6 Ways to Have Podcast Conversations Listeners Actually Care About

So, you’re thinking about starting a podcast? Don’t ignore these 6 ways to have conversations people actually care about. Better conversations means a happy, loyal podcast audience.

As a veteran journalist, radio producer and Chief Creative Officer at JAR Audio, I have literally interviewed hundreds (maybe thousands) of people.

I’ve spoken to civil rights activists, grieving mothers, politicians, sex workers, circus clowns… and the list goes on. Now, I help brands and organizations have authentic conversations and share impactful stories. While every brand JAR Audio works with has different goals and produces different content there is one common denominator: they always want to know how to make a podcast that people actually want to listen to.

Seems basic, right? But you’d be amazed how hard it is to continually hit this mark.

Even highly creative teams sometimes run low on inspiration when it comes to planning great podcasts. Between regular old creative burnout, Zoom fatigue, pandemic health-related stress, technical challenges, and the constant need in creative industries to “stand out from the crowd,” it’s no wonder teams get blocked.

Through the many podcasts produced at JAR, I get to listen to our guests share a huge variety of interesting stories, and I hear a lot of fascinating conversations. Here are a few of the lessons around how to set the stage for a good conversation that I’ve picked up by osmosis.

I hope they inspire you.

1. Get personal 

One of the deepest wells of story we possess as human beings is our family history. It doesn’t matter if a guest’s grandfather was a puffed-up lord, an escaped convict, or a ditch-digger – what matters is the way that guest relates to and re-tells the stories about that ancestor. Don’t be afraid to get personal. Try to connect the past to the present. Ask questions like “What did your dad make of you crossing the Atlantic alone?” or “Why do you think you grew up listening to Tuvan throat music?”  When in doubt, it sometimes helps if the host shares a little of their own personal history just to “loosen things up” and get the conversational ball rolling. 

2. Mix it up 

There is no “right way” to structure a podcast conversation. Do what serves your audience – and what seems to fit the topic. This could be a panel of film buffs weighing in on a horror movie or a well-written monologue set to music. Let the content lead. If you keep “diversity” in mind as a principle when you are booking guests and planning conversations, you inoculate your show from becoming boring. One thing to note is that while listeners respect structure and feel reassured by some consistency, they do enjoy the element of surprise. So, if you set up a particular structure to your show – don’t be afraid to mix it up occasionally. Establish a pattern, then break it on purpose. People will think you are a creative genius.

3. Stay curious 

If your conversation were a car – you’d always want to be checking under the hood. Do not take guest’s answers at face value. Trust me, there is always more to the story. If you can begin a podcast conversation with a question – something you want to learn – you instigate a natural “treasure hunt” structure to the conversation that audiences will respond well to as they join you on your fact-finding mission.  A podcast host needs to remain open and curious along the whole journey. Pick up “breadcrumbs” that guests drop in the conversation. Listen. Follow up. Listen harder. What’s amazing is that if people are treated with respect – if they are truly listened to – they open right up. On one of my favourite old radio shows, the host used to open up a phone book (remember those?) and dial random people until someone picked up. That person would become the main guest for the episode. Turns out, everyone has a story worth telling. Every. Single. Person. It is the challenge of the podcast host and producers to bring that story to light. By staying curious about your guests – who they are and what they do – you automatically start having deeper, more candid conversations. Audiences will appreciate this sense of intimacy, feeling they have been let in on a secret.

4. Talk to your audience 

Though it might not feel like it when you are recording in studio – a podcast is a dialogue with an audience. Audiences are made up of complex human beings with tastes, opinions, and feelings. Finding a way to acknowledge the presence of your audience inside the conversation is key to making them feel engaged. Eg: “If you’re as horrified as I am right now after hearing that story – just wait – it gets even worse.” At JAR, we also spend a lot of time with our clients devising ways to connect directly with audiences. Is there a Call to Action you can you deploy through your podcast or social channels where you ask the audience a direct question about an upcoming show? Can you do a poll? Look for ways to bring audience voices into the podcast conversation. People like to hear themselves. They want to feel they are part of something creative and interesting. So, don’t be stingy — invite them in!  Bring everyone along for the ride. When you reach out to your audience this way, they often respond in-kind with great content ideas, or even audio clips you can use in interesting ways.

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5. Allow room to breathe

This advice pertains both to how often you have your conversations, and the way in which you have them. Let me explain. First, it’s generally considered a good idea to release your podcast episodes in a regular cadence so that your audience knows what to expect. That being said – most audiences would rather hear a few really interesting chats rather than a whole mess of dull ones. So, when considering how often to release episodes – the rule of thumb should be “as often as possible, given the need to conceive, chase, write, record, and edit high quality conversations.” Secondly, many hosts tend to barrel through conversations. But a great podcast host isn’t afraid of silence. They have the confidence to follow conversational eddies, and to allow pauses, or breathing room, for ideas and emotions to sink in. Great podcast editors can amplify this effect through well-chosen transitional music. The rule for catering to a podcast audience is that it’s like running a race with a toddler — you sometimes have to pause and let them catch up.

6. Stop trying to sell stuff already

This one is counterintuitive for a lot of marketing pros. Podcasting is a great way to position your organization’s thought leadership capacity, community-mindedness, or love of creativity. But remember — podcasting is an intimate medium. You are literally whispering in people’s ears. You have to be real with them or they will smell you coming and tune out. In the podcasting space – your only “agenda” should be robust conversations and rich storytelling. If you have a brand agenda at all, it should be to offer something of value to an audience right now so they look fondly on your brand later, when they find they have a legitimate need for your product or service. So, what kind of value should podcasting offer listeners? Podcast audiences, generally a well-educated set, tend to want longer format, authentic conversations, and other high-quality audio offerings. Key word: authentic. Imagine a podcast audience’s sensitivity-meter as being set to “high alert” when it comes to being sold stuff. If they feel they are being pushed too hard, or at all, they will simply pop out their earbuds, or find something else to listen to. So, it’s quite simple.  Just don’t be that guy. 

The tips here are based on conversations overheard over a 20-year radio career, and while making branded podcasts for JAR Audio. I hope they inspire you to take the next step towards producing a podcast!

Jen Moss is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of JAR Audio.

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