as does your podcast in your listener’s ears … if you edit well.
To narrate or not.
Creating narrative podcasts is unquestionably harder than simply recording an interview and uploading it as is. However, as marketers, we face a choice: We can create “yet another” talking head, interview-based show, or we can master the hidden craft of making great shows. With just a little bit of effort, and a lot of process — hopefully made simple above — we can produce an experience that impresses our audience.
The hardest part is getting started. But once you do, your podcast won’t feel like a “podcast” at all. It’ll be a show.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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