How to

How to Structure a Podcast to Keep Listeners Engaged

Keep your podcast listeners engaged from beginning to end with a structure that works!

Contents

As soon as someone tunes into your podcast, it can feel like a wrestling match to keep them engaged. But, there is hope. For any podcaster looking to boost their episode consumption rate and keep listeners coming back there's an important element that needs to come into play- structure. But how do you come up with that solid podcast structure and stick to it? 

Well, it's all about planning.

Why Podcast Structure Matters

All good narratives need to be assembled in a way that encourages flow. If a host speaks without any logical or planned direction, your audience could become lost and the conversation could sound messy and directionless. To keep listeners on board your conversations need to make sense. 

Structuring episodes gives hosts those parameters to tell a great story. But isn't being restricted by a set of episode rules tantamount to creative suicide? We hear you ask. On the contrary. Having those building blocks in place gives production teams a simple "1,2,3"  breakdown of what type of content needs to go where. 

Structure takes away the guess work: where the content should lead, how it should sound and overall story that needs to be told. And in fact, can often lead to more creative ideas that pay dividends on the engagement side of things. 

The bottom line is, when there are clear guidelines you'll end up delivering a high-quality audio experience that will maximize engagement, boost subscription rates, and ensure that your listeners are hooked from start to finish. 

Storytelling Helps Keep Listeners Engaged

For podcasters to speak to their ideal audience, they need to invest in content that matters. 

No one wants to sit through a terrible film or keep reading a book that has a dreadful plot. So why should people listen to your content if it doesn't have a good story behind it?

People engage with good content on both an informative and an emotional level. One way to tap into that audience's emotional need is through great storytelling. Storytelling is one of the best ways to keep listeners engaged. Yes, there are many factors behind good podcast storytelling- your format, the hosts, guests, and your audience.

But, it's the overall structure that helps; a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, as the world of podcasting understands it, an intro, main content, and outro.

"As more and more people create podcasts, there's a lot of competition for listeners' ears. But there's a reason so many public radio producers are finding success in the podcasting space — we know how to tell a good story!" - NPR

If you don't want your show to sound like it's 35 minutes of random rambling, you need to plan out your episode structure, from the intro, through the bulk of the content, until the final closing words and a call to action. We'll cover that further on in the article.

Plan Your Episode Length

Contrary to what you may believe, audiences like predictability, and episode length can factor into that. Therefore, predictability should be a part of your podcast planning before launching. In addition, listeners will often plan their podcast listening time around the length of a podcast episode (a 30-minute episode for the gym, a 45-minute podcast for their commute, etc.), and being consistent on your end becomes part of that routine.

Whatever your podcast's format, strive to keep your episodes to the same length. 

However, you don't have to be ultimately married to your podcast episode length once it's already live. Podcasts evolve, so let your audience know in advance if you need to adjust it. Likewise, explain why if you have a good reason for having a particularly long episode. 

How to Plan Podcast Episode Length?

  • Below 15 minutes: the ideal length for compact podcasts where you provide many valuable and actionable tips. Great for news podcasts.
  • Between 15 – 40 minutes:  Most content fits into this episode length—the idea for storytelling and interview podcasts.
  • Above 40 minutes: Works well for dedicated audiences, or your show isn't as structured.

No matter how often you release episodes, we suggest keeping your episode length to no longer than is necessary to get your message across. 

1. The Intro

According to recent data, most podcast episodes see a 20 to 35 percent drop in consumption rate within the first five minutes. So hooking listeners in from the first few moments is vital if you want them to stick around. 

New listeners are fickle; they might only tune in for a few moments to decide whether they want more from the show. So to prevent your podcast from being yet another show within the above consumption rate statistic, you gotta hook 'em in!

So, think of your podcast introduction as the first act of a movie. Your job is to set the scene, introduce the characters (you and your guests), and lay the foundation for the main narrative. You can do that by setting the stakes. For example, perhaps a bad thing has happened, or a good thing fails to perform; how does it affect the characters? 

