What It Means When One Person Puts Another Person In Their Ears

This article is for podcasters and podcast listeners.

In both my work and my free time, I talk to a lot of podcasters. Being one of those myself, I am also always pestering friends and strangers to pick their brains about podcasts — what they love, what they hate.

The one thing that always seems to come up in these conversations with both the creators and the audience is the idea that podcasting creates a direct line between the two.

There is no middleman TV exec, no newspaper editor, no mass production, just a person speaking and a person listening. In my mind, that is what makes podcasting new. We’ve had radio for a long while (and it can be great) but podcasts let people put other people straight into their ears on a regular basis.

…And? What does that mean?

1. There is no need to yell

It means listeners are actively deciding to give ‘broadcasters’ their ears. Podcast listeners are hungry, hungrier than any other audience in any other medium that I have ever engaged with. If someone finds a show they like, they usually decide very quickly that they love it and want more shows like it.

For podcasters that means we can all leave the annoying zany morning show radio host persona in the past. If that’s your thing, by all means, some people will love you for it. However, not everybody has to be the loudest to compete anymore. We aren’t winning over people who are stuck in traffic scanning radio stations for the easiest thing they can ignore. People are actively seeking out stuff that they actually like.

Having an audience that is on the hunt means that we need as many different voices as we can get. Be quiet and weird, be loud and opinionated, just don’t be lowest-common-denominator bullshit. We don’t need to play that game here because the way that we engage with our audience is unique. We are lucky to have an active audience and we don’t need to win them over with cheap tricks.

For listeners it means you are actually in complete control over how this ‘industry’ takes shape. This is like calling-in-to-vote-for-your-favourite-American-Idol-contestant on steroids. If you dig a show, if you want it to succeed, you have that power. You are the marketing team for that show. Share it with some people who might also like it, engage with the people that create it, support it financially if you can.

2. Let people be smart

It means podcasting is more akin to reading a book than watching a movie. It is a more participatory activity. My friends who love podcasts are constantly listening, formulating an opinion on what is being said, saving tidbits of interesting information to whip out at the water cooler (and very often laughing at the fact that someone else has thoughts that are as fucked up as their own). You don’t usually get all that from a movie.

When you read a book, you get to imagine the faces & the places. You fill in all the blanks. That encourages creativity, reflection on your own experiences, empathy — it just makes you think. Thinking is good. There are those same opportunities to fill in the blanks in a podcast. It can actively engage your brain rather than pacifying it.

As podcasters, we should always be taking advantage of that. An intelligent being has put us directly in their ears, their brain is right there, how can we stimulate it in unusual ways? How can we make them creatively engage with what we are saying? They are as smart as we are, we just happen to have the microphone right now — how can we better communicate with our audience as intelligent people?

3. We don’t need makeup

It means we can all be a bit unpresentable. I like the phrase, ‘You have a face for radio’. I actually think it is a point of pride that you don’t have to be pretty to be on the radio. (In my experience, pretty people make boring things anyway.)

For me, podcasting takes the face-for-radio thing to a whole new level. Podcast listeners engage with shows in a very intimate way (e.g. listening directly in their earbuds while in their own little world on the subway). That means podcasters get to be people. They don’t need to dress up their faces and they don’t need to dress up their personalities either. Listeners are listening in on a personal level, they’ve made that leap, give them personality, flaws and all.

The best feedback I ever received about my show was when a friend said, “It’s good, but I can tell that you are still acting. Stop acting. I also do some editing work with a guy named Scooter on one of the weirdest shows I have ever heard. He intentionally tries to bore people to sleep — and he has thousands of incredibly diehard fans. He is a nut. He lays it all out there. We all love him for it. It’s good to be a nut in the podcast world.

I’m not saying all podcasts should be introspective and brooding. I’m saying that, because of the fact that podcasting allows for a very direct line between producer and listener, we can bypass some social barriers that TV shows like Good Morning America will never be able to bypass. We can all be as weird (and “human”) as we like and there’s nobody between the podcaster and their audience to say otherwise. That’s very liberating.

