“Ew,” said my friend. “No one wants to listen to a scripted podcast.”
I was catching up with an old friend, one I hadn’t seen in a few years. Upon reconnecting, we realized we were both working in the audio industry. He was producing his own podcast shows, based on live interviews he did with people. And I was writing scripts for Alpe Audio, where we teach university level courses through audio. And talk a lot about how to write good podcast scripts.
My friend was right that most traditional podcasts value natural, spontaneous conversation. The concept is to allow listeners to feel that they are listening to a conversation between friends, but with types of people they might not actually be exposed to in their everyday life.
However, at Alpe our goal is a little bit different. It isn’t just to expose our listeners to conversations with interesting people. Our goal is to teach and have people retain information. To master a subject, from A-Z. This means that yes, we do want to present information in a way that our listeners will remember. A specific way that doesn’t necessarily mimic the way that people speak. And doing that requires a little investigation into how to write effective podcast scripts.
When trying to teach over audio, your main challenge is cognitive overload. Since your listeners have no visual aids, their brains must work hard to constantly keep the information you’re presenting them in their heads. This is especially difficult when there are lots of details that you want your listeners to remember.
While podcast scripts are different from audio courses (which we cover here), let’s dive into how you can write podcast scripts geared towards avoiding cognitive overload.
The first rule for how to write podcast scripts is to keep things super simple. On a basic level, this means avoiding complex sentence structures. When writing, there’s nothing wrong with a sentence like this:
Pricing is the job of the marketer because it falls into the category of communicating with customers and giving them the right impression of your product.
If the reader loses track of who we’re talking about when you say “give them the right impression,” they can always quickly glance back and figure it out. However, in audio that’s generally not an option. So, to avoid cognitive overload, I would deconstruct that sentence into its simplest elements:
Price is 100% the concern of the marketer. As a marketer, your job is to communicate with your customers. Price is the most direct form of communication you will have with them. How much you charge says a lot about your product’s value and it’s target audience.
It might look overly simplistic in writing, but this way your listeners have the time to process each part of the idea. Keeping things simple is the first rule of how to write podcast scripts.
For this section, I’ll show you how writing a podcast script is kind of like being a tour guide for the blind. Imagine that you’re leading a blindfolded friend through the narrow streets of an old city. There are lots of narrow alleyways and tight turns. As you lead them, you’ll probably keep up a narrative that sounds something like this:
Ok, now in a few seconds there’s going to be a left turn – I’ll tell you exactly when – and then after that we’re just going to walk straight and then we’re home. We’re almost at the turn, right now we’re just getting to the end of the block. Ok, now we’re turning. Great, we’re past the turn. Now, we just keep walking straight for a few moments.
If we are able to see and our friend isn’t, we have a natural instinct to reassure them by telling them what happened, what is happening, and what will happen.
The same instinct should apply to our podcast listeners. They are limited in the sense that they only have your narration to guide them through the subject they are trying to learn.
As the one who knows where the material is going – what’s going to happen, and when – you should take it upon yourself to communicate that information to them. Like your blindfolded friend, your listener is completely dependent on your voice to understand where they are and where they need to be going. It’s usually best to do this at the beginning of the lesson. Here’s an example from our first lesson of Alpe’s Pricing Strategy course:
In this lesson, we’ll explore what price is, it’s raison d’etre. Why it exists.
In order to do this, we’ll take a journey to the mountains of Southern Italy. We’ll meet a mango seller named Alessandro, who will show us how price works. Practically. We’ll learn about value and perception and how both factors will affect how something is priced.
From this introduction it is clear what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what we should expect to get from this journey. Giving your listeners this structure is an essential part of how to write a podcast script.
Creating a clear structure at the beginning of the lesson is an important part of how to write podcast scripts. However, it’s pretty likely that after a few minutes your listeners will lose track of what’s happened, where they are, and where they’re going.
That’s where signposting comes in.
Signposting is one of the most useful rules of writing for audio. Or actually, of public speaking in general. It’s also an integral part of how to write a podcast script. I’ll show you how with a metaphor.