Also, if you have a guest, explain what they do and why you brought them into the conversation. If you're dissecting how an entrepreneur built their multimillion-dollar business from scratch, describe their educational and family background before their success. 

  1. It's all about tapping into the emotional state of your listeners. Say your podcast is about podcast marketing; create drama by setting the scene with a problem. Explain how a poor paid ad's conversion rate affects listenership, and introduce the listener to a situation where you were stung by poor conversions.


Simple Steps to Scripting a Podcast Intro

A podcast intro script is the written document that helps guide the host as they introduce a podcast episode. Intros usually explain a podcast's purpose, introduce the host or speakers, and help listeners understand what's ahead. 

While there is no creative limit on what to include in this script, there are a few common elements:

  1. Podcast name: Help audiences know what they are listening to
  2. Host(s) names: Introduce yourself and any co-hosts in a few sentences
  3. Episode Title: Some podcasts like to mention the episode title to help listeners orientate themselves 
  4. Episode number: Chronology allows listeners to get an idea of where they are within a podcast series
  5. Music: Use intro music to set the tone
  6. Tagline: The brand's catchy elevator pitch is used to create uniformity and brand identity

There may be other optional additions that you could include, such as sponsorship mentions, bringing in anecdotes, starting with a question, and sharing statistics related to your guest's field. But, as mentioned above, storytelling is a key factor in keeping listeners engaged. 


Why Should Listeners Care?

When it comes to intros, many podcasters tend to miss an all-important factor; the why. Most shows hit the top key points in an episode in those first few moments. But they skimp on why it matters or why listeners should stay tuned to hear more about it. 

"A lot of intros get caught in the trees and miss the forest. They tell us three important facts, but they fail to explain why it matters or why listeners should stick around to hear more." - NPR

There are so many ways to make people sit up, listen, and genuinely care about the content. 

  • Ear catching audio from a secondary source
  • introducing listeners to an exciting guest
  • sparking a debate
  • getting people thinking with a powerful probing question. 

However, you do it, set your listeners up so they know exactly why they should continue to listen.


Music Matters

Music is a powerful addition to any podcast introduction. Sad and somber or full of hope, music can push us into an emotional realm that can take us beyond a single moment. In addition, studies of the brain show that we are hypersensitive to music. So, it's certainly worth investing in original and provocative music in your podcast introductions. 

"As a storyteller, you have an important role in taking people to places that they've never been to. If you're not careful, using tired or cliche music can paint a person or place as being one-dimensional." - NPR, Jeffrey Pierre

Take Sam Harris' podcast, Making Sense. Sam tackles heavy subjects intelligently and articulately, and intro music sets the scene perfectly. All that drama and pulsing sound create a mysterious and dramatic edge. 

Keep in mind that it shouldn't be too busy or have too much going on. Simple and relevant is always a great place to start. In our experience, listeners tend not to like music that overshadows speech, so fading music in and out. 

Remember, music should set the tone and not be the star of the intro.

Add the music only once you know exactly what the podcast is about and what you want to say.


The Cold Open [Optional]

A cold open (also called a teaser sequence) is a narrative technique used in television and films. Traditionally it's a way of jumping straight into a story before the title sequence or opening credits. 

Podcasts can offer a similar way of introducing an episode by using audio clips from the upcoming episode to give listeners a taste.

According to recent data, only 14.04% of surveyed podcasts use the cold open in their intros. Why is that important? Cold openings are pretty rare and therefore give podcasters a creative edge.

Personal Injury Mastermind (or PIMM) utilizes the cold open beautifully. It helps set up the context of the conversation. 

"The cold open is basically where you start with a clip or some clips from the podcast itself to get things going. This can help to draw your listener in by hearing a little bit of content that they're going to be hearing in the episode right away. It can add a little mystery sometimes." Erin MacIndoe Sproule

Cold opens hook audiences within the first few moments, dissuading them from skipping forward or tuning out altogether. A cold open should always be compelling, surprising, or unexpected.