To wrap up…

I originally wrote this as a reminder to myself. I all too often get caught up with how many downloads my show has or (as a listener) why the shows I like aren’t ‘bigger’ than they are. This article is meant to be a reminder about what makes podcasting different from other mediums. I really think the medium itself is less about who has the most numbers and more about who engages their audience (whatever the size) in the best ways. If your goal is to ‘shout’ the loudest at the biggest group of people possible, go start a Bieber cover band, not a podcast. Podcasting is a medium that is inherently very personal, still unstructured and still being built from the ground up.

  • As podcasters we should protect that. We should focus on making audio that is honest, weird and encourages creative engagement. We should work hard to master those things because we engage with our listeners in a way that no other broadcaster has ever had the luxury of.
  • As listeners, we should participate as much as possible before advertisers usurp our power. Podcasts are like indie bands for people who can’t stay out until 1am anymore. Recommend them, buy some merch, talk to the people that produce them. Dig a little deeper than Radiolab & This American Life – those are amazing shows but I promise there are lots more incredible shows out there.

Podcasts have actually helped me make sense of life. I’ve learned as much from them as I did getting my $50k diploma. If I want to learn about the history of some ancient culture, I can probably find a podcast about that out there and learn about it. TV doesn’t offer me that, TV tells me what I want. Podcasting is one-on-one, as-weird-as-you-like broadcasting. That’s a relatively new idea and it’s great.

Cheers pals.

The Art Of Speaking

Another podcasting series for you this week. This article is aimed primarily at podcasters who invest lots of time in editing their shows — however it has a few takeaways for anyone who thinks deeply about communicating with other human beings.

In editing literally hundreds of podcast episodes over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about the way in which words come out of peoples’ mouths. That includes the space people leave between words and sentences too. This series of articles includes both advice & unanswered questions about capturing & editing speech…

This article is Part 1 of The Art Of Speaking series. It is titled “Leave a Little Space In The Conversation”.

Terrified of Space

When I first started to work on my own podcast I was terrified of space. Not consciously, but you can hear it in my earlier shows — I spent hours chopping away ‘space’ from every conversation I had.

The conversations were meant to be informal, you can hear that, but I’d still go over each one in the editing room to cut out every pause in conversation that lasted more than a second or two. I’d piece that conversation together in this way that was (in my mind) optimally efficient. Remove all silence, ask question, get answer, immediately move on to the next idea. Always keep things moving. Always keep audience engaged. Sometimes use music to break up different trains of thought, but never ‘space’.

Recently, I listened back to a few of those earlier episodes. After one or two of them, my ears were exhausted.

Too much

The thing is, generally, all of those are good rules. You do want to keep your audience engaged. You do want to keep things moving forward. However, I think I was over doing those things because I was insecure about my podcast being boring.

The problem with that, of course, was that someone would say something sort of interesting in those early shows and before a listener had time to reflect on it or even let it sink in, I was already bombarding them with more talking. When I listened back recently, it was fun, it seemed relatively well-cut, but it all just washed over me in a big wave of ‘too much’ (which, in my opinion, ends up being just as boring).

In regular conversation, no one talks like this, or at least if they do, I personally have a hard time holding meaningful conversation with them. Too much. So much that all of it stops meaning anything. Space is something we use in conversation as part of communicating the words we are saying, whether consciously or subconsciously. And everyone is very subconsciously sensitive to that when listening to others.

When I hear silence in someone’s story it instantly makes me wonder, “Wait, why are they pausing? What is this person thinking?”. I want to figure out what is going on inside that head of theirs. That act is participatory and really engaging. “Are they having a hard time talking about this? Why would they have a hard time talking about this?”. Again, as a listener, it let’s me fill in some of the blanks.

It’s like white space on a canvas, or a slow pan in a film — it takes confidence to let the absence of immediate stimulation communicate what you are trying to say. It takes guts to not fill up the conversation and leave room for your audience. Young painters fill up the canvas in the same way young podcast editors fill up all the gaps in their timeline.

Sit In The Air For A Second

Again, even in regular conversation, I respond more strongly to people who give space to what they say. Maybe not the best example (if you know the film and how the relationship plays out), but there is a reason Mrs. Robinson’s seduction works. In this scene, she says bold things and just lets them hang there for a second. Mrs. Robinson knows how to leave space in a conversation. Mrs. Robinson has her hangups but Mrs. Robinson is a confident, confident lady. She isn’t afraid to let things sit in the air for a second. She lets Dustin Hoffman’s character wonder if she is seducing him before she makes it abundantly clear. I’m not saying seducing people is the way to a good podcast but she’s got something right.

