You can argue there are no rules to creativity, but you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think your audience appreciates professionalism.
Nothing points out your flaws so well as a recording. Listening to hours upon hours of my voice while editing our podcasts has made me painfully aware of all my little verbal tics and foibles. And if I missed any, I can always rely on my friends and loved ones to needle me endlessly about them off-air. But having listened to indie podcasts from all over, I at least know I’m not alone.
As a reference list for other podcasters and myself, here’s my list of the 14 basic podcasting sins. I’ve committed many of these as a creator, but I’ve encountered ALL of them as a fan.
Bad Sound Quality
For me, sound is always a work in progress as I realize that the quest for perfect audio is unending. I had very little mixing and editing experience starting out, and no idea how to create an ideal recording space. Pro bono sound engineers are hard to come by, so keeping sound balanced between our voices is always a struggle.
No show starts off perfect, but if you’re sunk if your sound shows no signs of improving. If I download your latest episode and you’re still struggling with the same problems you were in the first, I won’t return. Your poor audio will cripple even the best premise.
With this in mind, I’m astounded by some of the lack of editing in some podcasts. Are your hosts and guest at equal volumes? How about sudden changes in volume, say between your intro theme and podcast itself? Is there clipping or distortion? Are you even taking the time to edit out those nasty, straight-into-the-mic coughs?
Without listenable sound, you’ve got nothing. Use filters to cover some of the holes. Don’t be afraid to cut out the worst, choppiest, or more boring sections when you can. You’re likely using Garageband or Audacity, programs with very supportive online communities you should take advantage of. Make the effort.
Sound quality: Your #1 Priority.
Get To The Meat
How long does it take you to get to the heart of your show? Are you getting lost in preamble and personal minutia? I’ve been there; I know how easy it is to get too conversational. Too… comfortable.
Unless you’re recording a “hang out and chat” show, people are coming to you for your concept. There’s nothing wrong with setting a scene for your listeners, and yes maybe your show’s tone is unique, but keep an eye on the clock. A good idea is to label your podcasts with time markers for those listeners who will skip ahead anyway.
Some people listen only for your interview (or review, or game, or whatever), not for you as a personality. If your central conceit doesn’t actually start until 22 minutes in, you may as well make it easy for them to get what they want.
Or: time your openings, and learn to cut yourself off. This may make your podcast much, much shorter, but your real content will shine, and your audience will thank you.
Don’t Neglect Guests
If you’re hosting an interview podcast, please get us to the interview as quickly as possible. Why keep your guest sitting in the room, waiting to be introduced? How much of your preamble is really more interesting than what they have to say? Odds are I’ve landed on your podcast because of your guest(s). Even if you don’t want to start the interview right off the bat, get your fresh voices involved as quickly as possible.
Speech is a Skill
It’s not a gift that people are born with, it’s a muscle that needs to be flexed to improve. Again, practice active listening. Pay attention to your own voice while editing: this is where you’ll discover all your worst speech habits. It’s certainly where I found mine.
Are you introducing meaningless interjections such as “like” in every sentence? Or breaking up sentences with dead sounds like “uhh”? I was. I’m terrible for these depressingly half-sighed “hmms.” I may as well have said “duh.”
Then there’s the issue of excessive or necessary swearing. I don’t mind swearing (I do it too often and too casually myself), but many podcasters fit a curse into every thought, and it quickly becomes obnoxious. Swearing rarely adds anything to the conversation, especially not if it’s been overused up until the moment where dropping an f-bomb would actually have some impact.
This is the 21st century: if you’re a wannabe shock jock, you’ll need to find something more shocking than swear words. At best, you risk boring your audience, at worst you risk sounding insecure, unprofessional, and inarticulate.
This is another subset of meandering. Your podcast is going to end up developing a world of its own, with an index of footnotes, characters, and references. Of course this is part of the charm of your show, and you should always be striving for your own voice, but t’s alienating. The more you rely on this material, the harder it is for new listeners to understand exactly what is going on in your podcast.
Or perhaps you’re reusing the same meta-jokes instead of fixing a problem? Maybe you have a short attention span: your episode hits the forty minute mark and, sure enough, you start your tight thirty set about how crazy long your episodes are. Of course your episodes are all 90 minutes long, so this happens every time. Maybe your show should only be forty minutes. Or maybe you should pick a subject that can hold your interest for the full length of your show. The joke wears thin.
As for me, I spend a lot of time describing people tangentially involved with the cast, forgetting that a throwaway reference to some character in episode 18 will not translate to a new listener at episode 56. Check that off on the old “needs improvement” column.
This is another one of those interjections that takes the place of an actual thought. Do you ever find yourself just repeating what your co-host or guest has just said, without adding anything new? You may not even be aware you’re doing it. Sometimes the other person just says it so well that nothing needs adding. Give their point room to land, and move the conversation forward.
