How to Structure a Podcast to Keep Listeners Engaged
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. We'll get into the details further down, but first let's look at why podcast format matters in the first place.
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, the 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? No, it's quite 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 guesswork. Knowing where the content should lead, how it should sound and the overall story that needs to be told makes life easier. In fact, it can often lead to more creative podcast 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 matters most.
"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!"
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 call to action. We'll cover all of 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 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.
While the length of your show will ultimately come down to the message, the following guidelines are a good starting point to consider when planning how long your episodes should last.
Below 15 minutes: The perfect length for compact shows that are packed with quick, yet valuable, actionable tips. Great for news podcasts.
Between 15 – 40 minutes: Most content fits into this episode length—it's ideal for storytelling and interview podcasts.
Above 40 minutes: Works well for dedicated audiences, or if 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.
Further reading: What Is the Ideal Podcast Length? Questions to Consider
How to Structure Your Podcast with the Three-Act Format
As any creative writer, passionate reader or avid movie-goer will tell you, great stories follow a tried-and-tested formula with distinct beginnings, middles and endings.
When figuring out how to structure your podcast, breaking an episode down into the three separate parts—referred to here as the intro, body, and outro—can help to tell your overall story in a way that is clear and familiar to listeners, keeping them engaged for longer.
Another benefit of the three-act podcast structure is that it can be tailored and utilized for any podcast topic.
Act 1. The Intro
Most podcast episodes tend to 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!
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 multi million-dollar business from scratch, describe their educational and family background before their success.
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:
Podcast name: Help audiences know what they are listening to
Host(s) names: Introduce yourself and any co-hosts in a few sentences
Episode title: Some podcasts like to mention the episode title to help listeners orientate themselves
Episode number: Chronology allows listeners to get an idea of where they are within a podcast series
Music: Use intro music to set the tone
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."
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 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 cliché 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 his choice of intro music sets the scene perfectly. All that drama and pulsing sound creates 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 is key.
Remember, music should set the tone and not be the star of the intro.
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Add the music only once you know exactly what the podcast is about and what you want to say.
The (Optional) Cold Open
Traditionally used in television and film, a cold open—or teaser sequence—is a narrative technique used to jump 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.
With an analysis of almost 500 top podcasts revealing only 14.04% of shows use a cold open in their intros, using this technique may give your show the creative edge it needs to stand out.
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.
Act 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 topic and format. 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. Share what they learned and how those learnings made them grow as a business or person.
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:
A musical sting
A sponsored ad
Change in topic
Act 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 it 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 podcast 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.
Common Outro Elements
In our post How to Write a Podcast Outro Script to Close Your Show in Style, we get into the nitty gritty of a show's closing. But, as a general guide, most outros include some or all of the following:
General information on the show, host and ways to get in touch
Thanking guests, listeners and the production team
A recap of the episode
Messages from sponsors
Calls-to-action, including asking for feedback and reviews
A sneak peak, or teaser, of the next episode
Having a Clear Call-to-Action
Podcasting isn't only about keeping listeners engaged within an episode; the actions they take after the show are just as important.
Since many podcasts are available for free, there's no harm in asking your audience for something in return for the entertainment or information you've provided them. This is done through the inclusion of a call-to-action (CTA).
CTAs ask a lead or prospect to take a specific step or action. In a podcast outro, some of the most common actions to invite listeners to take include:
Subscribing to the show
Leaving a review and rating
Visiting your website for more information
Joining an email list
Following you on social media
Purchasing your or your sponsor's products, merchandise, tickets, etc.
Podcast structure helps your narrative.
There's no one-size fits all format, but as you plan each episode you should be organizing it in a way that sets the scene, creates the tension, and, ultimately, shares the resolution. Using music, transitions, and voice overs adds that little something extra to 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, and use our tips and tricks to tap into the power of structured storytelling.