The other obvious example is Don Draper. Again, if you know the show, he has his own issues as well, but look at all the things ‘space’ is saying in this scene.

I’m not talking about how to win friends and influence people, the focus here is simply to point out how effective ‘space’ can be as a tool for communicating.

Of course, I’m curious to hear any of your thoughts on this, but the take away here is not to be terrified of space.

Slow down.

Leave room.

Space can be good, especially if you are still cutting your teeth. If you listen to your podcast and every bit of silence makes you cringe, you are probably listening as a producer rather than as a listener. If a good point gets made, let it sit, give it airtime, let listeners soak it up and decide if they like it or not.

This is a fine line to walk, because you absolutely can have too much space.That can be even worse. We all know people who say horribly inane things and give them a false weight to make themselves seem profound. That drives me bonkers.

So, like most things, it’s a tightrope walk. There is no quick fix to learn the right balance. I absolutely had to go through the process to even begin to understand that space is important. Get it wrong until you get it right — I am still always working it out in a pretty clumsy way.

Listening back though, I do wish someone had given me a bit of a shake in those early shows and said, “don’t be afraid to leave a little space in that conversation”.

Show, Don’t Tell (In Podcasting)

You have probably heard of the old rule of thumb in writing that you should always try to show your reader something rather than tell it to them. “Augusta, an aging woman who was recently widowed, sat on a bench staring off into nothing” works better than “The old lady felt lonely”. It lets a reader empathize, paint their own picture and participate a little more in the story by filling in the subtext themselves. There are exceptions, but generally, it’s a good rule. How, if at all, can we apply that rule to podcasting?

It might not make a whole lot of sense at first glance. We can’t show anything in podcasting, right? In film they have lots of tools for ‘saying’ things without actually saying them. The lighting can set a mood, tiny details in an actress’s facial expressions can reveal what is really going on, that thing called mise-en-scène can tell a lot about how the characters are feeling. How do we do these things in a podcast though? Here are a few of my thoughts on that.

I have used the example of an interview-style podcast below, but many of these ideas could still be applied to a single host talking, a roundtable conversation, a fictional podcast, etc. (even if only to get us thinking). Also, please feel free to add more to this in the comments below…

i) Mise-en-scene

We have this in podcasts too. In film, mise-en-scene is everything going on in the background of a shot that isn’t the main action. Cinematography (or how the action is framed), props, locations, etc. can all contribute. As podcasters, our main action is (generally) spoken words but what can weframe our main action with?

We hear it on NPR-style shows all the time… Before an interview the host walks down a street with crunchy leaves under their feet, he/she opens a creaky gate, knocks on a door and coyly mutters “Hello?!?”. And then they overdub a studio-recorded segment introducing who they are about to talk to…

Most listeners wouldn’t think much of that 20 second preamble — maybe it is just filler or something?! It isn’t. It is telling the story. As a listener, you put yourself in that situation and it (whether consciously or not) engages you to participate by painting a picture in your head. All those creaky gate sounds set up the stage on which the main ‘action’ (e.g. the interview or story) will take place.

There is a fine line to walk with this, but the point is that sometimes in somestories, things like having to interrupt the interview in order to wait while a train that shakes the whole house goes by… sometimes interruptions like that can actually help to support the main action. The stuff happening in the background can really add to what is happening in the foreground. If it reveals something about one of the people talking, or it sets up a scene that our listeners can imagine themselves being in, ‘accidental’ or ‘non-essential’tape can really help to tell a story.

ii) Sound Design

Another more obvious way to show without telling is the clever use of sound design. For example, do you include a ringing sound when you are calling up a guest? Do you use the default Skype ringtone or the sound of an old rotary phone? How do either of those affect the way your listener imagines the person you are calling? Is the story you are telling about hip young tech startups or a generation of aging luddites? These are subtle questions to be asking, but working toward having all these things considered will definitely step up our shows.

Sound design also includes music. Music adds meaning to words whether we want it to or not. Even if the only music in a podcast is a 30-second intro, the tone of that music affects how listeners interpret what gets said.

