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By: Molly Donovan on December 16th, 2020

How to Make a Great Podcast Intro

A good show comprises multiple pieces and parts that conspire to create something greater than their sum. In this series, we’re breaking down the component pieces of good podcasts to determine what makes them good — and to inspire you in your own showrunning.

Do you ever feel like getting started is the hardest part of any project?

I always feel like that when I play the mind games required to get myself to go to the gym (remember the gym?). Everything feels easier once I simply…put on gym clothes.

The same theory applies to writing. The thoughts always flow better, the structure holds better, once I can check a clear and compelling intro off my list.

But creating a solid introduction is a bit more involved than getting dressed to exercise, because the stakes are higher. In a creative project — whether written, audio, or visual — the introduction represents the few precious moments you have to hook your audience. Waste them, and you risk losing prospective superfans.

Today, we’re deconstructing good podcast intros: what they sound like, why they matter, and who makes them.

Why do podcast intros matter?

Podcast intros matter for one simple reason: they happen first.

And why does “first” matter? We can attribute that to the primacy effect, which the American Psychological Association defines as “the tendency for facts, impressions, or items that are presented first to be better learned or remembered than material presented later in the sequence.” That is: we remember stuff we hear first.

The primacy effect has a cousin, the recency effect. By definition, the recency effect is “a memory phenomenon in which the most recently presented facts, impressions, or items are learned or remembered better than material presented earlier.” That is: we remember stuff we hear most recently.

These dual effects create bookends of importance for podcast episodes. Thanks to the primacy effect, intros need to be excellent. And thanks to the recency effect, so do outros.

Why, then, do so many podcasters seem to treat intros and outros as mere afterthoughts?

In all honesty — because they probably are. The “meat” of the episode is likely where the showrunner spends the most time: prepping for, conducting, and editing the interview or drafting the narrative. The intros and outros can come to feel secondary.

It’s time to reframe that thinking. Intros are opportunities to hook a listener — let’s not waste them.

What does a good podcast intro have?

Good podcast intros are united in that they all likely have a few common elements:

1. Clarity on the show’s overarching premise. The best podcast intros are able to restate what the show is about — its mission, its vision, its goals — in a way that neither bores old listeners nor confuses new ones.

2. A vanguard. In military terminology, the vanguard is the advancing tip of attacking troops. The presence of the vanguard allows the rest of the army to enter battle more easily. In podcast terminology, a vanguard serves that same purpose: it’s the initial analogy or anecdote that makes quick sense of complexity.

3. A hint at the answer to a critical question. As they begin listening to a podcast, whether consciously or not, every listener wonders: what will be different when I’m done? A good intro should hint at the answer to that question, and in turn entice listeners to stick around for the rest of the episode.

What should new showrunners avoid in an intro?

There are a few common ways to open a podcast, which new showrunners may want to avoid. For example, many podcasts — including some really great ones — open with a pull quote. After a few episodes, that can feel like a cliche. Instead, try to think of something new you can add to the episode: a random fact, a recurring joke, a bit of mystery. Those elements will create a stronger, more intriguing opening.

Second, introducing your episode with meandering banter can be a dangerous way to start, particularly if you’re not a celebrity. If you don’t already have a following that appreciates your unique style and humor, you should probably cut to the chase more quickly.

Third, don’t overload the intro with housekeeping. It’s important to alert listeners to events and collateral they may find relevant, of course, and it may eventually be necessary to reserve an introduction slot for advertising, but all that can get boring for listeners. Keep this type of content to a minimum in the intro, so you can captivate your audience more quickly.

Types and Examples of Great Show Intros

Like snowflakes and shows themselves, good intros are all unique. Their showrunners flex their creative muscle by mixing various elements — talent, music, humor, intrigue — to achieve various purposes.

For example, showrunners can use an intro to create intrigue. By adding an element of mystery early on, the showrunner hooks the listener and uses their curiosity to hold them captive.

Or, an intro can help the listener jump right into the material at hand. This can be particularly helpful for the eminently bingeable narrative-style podcast, which requires the audience to listen to episodes in sequential order. In this instance, an overwrought or even over-intriguing intro can disrupt the flow of the binge-listen.

