How to Write a Podcast Outline & Why You Should Use One
Starting a podcast isn't as easy as people think. There is a misconception that you can set up a microphone, record a conversation, upload it, and you'll start to build a audience. While in some exceptional cases that has happened, the majority that do experience little to no traction. In part, this is because the content is really lacking in substance, direction or flow- they have no podcast outline to follow.
Having the right kind of content that makes sense and tells a story is important. And to create the best content for your listeners, there needs to be some structure. Not only for your podcast as a whole but every single episode.
In this article we'll dive into how to write a podcast outline and why you should use one.
What is a Podcast Outline?
A podcast outline is like a skeleton. It is the frame on which all the other pieces of an episode will hang on. Podcasters use this method as a tool to map out talking points and establish the sequence of topics they wish to cover. Outlines are often minimal, serve as a rough sketch for an episode, and follow a beginning, middle, and end style formula.
It's a practical, simple, and flexible technique for keeping podcasters organized and consistent in their content.
"Even great bakers started with a recipe and will always rely on some key ingredients," Elise Fitzsimmons, producer at Lower Street.
One thing to note is that an outline isn't the same as a podcast script. A script often contains more in-depth content, including word-for-word scripts, prompts, and descriptors such as music or sound effects. Instead, an outline should be viewed as the starting foundation of how a podcast episode, or show as a whole, should flow.
Why Use a Podcast Outline?
The purpose of outlining is to keep you focused on the bigger picture before you tackle the more minor details. A podcast episode should have some direction, regardless of how adlibbed a show usually is.
If you are trying to communicate many small points in the initial stages of putting an episode together, you may waste time refining it. Or the outcome could sound unstructured and messy. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details of a single segment and lose sight of the big picture.
- Using an outline offers up a simple roadmap for how you get from the beginning (your intro) to the end (your outro) without losing sight of the necessary topics and talking points you want to convey.
Outlines also allow you to communicate effectively. From a producer's perspective, it gives the client and others working on the podcast options. For example, if a client has specific topic-related questions, an outline can provide context for where specific points will sit within an episode. Once the outline is settled, you can work on the individual parts in more detail.
When To Create a Podcast Outline
Before you sit down to record, you should always have an outline prepared for every single episode. It might be worth creating your outlines as far in advance as possible so you are not being overly impulsive or rushing ideas with little thought. For example, laying out multiple episode outlines prior to recording a season can show you if there are any glaring themes, or repeated topics that occur, Doing so gives you the space to adjust and amend before investing a lot of recording and editing time.
Within the production timeline, the deeper outline creation process happens before you go into an interview or sit down to record your episode in full. Saying that, outlines do come in at multiple points and will often be used for different things throughout the process.
- For example, producers may create one outline specifically for clients to help showcase how an episode will flow. Another could be created solely for themselves to help plot out how they will script something later. Both are very useful and valid but will end up looking very different.
What Goes Into An Outline?
The purpose of your outline is to keep you focused on the bigger picture before getting into the weeds of the smaller details. So while the topic and all the surrounding points will be the main guide for the flow of the episodes, how the content is structured is still important.
Most podcast episodes work within the three-act structure; Act one (the intro), Act Two (the bulk of content), and Act three (the outro and closing call-to-action). It's a simple yet effective story-style structure that is familiar for listeners.
It's the middle ground between being completely unprepared and knowing word for word what you're going to say. - Andrew Ganem, Lower Street producer
While it can be tempting to go in all guns blazing, it's important to understand that there is often a lot of fluidity that can occur with your outline. The entire process can lead to a lot of non-linear creativity. So, you will likely find yourself moving back and forth between steps, adding elements as you go.
Our advice? Start with the basic structure mentioned below, and build upon it.
Key Topics and Ideas
Start your outline with your main episode topic or big idea. Some podcasters find that coming up with a title or headline can help them define the initial direction of an episode.
Think about your hook, that big point that will help draw listeners in and keep them there. Do you have perspectives on the topic that you could share that are unique to your expertise? What will your listeners take away from the podcast once they stop listening? Are there counter-points or opposing arguments you could tackle?
Research your topic. Even if you are an expert on the subject, it's good to get an idea of the conversations people are already having around your chosen topic.
