7 pro tips for writing and producing engaging podcast episodes

Podcasting is on the rise, and your brand can be too with these podcasting best practices.

BY Shaun Ruddy
Director, Video, Imagination

Well-written podcasts can combine the best characteristics of various media into one amazing content experience. The drama of soap opera. The substance of a magazine feature. The sound design of a movie. For brands, the podcast format presents a unique creative opportunity to capture the attention—and imagination—of an audience.

While plenty of successful podcasts are basically free-flowing conversations, most brand-sponsored podcasts involve a deeper level of research and podcast scriptwriting. How you write a podcast script, however, depends on the type of podcast and the structure of each podcast episode.

If you’re a marketer producing a podcast for your brand, keep these seven podcast script-writing tips in mind.

Identify the script style that the podcast host and guests prefer.

The podcast script is a document that will guide the podcast host and guests (if there are guests) as they record each episode. Therefore, it’s crucial to know what type of podcast script the talent prefers. Some people like every word planned out (fully scripted), some prefer comprehensive bullets (bullet script), and some only want to see the highest-level points (talking points).

The 3 types of podcast scripts

Fully scripted. With a fully scripted podcast, you plan everything you’re going to say before you hit record. You have your sound bites and questions done, and you write exactly what you’re going to say to introduce those sections. You can go from recording to editing quickly since the scripting process will already be complete.

Bullet script. Having a bullet script will allow your guests or hosts to stay on topic and include research or data while maintaining a fairly open conversation. This approach provides for a conversational tone but without the rigidity of a fully formatted script.

Talking points. Aside from an open conversation without a script, a script that consists of only talking points is the loosest format you can choose. You have topics you want to discuss, but you’ll let the conversation dictate what the content of the episode is going to be.

Find, vet and interview the right sources for your episode.

You can’t write a script until you have the right person to talk to. Finding a source or guest who is knowledgeable and has great insights to share with your audience is key. However, even the best sources can sound shaky on tape. So try to find an eloquent speaker with an engaging tone if you can.

Conducting pre-interviews is a helpful way to get a sense of not only how knowledgeable a potential guest or source is, but also how they come across from an audio standpoint. You’ll want to find someone who speaks passionately about a subject. After all, don't we all love hearing from people who are excited to share their insights, experiences and opinions? That’s what your audience will engage with, too.

When our podcast team at Imagination records an interview, we bring talking points, but we try not to use them. We structure our questions to elicit the sound bites we want to capture and drop into the finished podcast episode. As you’re recording a source interview, I recommend you listen for the narrative, but also be sure to follow your curiosity and be open to new directions.

While we’re on source interviews, here’s one more bonus tip: Keep rolling! You never know what gems can come from a source after you’ve asked your last question. (Of course, if something is stated “off the record,” that’s not usable. And your source should always be aware when you’re recording.) Be sure to ask your audio engineer or producer if they have any questions or need anything repeated before ending the interview.

Know the animating question of your podcast episode, and focus on answering it.

You’ve done your research. You’ve arranged an interview. But do you have a story? Something that will engage listeners for the entirety of your podcast episode? One way to ensure your podcast has a story is to tie every portion of it back to an overarching question. Rob Rosenthal of HowSound and Atlantic Public Media calls this the “animating question.” Determine your animating question prior to your interviews, and you’ll be able to narrow your focus and ask your sources the follow-up questions that your audience will be wanting answers to.

As an example, an animating question for a financial podcast episode could be: Why is the stock market going up while the economy remains largely shut down?

To answer that question, you could interview a restaurant owner who had to close, demonstrating the hardship that many small businesses have been enduring. Then you could talk to an expert in financial markets (perhaps a professor or a financial adviser), who can help explain why the stock market has rebounded so quickly.

The production process of a podcast touches many people and departments. From writers and editors to fact-checkers, there are plenty of opportunities for a story to lose its focus. We find that having a clear animating question ensures that a compelling narrative is maintained throughout the process.

Write an introduction to your podcast episode.

There are so many ways to start a story, but it’s always your best opportunity to hook your audience.

No matter how you craft your intro, make sure you do the following:

  • Clearly articulate the animating question of the episode.
  • Tell your audience what they can expect as you seek to answer it. (For example, “We’ll talk to Eddie Expert,” or “You’ll learn what it takes to overcome X obstacle.”)
  • Use action words to create a sense of momentum in your story.

Select the most compelling, colorful sound bites.

Combing through pages of transcripts as you search for that perfect podcast sound bite is often a tedious process, but when you find it, it can breathe life into your story. Rather than relying on your narrator to explain the details of your story, sound bites add interesting perspectives through different lenses as your podcast episode builds momentum.

While transcripts can tip you off to where engaging sound bites might be hiding, you need to listen to the audio to find them. It’s the only way to put yourself in the headphones of the listener as you ask yourself, Does this address my animating question—or distract from it? If it’s the latter, it shouldn’t make the final cut.

Hannah Schmidt, senior content producer at Imagination, explains her process this way: “I’ll read the transcript, highlight what I think are the most interesting answers—while also thinking about how I could put them in order—and then I listen to what I’ve highlighted. More often than not, only certain parts are as compelling as I need them to be.”

Strategically write and weave in your podcast voiceover.

When writing your podcast voiceover (or “VO”), you don’t want to repeat exactly what’s in the sound bite. Think of it as a relay race: VO is there to pick up where the guest leaves off to add extra context or clarity.

Here are a few other tips for writing effective VO for your podcast:

  • Use short sentences to steady the pacing of the episode.
  • Keep it to one thought per sentence.
  • Avoid worn-out phrases and clichés.

To illustrate what makes for good podcast copy, try reading this sentence out loud:

Almost four months after promising $1 million of his own money to veterans’ causes, Donald Trump moved to fulfill that pledge Monday evening—promising the entire sum to a single charity as he came under intense media scrutiny.

It’s not that it’s poorly written—it’s from a Pulitzer Prize-winning NPR series! But when you’re reading it, you can stop, go back and reread. When you’re listening to a podcast, information is flowing nonstop. (That is, unless the listener has to actually press stop and go back, which we don’t want.)

Now try reading this version aloud:

Four months ago, Donald Trump promised to donate a million dollars of his own money to veterans’ groups.

But it wasn’t until last night that he began to fulfill that pledge.

Trump promised the entire sum to a single charity.

He did that—after facing pressure from the media.

Easier, right? It contains the same amount of information as the single, overstuffed sentence, but it’s broken into smaller bites that work better for the podcast medium.

By the way, I lifted this example from NPR’s own NPR Training site. If you’d like to dive into even more podcast tips, I highly recommend it.

Take advantage of archival audio in your podcast.

Historical recordings, news clips or existing interviews all fall under the category of archival footage, and they can provide valuable context to the story while enhancing the listener experience. Use archival audio sparingly, however, because you don’t want to overwhelm or confuse the listener by introducing too many voices. A good way to decide if you should use archival audio is to ask, Does it enhance the story? Does it tie back to the animating question? Does the information or the person speaking provide authenticity, authority and context to the larger story?

Podcasting: a medium on the rise

Podcasts are growing in popularity, and they let savvy brand marketers tell engaging stories using myriad techniques. From identifying the right script type to integrating all the tricks of the pros, these podcasting tips can help you take full advantage of the medium to entertain and inform your audience.

published: May 07, 2020