A short guide to writing a great scholarly podcast.
Take a copy of your highest graded paper from the last semester or your most recently published article. Read it aloud to a friend. Was it easy to read? To pay attention to? Do they remember what you said?
One of the first things any podcaster learns is that writing for a listening audience uses a different author’s toolkit. When we are listening, we absorb information, keep track of facts and characters, and visualize numbers and data differently. Furthermore, when we podcast, we are sharing our research stories with a public audience. The rhetoric and vocabulary we use to signal to peers that we too are conversant in disciplinary conventions can become alienating to a general audience.
To be an effective and engaging podcast hosts, we need to master a new way to communicate. Let’s consider eschewing jargon in favor of a welcoming vocabulary and exchanging formal presentation for friendly conversation. Below, we share some basic guidelines can help us to achieve a memorable, digestible podcast and to connect with any listening audience.
15 Rules for Writing for the Ear
1. Use Short Sentences. The most fundamental thing you can do to make your writing more accessible to a listener is to simplify the structure of your writing. If your roommate gives you a long list of errands that need to be run – how many will you remember without writing out a list or using a memory device. Without the ability to consult previous content, our listeners need us to provide information in digestible amounts, and this starts at the level of the sentence. For each sentence, share one idea succinctly. With a simplified structure, your writing will also be easier to read aloud.
2. If you want to use a comma, use a period instead. Writing offers us an opportunity to construct complex sentences and ideas. By contrast, information shared orally must be concise and logically presented in order to
Go back through your writing. Wherever sentences are broken up by commas, try to replace that punctuation with a full stop. Following this methodology will help you to use short sentences and to think about constructing simple sentences that contain a single, digestible idea.
3. Use conversational language
Listening to a podcast is a personal experience. Many podcast consumers will listen while they are driving in the car, taking a walk, or doing chores at home. Let’s have a conversation with them!
Using an informal, conversational tone helps us meet our listener where they are when they consume our podcast. It will also remind us to explain technical terms and complex ideas. Try reading your script aloud and imagine you’re sharing the information with your mom or a friend. Would you use the same language if you were telling the story over a cup of coffee?
4. Introduce characters immediately before or after they speak
You may be using an interview or recorded conversation in your podcast. Introducing other voices into your podcast can add texture to your audio that can keep the listener engaged and can provide immediacy and authenticity by letting others share their stories and opinions with the listener directly.
However, the listener doesn’t know who our podcast guests are. Remember to introduce your speakers, especially if you are writing narration around snippets of audio.
Example: This is Alison Smith, she is a librarian at the local University: “Yeah, people are really into podcasts these days.”
[Laughing] “Yeah, people are really into podcasts these days.” That was Allison Smith. She’s a librarian at the local university.
6. Avoid honorariums – tell listeners what they need to know
It’s a good idea to identify your guest speaker’s occupation, or how they relate to the story you’re telling. This helps us know why their information or opinion is important. However, identifying a professor or public figure by a long honorific title will cause more confusion than clarity. For example, say:
“Allison Smith is a librarian at the University. She works in the archives with special collections“
“Allison Smith is the Alice A. Frank Curator of Early American Literary Artifacts and Ephemera.”
As your listeners speak, provide attribution to help our listeners keep track of who is talking.
Example: Allison agrees: “People ask all the time when we’ll start our own podcast.”
8. Keep conversations to 1 character at a time if you are telling a short story.
If we introduce many characters in a short space of time, we will need to remember introduce and attribute them each time they speak. If we fail to attribute statements to one or another speaker, listeners may not be able to keep track of who is talking.
For longer stories we can develop a relationship with more characters and come to recognize their voices so that we can understand who is speaking when they are in conversation with one another.
9. “Write in and out of tape” – set up your listeners for what they’re about to hear
We use transitions and visuals to help orient our readers when we are writing. We announce when words are not our own by introducing the other author by name and using quotation marks to designate the text we have copied. We usually provide a written segue into the quotation itself.
For example, “This year, the library received three times as many requests for project partnerships as the year before. As Smith notes in her 2019 article, ‘The library is an increasingly sought out as a resource for learning about digital technologies and how we can use them to amplify our research.'”
This sort of framing helps us not only to understand whose words these are spoken by, but how they relate to the story you are telling overall. The equivalent of this can be attributing before we play the quoted audio.
10. Signpost – provide specific directions for the listener
When something is important to your listeners’ understanding, point it out. Some of the visual cues we would provide to emphasize crucial information, like italics or bold font, or callouts like block quotes, are unavailable in audio storytelling. You can sign post by repeating an important line in the story or varying your tone or pace to catch your listener’s attention.
Signposting can also be an intentional part of your script writing:
“This part is really important”
“Did you catch what Jane said? Only 2 new businesses have gone up in Morningside heights this year. Thats less than half the average over the past decade.”
In writing we often use sections or headings to help readers transition through our arguments. Signposting can also be done orally by announcing sections out loud or announcing the turn to a new subject.
11. Be sparing and paint a picture with numbers
Most people find it more difficult to remember numbers. Don’t count on your listeners to keep track of strings of numbers or precise figures. Focus on one or two essential numbers or dates to ensure that those figures stick.
In addition to not being able to remember and organize numbers in our heads, numbers in and of themselves can also be abstract.
Sometimes you can use visuals to help people grasp the size of a particular number. Such as: “That’s enough soccer balls to fill an olympic-sized pool!” or “You would have to drive back and forth across the US four times to travel that far by car.”
Numbers are also meaningless without context; use percentages or other relative figures to help them have impact in your storytelling. 1 million dollars seems like a lot, especially to a recent college graduate who makes $35,000 year. But $1 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the large $1.9 trillion stimulus package just passed. Providing points of comparison and volumes of scale will help your readers to understand why a particular number is impactful.
12. A good audio story takes listeners on a trip
A good podcast tells a story and keeps readers engaged with well constructed narrative. While many podcasts feature a single narrator, they are also popular because they are a textured, immersive experience. The podcast can offer listeners a way to hear directly from experts or people of interest through interviews or archival audio. Sound effects, music, and clips of other recorded audio can add texture to your podcast, keeping the listener engaged and underscoring emotion or
part of writing for the ear is recognizing where other voices can add to the conversation (writing in and out of tape as discussed above) and where other audio elements can be “written” into the script to increase impact.
13. Read out loud while you write
Your own ears can be one of your most valuable tools as an audio writer. Read back what you have written aloud to see if it feels natural. This can be one of the easiest ways to shorten your sentences and fine more succinct phrasing. Where you stumble over your words or naturally pause, place that period and Pretend your are telling this story to a friend and see how you would phrase things differently in conversation.
14. Use your voice as a tool
Get the most out of your writing by being a great reader. By emphasizing important words and varying your pace you can guide your listener and keep them engaged, even without a virtuosic acting performance. Remember that you are your listener’s guide to this story. Tell them what is exciting, what is sad, what is important, both through clear, intentional writing, and with your own narrator’s voice.