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Skills & tools for shaping imperfect human conversation into a podcast episode

Here's how to splice stories together effectively into a successful podcast.

Skills & tools for shaping imperfect human conversation into a podcast episode. This illustration shows six puzzle pieces joining together to form a speaking mouth.
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Experimenting with form

When launching my current podcast, “Freelance Pod” (I left “Black Mirror Cracked” in May 2018), which is about how the internet has transformed work, I decided to experiment with form. Some episodes are interviews where I’m sitting with my guest and both our voices are heard. Those are fairly straightforward editing jobs, like a written first draft that’s very close to the final version. I’m just taking out the verbal fluff, not looking to restructure the whole thing.

Other episodes are recorded over Skype, with a guest who has an area of expertise new to me: foreign reporting, filmmaking, or working in American journalism, for example. They can expand upon their answers to my questions and tell their own stories. These kinds of episodes that I have to structure myself, moving answers around to create a chronological story (or a defiantly non-chronological one).

This second type of episode needs links – a voiceover from me, the host, explaining context and corrections – throughout the episode. These links can only be written and recorded after the final edit of the audio. All the pieces need to be in place before I can glue them together with my voice, fading the audio in and out as it flips between voices, to ease the listener from one to the other.

Think about these structures before you begin your own podcast: Do you want a traditional “interview-style” podcast, which requires less editing and is straightforward to produce? Or do you want greater creative control, allowing you to switch formats depending on what works best for the episode? Just remember that continuity is essential: All the puzzle pieces should fit together logically and neatly for the listeners.

 

Before the beginning

I’m a fan of a podcast cold open (a pre-credits teaser of the show). I started playing with them on “Black Mirror Cracked” and have deployed them on every episode of “Freelance Pod.” It gets the guest’s voice in the listener’s ear as soon as possible. It’s also a great place to build anticipation for the upcoming episode.

For example, the beginning of my episode “Music sounds better with you” begins with my guest saying “Why do I get so emotional about The Beatles?!” It introduces her point that music can evoke moments of great emotion in our life: joy or grief or just the feeling of being young, and the listener immediately wants to know what’s got her so excited.

Another installment of the podcast is called “Journalism should be fun: investigating burnout,” and it could sound a little dry on paper. So I open with a snippet of my guest’s most uproarious anecdote, the tale he tells when he reminisces about his days as a cub reporter on a newspaper 20 years ago. The listener who enjoys that taste of what’s to come will be excited about getting to the whole story.

If you choose to use a cold open in your own podcast, think about what piece of content will excite the listener most and keep them invested in your story from start to finish.

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Living through the golden age of podcasts might seem daunting if you’re a print writer who’s never worked in audio. Don’t be afraid – your storytelling and interviewing talents will map over to podcasts. The best approach? Throw yourself in and just get recording.

 

Suchandrika Chakrabarti is a London-based freelance writer, podcaster, and media trainer. She makes “Freelance Pod,” which is about how the internet has revolutionized work.

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