Check out what's new in your industry. What new trends are you seeing being talked about? Are they good or bad? Are there any glaring concerns and challenges that keep appearing? Who are the current leaders on this topic, and what are they saying?
- If you are stuck for ideas, why not try structuring your episode in the problem-solution format? Present listeners with a problem, and solve that problem with your questions and answers. This is an excellent method to lean on when there isn't a complete narrative arc to follow.
Build on Your Key Points
Now that you have your main topic, what do you want to share about this topic? Start by jotting down the topics, talking points, and questions you know you 100% want to cover. Then, add a sentence or a bullet point for each talking point or question. In the beginning, your podcast outline will probably look very sparse– it's just the process of forming the episode.
Outlines aren't usually created in a vacuum and are dictated by the research you'll be doing around a topic.
Don't worry, you'll end up bulking it up, especially when you dive into guest questions and the overall layout more and add the finer details. Also, don't be afraid to use prompts such as "In this body of audio, this section will include VO," at this point.
Get the Sequence Right
Once you know what you want to talk about, it's time to map out the episode's sequence. Most conversations will have a natural story arc, but it may not always be obvious at this stage. Look over your bullet points and the basic questions you want to ask. Can you make connections between themes and concepts? Do the questions complement each other, and can they open the door to the next point in the sequence?
As you re-read your basic outline think about how the content and each segment aligns with your overall theme statement. Could you move one segment to give a point more clarity?
Remember, this sequence isn't necessarily set in stone. Outlines at every process step will shift and change based on what you have learned and need to include.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Is there a natural or apparent chronological order that I should use?
- Does this question fit?
- Would it be better to start with a subtopic?
- What can you include first to set up the rest of the conversation?
- Do I have enough questions to ensure I have enough content to fit in the middle?
- What should go last to best summarize the conversation or end the story in a conclusive way?
Try to keep the traditional storytelling structure of beginning, middle, and end in mind.
- ACT 1:
- Introduce guest
- General topic intro
- Opening questions to get to know the guest
- The challenge/problem
- ACT 2:
- Main content:
- The guests' unique angle on [insert topic]
- What are the challenges when working on/with [insert topic]
- How can we overcome them?
- ACT 3
- How have things evolved?
- What's next?
- Are there more challenges coming?
- More advancements?
- Brief review of what we learned.
Add Further Details
Once the outline is settled and you have a primary sequence in place, you can begin to work on individual segments in more detail.
The intro should introduce you, your show, and the episode's topic. Then, tell your audience what your show is about. The intro and outro usually follow a standard formula that introduces you, the show, the episode's topic, the value to the listener, and the call to action.
This phase is the optimum time to think about how your episode will sound. For example, can you add sound indicators such as voice-over (VO), [music], or [intro teaser clip]?
Naturally, you'll need to focus on the bulk of the episode, and it's within the body of the interview where the magic happens. - Enter the Question Pack!
The Question Pack
A podcast question pack is a separate preparation tool, and is essentially an amalgamation of guest research, interview outlines, and specific guest questions. The podcast question pack can be integral to an episode's structure because it works closely with your podcast's outline.
If you are having trouble mapping out the sequence of your episodes, a question pack can be invaluable. Copy the questions from the question pack and insert them into the outline at the points you feel best serve the overall narrative.
A strategic question pack can cut down on post-production because the content you need is outlined, and the host knows what to hit that is relevant to the audience.
"These are much more akin to polished interviews with a definite structure. We all understand what we need to get out of the interview well before it begins." - Elise
An Outline Should Evolve
A podcast outline is a continuously evolving document. Remember the element of fluidity; your outline will most likely change at each stage of the recording process. In the beginning, you start with the bare bones; as you move onto the guest interview stage, it may evolve even further as you add and adjust your questions.
The bottom line is that you probably won't have any structure within your episodes if you don't have an outline. As a result, your listeners could feel that your podcast lacks direction, or you may forget to touch on essential subjects during your interviews.
What does a podcast outline do for you? First, it keeps you focused and ensures you cover all the topics you need to cover. Secondly, you are asking the right questions while maintaining a solid structure within your episodes to serve your listeners in the best way possible. Lastly, it creates consistency and provides value to your listeners because your content will be well thought out and engaging.