Intros also present excellent opportunities to engage and play with your audience. Many great shows include recurring elements — jokes, sayings, or segments — in their intros, which offers both continuity and a developing sense of community for their listeners.

So which showrunners do intros best? These are some of our favorites.

Gimlet Media’s Reply-All

This “podcast about the internet” is exceptional at teasing what’s to come later in the episode. In the intro, the hosts take a few small details from the coming episode and stretch them out, making their titillation of the audience feel inescapable. A great example is Episode 167: America’s Hottest Talk Line. Once the hosts get past their housekeeping (around 2:40), the way they set up the story has the listener irrevocably hooked. One host starts the episode by saying, “I’ve got a real banger of a story for you today.” We (the audience) are all his co-host as he says, “let’s hear it.”

The Ringer’s Binge Mode

Each episode of Binge Mode begins in essentially the same way: with a straight read — templatized copy the hosts use for each intro and to begin each segment. It never gets boring, however, because the hosts consistently find ways to mess with the template. The showrunners at Binge Mode play with boilerplate, and in so doing they offer a kind of wink and nod to the listener, who’s come to expect the standard script — and wonder with interest what might be different, funny, or exciting about it with each new episode.

Seth Godin’s Akimbo

Seth Godin is a master at a crisp vanguard. In a few sentences, he starts each episode with a quick anecdote that seems like it can’t possibly have anything to do with the rest of the episode — but then, of course, it ultimately does. It’s a masterful open loop, which pulls the listener in and ultimately expands how they think about the given topic.

iHeart Radio’s Disgraceland

A cross between a music podcast and a true crime podcast, Disgraceland delves into the alleged crimes of famous musicians. Host Jake Brennan uses his intros both to add a shiver of gumshoe-flavored intrigue and to establish an ongoing connection with his community of listeners. Jake frequently deploys a running gag, in which he plays music that he’s composed or found for free on the show. He refers to that music as “cheese” — a random point of vernacular that pulls his listeners in ever closer.

The New York Time’s Nice White Parents

This five-episode narrative-style show, created by the showrunners of that hero of hallowed podcast ground, Serial, functions more as a bingeable mini-series. For the show to make the most sense, it needs to be listened to from start to finish. For that reason, each episode intro serves to allow the audience to jump right in, with a combination of narrative and sound effects that immediately transport the listener to exactly where they should be in the story.

Robinhood’s Snacks

A high-energy show that fills listeners in on the day’s top financial news stories in under 20 minutes, Snacks represents an incredibly economical use of an intro. The hosts jump right in, introducing themselves amid a pulsing beat, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. Like the hosts of Binge Mode, they play with template: in each intro, the hosts reference a running gag: that the forthcoming show is “The Best One Yet.” They then add an intriguing detail for each of the three news items they’ll cover in the coming episode, essentially laying out a table of contents that anchors listeners and keeps them focused.

Gimlet Media’s How to Save a Planet

This show, which focuses on what listeners should know about (and can do to help solve) the climate crisis, offers an excellent example of intros that leverage relatable anecdotes to set the scene for the coming topic. The hosts begin episodes by sharing stories from their personal lives, asking one another questions, or even playing a quick game together to lay the foundation for the subsequent 45-ish minutes. The result is an intro that feels authentic, unscripted, and intriguing.

Don’t make your intro an afterthought

Your intros might just be the most important part of your show — particularly as you’re getting started on your showrunning journey. Put your strategic creativity to good use, and create an intro that listeners will remember — so you can keep them coming back for more.

 

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A somewhat accidental marketer, I’m first and foremost a writer. I’ve spent a decade working with global brands to craft on-target content and streamline complex ideas into clear (and even…exciting?!) language. Now, I get to spend every day immersed in content and strategy here, as Managing Editor of Marketing Showrunners, at my company, Molly Donovan Content & Communications. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community of eager next-generation marketers and marketing showrunners.

Reach out! molly@mshowrunners.com

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