Take a simple sentence, “The train reminds me of one fateful night when I was 21 years old”. It is an ambiguous sentence, listeners have no idea what might have happened on that night, but we can help them to fill in the subtext using music. Edit in some soft piano music underneath and it might seem very warm & nostalgic. Edit in something sinister and those exact same words will mean something very different.

Try it right now, repeat the bolded phrase above while listening toDebussy and then repeat it while listening to Béla Bartók.

The right sound and music can change a really simple 3-second spoken phrase like “Hi, my name is Bob” into an entire novel of backstory.

“Hi, my name is Bob… and I live underneath the train tracks because it is all I can afford right now. I am a patient man because I sit silently and wait while the train rattles my home rather than shout and get upset about it. I am a nice guy because of the cheerful way I answered the door after you came through my creaky gate. I am also the type of guy who finds a lot of joy in simple pleasures because, rather than dwelling on the train, I tend to focus on the lovely Debussy music playing in the background of my flat”.

Bob can say all of that in the same 3 second “Hi, my name is Bob”, if you let sound & music do some of the talking.

iii) Editing

For me, one of the most interesting ways of showing without telling is in how I edit. Telling a story in the most engaging way is often not chronological.

Let’s stick with Bob. If the story that Bob is telling (e.g. our ‘main action’) is about how he lost his cat Bob Jr. and then found him again 1 year later, we can add a lot to that story just by thinking about what order we present it in. We’ve set up Bob as a nice guy. Hearing about a nice guy losing his cat and then finding it again is ok but listeners may not think much more deeply about it than that.

What if we start Bob’s story at the end with him talking about the day he re-united with Bob Jr.? What if a listener’s introduction to Bob is him talking really excitedly about how amazing it was to have his friend back, how he didn’t even notice the train shaking the house that whole day because he was just so excited to be petting Bob Jr. again?

As a listener, that makes me laugh and I really like Bob from the get go. I want to imagine Bob’s whole life. I want to think about Bob petting his cat for an hour every morning. I don’t know if Bob does that, I’m just imagining that that’s what he does (and me imagining what Bob does is good). We’ve shownthat Bob is a really sweet guy without having to say it out loud (simply by starting the story at the end).

Then, when we get to the part where Bob spent a year wondering where his cat had gone, it is heart-breaking in a way that it wasn’t before. We want Bob to have his simple pleasures back. We want Bob & Bob Jr. to be re-united real bad (and even if we know that they do re-unite in the end, we feel it more this way). Rather than a nice guy who lost his cat for a bit, Bob starts to represent how we’ve dealt with our own struggles and we can’t help but fill in the blanks that aren’t explicitly stated.

(This may be an exaggerated example but you see my point — audiences already have all of these thoughts and subtexts in their heads and we can tap into them by editing in a way that allows them to relate using their own experience.)

We haven’t told the audience anything extra, Bob’s story is the exact same. However, the order we’ve presented his story has allowed listeners to create a lot of unspoken details about who Bob is, how they can relate to him and (if I’m being really philosophical) what Bob has to say about the human condition.

Bob Jr. is a wild beast who disappears on crazy benders sometimes.

Not all of us are interviewing cat owners who live under train tracks, I know. Not all of us want to reveal insights into the human condition (thank god). Even if your podcast is about reviewing different breakfast cereals in your underwear — what I’m getting at is that there are ways to say things without actually sayingthem and doing so often makes things more fun for listeners. Start your show with your alarm clock buzzing and the sound of you stumbling across the room to shut it off rather than just yawning “I’m tired” into a microphone. Those both say the same thing, but the first one let’s us figure out that you are tired, the second just tells us.

Those are a few of my thoughts on how we can show rather than tell in our podcasts. Some things do have to be explicitly stated and that is ok. Wherever possible though, it is a good idea to trust our listeners to pickup on subtle cues from things like mis-en-scenesound design and editing in order to actively fill in the blanks. Listeners are smart. They have healthy imaginations. It is good for us to be using and encouraging those where possible.

Whatever kind of podcast you make, I think it is always useful to ask the question, “Are there ways that this can say more by talking less?”

Cheers pals.

Keep in mind, this is advice I still struggle to implement. It’s a lot of work to craft all of this, I know, so if you have any other thoughts or advice, please comment below!