What if Shawshank Redemption was written in the same style as Game of Thrones?
Maybe it would be broken down into shorter episodes. Each one ending with a cliff hanger. Imagine it had theme music every so often. Would it work? Probably not. Each one has its own style. Its own rules for what makes it ‘good’.
The same is true for newsletters and books. The style of writing for one doesn’t work for the other.
Audio is the same. Writing for audio or a podcast is different then writing for video, blogs or for a class. Teaching in audio or through a podcast isn’t the same as teaching in person or over Zoom. Audio courses, learning and teaching requires using techniques that fit the format. In this blog we share some of our best practices on writing audio courses and lessons.
Why would you want to write an audio course? Well, we covered all the advantages of audio learning right here, so for an in depth read, take a look. But here are a few reasons that we think audio and podcasts are worth our time:
So how to write for audio in general, and how to write an audio course in particular?
Follow these rules and you’ll be on your first steps towards writing your first excellent audio course or podcast.
For those who prefer to listen than read, Alpe’s co-founder, Yehoshua was interviewed on exactly this topic for the Lecture Breakers Podcast recently (link to transcript here). If you’re interested in reading more specific techniques for your writing, read on.
Wondering how long your audio course should be? We tackled that here and here.
How long should audio course lessons or podcasts be?
The average commute time in the USA is 26 minutes, so that’s a good ballpark. While many popular podcasts are much longer, there is a drop-off rate once people pause in the middle. On the other hand, there’s also drop-off between episodes so it’s a question mark.
When it comes to writing an audio course, we like each lesson to average 20 minutes. In 20 minutes, you can get important ideas across, including examples and stories, but without straying and rambling. This has the added benefit of chunking the information and making reviewing easier with flash cards, quizzes or spaced repetition mechanisms.
At the end of the day this is a creative decision based on the content.
Create compelling characters
Characters aren’t necessarily people. Characters are agents – they exemplify something and they progress throughout the story. The plot and narrative is based around them.
The best way to describe characters is not verbally. Let people find out their character by seeing what they do. Show me, don’t tell me. If the character is acting in a certain way, we already know what attributes she has. In Star Wars we first encounter Princess Leia shooting at Stormtroopers. We don’t need to be told she’s brave, we just experienced it.
“Good characters power the story. They move the story forward, and are at the root of Causality. It’s easy to think of Characters as people. But a good character, as in one that moves the plot forward in an interesting way, doesn’t have to be a person.
One of my favorite villain characters isn’t a person. It’s a season. Winter. “Winter is coming” is an expression made famous in Game of Thrones, the hit series written by George R. R, Martin. In it, winter is one of the strongest characters. It drives events forward. “
—“Rethinking Learning”, Lesson 5
Emotion can be conveyed via audio in a pure, unadulterated form. Our voices are incredibly expressive, and podcasts and audio courses are distributed right to our ear. It’s a very intimate format.
If you can’t convey emotion via voice, it needs to be articulated. Otherwise it’s very hard for it to come across. Say how you’re feeling: does an idea excite you? Why?
Narrative is a sequence of events (action) leading to a culmination. Before the culmination/punchline is a telling detail that sets up the suspense for culmination.
Example: Luke Skywalker (Character) flees the Imperial Stormtroopers (Action) and needs to get off Tatooine (Motivation), but he needs a spaceship first (Complication), so he heads into a bar to meet a smuggler, Han Solo. This is a compelling narrative.
Audio can generate a powerful sense of pace, momentum and action through the right narrative, intonation and sound effects. If listeners are left hanging they feel incomplete and want to hear the resolution.
Make sure narrative is tight and interesting
Your narrative has to touch on all the points a compelling narrative has, without rambling. You need momentum. A useful framework that helps you focus on your key narrative point is: I’m making a story about X and it’s interesting because of Y.
This helps make sure your audio lesson’s interesting point doesn’t get lost in the weeds.
Introduce subjects in bits and bytes.
In reading, we can revisit subjects and concepts, in audio course we need to make sure the listener has absorbed the previous bite, chewed on it and digested it before feeding the next one.
Breaking up sound bytes with voice over to reintroduce or re-explain is a common technique.
Keep it super simple
Say what you want to say, then say it again. And again. Short sentences. Simple words. No compound sentences.
Simplify and clarify
When there is a complicated concept, simplify and clarify it. Use an example or a reference that people know: “Sounds waves are like ocean waves. As in – they have different heights and strength ”.