2. Body of the Content

The bulk of an episode's content goes in the middle. This portion will depend on how a podcaster approaches the podcast's format and topic. But whatever direction you take with your content, storytelling is the key component to making it engaging and memorable.

Some podcasters refer to this segment as "The Second Act." The intro - or first act - sets the scene. The second act is all about confrontation. We mean that you have to think about this portion like it's the crux of a movie. It's the part of the story that ups the ante. It's when the characters (in this case, you) have to deal with ever-worsening challenges and obstacles. 

Authenticity. That is what will make or break your episode's body of content. The problems that arise should seem real because listeners want to be able to relate to another person's fallibility. Because we're all only human, after all, and people make mistakes. 

Highlight the errors, the bad habits, the near-misses, and grievous failures. 

Next, bring forward those phoenix rising from the ashes moments. Tell the stories about how you, other people, or your guests overcome those problems. What they learned and how those learnings made them grow as a business or person. 


Transitions

A transition within an episode indicates a change from one point of a narrative to another. They act like small audio signposts, telling listeners where they are in your episode, and giving the overall context some structure, clarity, and timing.

Whether it's a change in speaker, a music bed, or even sound effects and musical stings, transitions can break up the monotony of monologues or long periods of speech. Shows like Radiolab or Invisibelia are good examples of pushing the boundaries in engaging sound. 

"Humans have the attention spans of goldfish," states Elise, a producer at Lower Street. "Not actually - but pretty close. So it is our job as producers to make sure that we keep the audience engaged." 

Transitions can include:

  • Music
  • Pauses
  • A musical sting
  • A sponsored ad
  • Voice over
  • Change in topic

3. The Outro / Resolution

The final act, or your outro, is your opportunity to close the loops from the main bulk of your podcast episode- this is the perfect time for closure!

The sole purpose of the resolution is to give your listeners a pay-off. 

You want to create a satisfying end to reward listeners for sticking out for the duration. If you leave too many questions unanswered and those challenges unresolved, at best, they'll consider your podcast forgettable. At worst, they'll feel duped.

In your outro, you want to reveal that final piece of information that solves the challenges you've faced or the significant lessons learned. Then, explain the main thing you want your listeners to walk away with.

Plan every episode with the endpoints in mind to know where you're going with the conversation. Don't reveal your hand too soon - you want that tension element to keep listeners on board throughout the episode.


Have a Clear Call to Action (CTA)

It's not just about keeping listeners engaged within the episode; the actions listeners take outside the podcast also count. Most podcasts are available for free. That means that if a listener engaged with your episode's content, they got something for nothing. So, why not ask for something in return?

A Call to Action (CTA) asks a lead or prospect to take a specific step or action. 

Some of the most common podcast outro CTAs include:

  • Subscribe to the podcast
  • Leave a rating and review
  • Visit your website to join an email list or find extra resources and info
  • Follow you on social media
  • Buy you or your sponsor's products, merchandise, tickets, etc


EXAMPLE:

"If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the podcast, please subscribe and leave a rating and review. To stay up to date with [the podcast's name] and get all the behind-the-scenes content, you can follow me on Instagram [@UserName] and Twitter [@UserName]."

Whatever CTA you pick depends on the action you want your listeners to take. For example, if you're just starting and looking to build your status within Apple Podcasts, asking for a subscription, rating and review can help. Or, if increasing download numbers is a must, then asking listeners to recommend you to friends and family could be your best bet. 


Summary: 

Podcast structure helps your narrative.

The most significant benefit of the three-act podcast structure is that it can be tailored and utilized for any topic. Aim to structure your podcast using the three-acts model to help your overall storytelling to keep those listeners engaged. As you plan each podcast episode, organize the structure into setting the scene, creating the tension, then finding the resolution.

Use music, transitions, and voiceovers to add that little something extra and help your content stand out. 

You want your podcast to stay at the front of a listener's mind well after they've finished listening. So get creative (in a structured way), and use our tips and tricks to tap into the power of storytelling. 


Author

Claire Gould