Agreeing with someone doesn’t mean you can’t have an insightful or challenging conversation. You don’t always need conflict to keep things interesting. Make sure you’ve done your research, and have enough material to put forward and you won’t end up following after whoever did their homework and can actually drive the conversation forward.
Bonus Vocal Problems
Unless you’re Ben Stein, you’re going to have to work very, very hard to make me find your dull monotone interesting. It’s especially noticeable if you’re reading from a set of prepared notes.
Practice reading aloud with your notes, especially if you’re reading for most of your podcast. Record yourself there first, and make sure you remember to throw a little emotion, even passion, in there this time. Try reading aloud to children (or at least from children’s books) and pay attention to how much more emphasis and intonation you’re putting into storytelling to that audience. It’s easier to start with this simple sentence structure and work it out of your system from the foundation up.
You’re addressing an audience, not reciting at them. Be engaged, and be engaging!
This is hands-down the worst on-air habit I have. My mouth gets dry and I’ll unconsciously try to moisten it near the mic, which is absolutely disgusting. Erik, who edits the bulk of our podcasts, has made it clear to me how disgusting I sound/am.
Don’t smack your lips into the mic. Don’t chew gum (ever, it’s a terrible habit.) Don’t eat or drink while you’re recording, you can wait. And for the love of god, watch your hard P’s. We ended up making P-filters out of old nylons because the sound of my hard consonants were so jarring.
That low, slow, lazy growl that some people get, particularly toward the end of their sentences. It’s particularly prevalent among young women, (think Kim Kardashian or Zooey Deschanel) and animate undead still regaining the ability to speak. It’s an uncomfortable sound to listen to, and comes close to the same flat, emotionless register of a monotone. It’s ghoulish and irritating. Quit it.
I’m sorry, but I can’t understand what you’re saying. Your accent is incredibly thick. Unless you have a one-of-a-kind show to offer, I’m not interested in training my ear to understand you. There are free accent reduction classes online.
My ideal recording set-up is standing miss with plenty of elbow room to move around. Sadly, my recording reality is a stool in a small room with zero elbow room for three hours at a time. As an expressive talker with lots of gesticulations, this is a disaster.
I tap pens, I tap keyboards, I slap my hands against my knees and crack my knuckles. It all comes up on tape, and it makes the audience wonder exactly what sort of back alley mixing is going on in that booth.
First step: I cut back on pre-session coffee, took up walking to recording sessions to rid myself of shpilkes, and started watching for death glares from my co-hosts. We love each other very much, and I’m very much afraid of them.
You said your podcast was about reviewing movies, but the bulk of the show is you talking about your personal life. I came for the movie reviews. Why have you turned my podcast app into a den of lies? Why am I here? Why would I come back?
Personality and Hosting
Guests Are Fantastic
Having guests on are one of the best things you can do for your podcast. It opens you up to a new batch of listeners, guarantees you some more shares, and provides a fresh perspective to keep things from getting stale.
Stay out of your own way. Having personality is important, but if your show should be about your guests and you’re making it about you, stop. You’ve gone too far. Stop interrupting your guest’s interesting anecdotes with your own mundane one. Stop those twenty minute rambling updates on your personal life. Please, please, please refrain from sharing your insane hollow-earth conspiracy theories that makes it impossible for me to ever take you seriously again.
Maybe you’d like to let your friend finish their thought before you jump in with nothing.
It’s easy enough to get lost in conversation, veer off course, and forget where you were supposed to be leading the discussion. This problem is exacerbated without research and preparation.
You should have enough knowledge that you can lead the discussion and confirm or deny key bits of information. Reviewing a movie, but nobody in the room can recall the director, lead actor, or (god forbid) key plot points? Did you even watch the movie, or are you just talking to talk? Don’t be the person who bores friends by never having any idea what they’re babbling about.
Preperation is the foundation that will allow you to either merge tangents and off-topic anecdotes into the discussion at hand, or at least improvise around them.
Some Guests are Terrible
Okay, not all guests are fantastic. Some guests will feel like absolute deadweight, especially if you don’t take the time to vet them ahead of time. Much like you, sometimes guests simply aren’t ready for the conversation. Maybe they didn’t have time to prepare, maybe they didn’t realize what they were in for, maybe they just didn’t take it seriously.
Schedule a chat ahead of recording to make sure you’re all on the same page.
I can wait around for a great podcast, as long as I know it’s coming. Your show is a once a month deal? Not a problem. Your show should drop every Friday, but it’s really more like every second (or third) week? No dice. I lose a little more interest each time an episode doesn’t drop on schedule, and eventually I just stop checking.
Podcasts are free entertainment, but the competition is enormous and growing. Your listeners rely on routine. Make a release schedule and stick to it, or get ready for subscriber attrition every time you miss a deadline.
Love It or Junk it
Don’t like something you made? Don’t release it. Maybe you can repurpose that recording into something useful later, but don’t release something that you wouldn’t listen to. You have to take your own podcast seriously if you expect anyone else to.