Summarize and repeat.
Make sure it’s clear where we’ve been and where we’re going. Say what you’re going to say, then say it, then repeat what you said. Make sure there are signposts throughout the episode – THIS is where you should be paying attention. THAT happened, and now THIS is going to.
Make sure listeners know there’s a reason to keep on listening: drop teasers of interesting things, upcoming conflict or simply a story change.
Something new should be happening every 40-60 seconds – voices, music, topic, question, pacing.
Starting your audio lesson on the right foot
Different options for crafting the beginning to your audio course lessons:
An interesting question that’s broadly applicable is a great way to start and imply what we’re going to cover and WHY.
Immediately dive into the action, set a scene, start the narration. Ambient background music helps to set it up.
No one knows why so and so happens…. But if you keep on listening you will! You can also set up a mysterious/secret setting – a dark room, deep underground…This is a great example: http://n.pr/1Iybr58
Sometimes you have to step back and explain – context can be needed. Sometimes it can also be smart to engage the audience before they know why…
Make that focus clear to listeners
Tell your audience what to expect (You’ll learn XX or discover what happens to this character/place/policy/etc.)
Drop your listeners straight into the action. This can be disconcerting sometimes, but if it works is very powerful.
Writing for audio is only one part of the story. You have to also write for audio learning. This is very different than writing a blog post or a book (which is why audiobooks aren’t great for learning, a topic we cover here) What does that mean? How is audio learning different than regular learning?
In a few ways:
Let’s break each down more in depth.
The magic of audio is that it fits into our daily routine – we can learn while washing dishes, walking the dog, commuting to work or going for a run. This means that the content has to fit these time blocks. The average length for a podcast is 25 minutes. Why? Because that’s the average of most of these routines. The longer the lesson, the more chances that someone will drop off in the middle and not return.
When it comes to learning, this becomes more important. Learners listening to a lesson expect to learn something. That might sound obvious, but many many frontal, classroom lectures are not built this way. They could go on for 10, 15 or 30 minutes without getting to a point. If you do this in an audio lesson, you’ll lose your learners focus. You have to make sure that no matter what activity your learner is doing, whether a 3 minute dish wash or a 25 minute commute they’ll be learning something.
Why is this so important? Beyond keeping your learners attention, which is critical, it has to do with chunking information and avoiding cognitive overload. You need to make sure that each time your learner is listening a piece of knowledge is making its way into their mind, being absorbed, so that when you come back to it later, there will be something to reference. This is critical for audio learning and dealing with cognitive overload.
Research shows that our working memory can only focus on 3-5 chunks of information at once. If we are focusing on too many pieces of information simultaneously, well, we can’t. Our brain forgets something. It’s like trying to hold sand in the palm of your hand – something trickles out.
When people learn with audio you can usually count on one thing: they’re multitasking. They could be driving, washing the dishes or jogging, but they’re doing something else that is taking some cognitive load. What this means is that at some measure, their cognitive functions are decreased: one or two of their ‘working memory’ chunks is taken up by performing whatever task they’re working on. To effectively teach with audio you have to make sure that you are not overloading your learners.
This principal is true in all forms of learning, not just audio, but in audio learning you have to pay special attention. Whereas when students have slides to look at when they get lost, in audio they don’t. They have no external resource to come back to when they lose track. More so, you have to make sure that the information really sinks in before moving onto new topics. Otherwise you risk cognitive overload, and your learners will simply not get whatever you’re teaching.
Unlike most lessons where a student has a written or visual aid to see what the lesson plan is, where they are currently and what they have left to learn, in an audio lesson there isn’t. There is no map or aid for them to know what they’ve learned and what they have left to learn. Without a clear overview, the lesson and material looses it’s coherence. What this means is that as the instructor you have to paint a clear map of the lesson. As my community Rabbi used to tell us about how he built his sermons: “I tell them what I’ll tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I told them”.
Once you’ve painted that map, you have to insert signposts that tell your learners “you are here”. Just like signposts on a highway, these signposts serve the purpose of telling your learners where they are in the lesson, what they’ve just learned and what they’re about to learn.
When it comes down to it, writing for audio courses includes a lot of the best practices for general writing and education. You have to make sure you’re on point, interesting and engaging. Where these things differ is the advantages and disadvantages of audio. Audio forms habits and “walks” with the learner throughout their day, but to be effective, you have to make sure that your content fits that format. You have to make sure it’s:
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