Imagine that you’re travelling to visit a friend by train. The ride will take a few hours and before too long you find yourself fast asleep. By the time you jolt awake, you realize in a panic that you have no idea where you are. The scenery rushing by isn’t familiar and you’re not sure if you’ve missed your stop or not. Thankfully you aren’t panicking for long before you pass a signpost that tells you the name of the station that you’re passing. You breathe a sigh of relief. You still have a few more stops before you need to get off.
That feeling of being completely lost and not knowing where you are? That’s how your listeners feel after their attention wanders for a few moments. And you can assume that their attention will wander. This might be because they’re driving and had to focus on a tricky lane merge. Or their attention just wandered, which is a completely natural thing that happens to all of us when hearing someone speak for a long time.
So, when deciding how to write your podcast script your goal should be to help your listeners find their way back when their attention wanders. Signposting in an audio lesson looks like this:
[…] those four questions I just asked you are meant to help customers pinpoint the exact range they would spend on a given product. The marketer can then study data supplied by an entire sample of users and determine how much their product is really worth. The Van Westendorp’s price sensitivity meter is just one way to help customers determine what they would pay for something.
In that lesson, we were teaching our listeners how to properly conduct market research on customer’s willingness to pay. After going through the four questions, we made sure to remind the listener what the purpose of the four questions is and what they will be used for.
So signposting means frequently stopping to remind your listeners of where you’ve already been and where you’re going. The more you do this, the more the listener will feel in control of their audio experience. This helps them determine if they need to go back in the podcast or if they can figure it out from there. Inserting regular signposts is great how-to for writing podcast scripts.
Another challenge when deciding how to write podcasts scripts, is how to teach terms in a way that people will remember. People generally only remember things when they mean something to them, which makes remembering a new term – without seeing it written visually – very difficult for most of us.
A fun trick for getting around this challenge is first introduce the concept and then give the term. This allows the listener to first build the idea in their mind. Once the idea already exists, then they something to anchor the new term to.
Here’s an example, from Lesson 3 of Pricing Strategy, where we discuss competition between two companies, Happy Graphics and Evil Graphics:
Let’s say that back at school you (the CEO of Happy Graphics) were a great student. You participated in class and got along with all your professors. In fact, even after you graduated you still kept in touch with a lot of them. They’re all very supportive of your business. Whenever they hear of anyone in the field looking for graphic design work, they’re happy to send the clients your way.
The CEO of Evil Graphics, on the other hand, was a terrible student. He never developed that relationship with the professors that you did. This means that he has no one to refer clients to him. Instead, he has to employ sales and marketing employees who will help him find clients.
You estimate that this costs him about $10,000 a year.
Since you don’t have to pay that amount, your company’s total fixed costs will be lower than his. This means that you can charge less per project and still make a profit. Your cheaper fixed costs are known as a structural advantage. It’s something which makes your production cheaper or more efficient than your competitor.
I could have just explained that a structural advantage is without the example. The concept is simple enough. However, my goal isn’t merely to have my listener understand what I’m saying in the moment. My goal is to help them build a mental structure that will last, even when the lesson is over. So by anchoring the term to the example -something memorable with lots of details – I give them a higher chance at remembering it. Introducing a concept before labelling is another part of how to write podcast scripts.
Another great way to help your listeners hold different things in their head at once is to paint a scene.
If you can get your listener’s imaginations working, then you don’t have to work as hard to keep their attention. In Lesson 5 of Pricing Strategy, we start off by setting the scene:
Welcome to the port of Ferncombe.
If you look past the colorful sailboats and shipping containers, toward the end of the port you’ll see a grey-haired woman, wearing a simple home-made dress.
This is Fiona. She’s lived in Ferncombe her entire life. For many years she has been running the town’s main fishery.
Why take the time to add these details? Isn’t that just giving the listener more things to remember? Not actually! If I can successfully cause you to envision a scene, then I’ve already given you a structure to help you picture the rest of the lesson. Instead of just hearing the story that follows – Fiona experimenting with her prices and finding her perfect volume-margin tradeoff! – you can now picture it. Adding the visual element actually lessens the cognitive load.
The more the picture is complete in the listeners mind, the less you will have to work to keep their attention. Which is a great goal to have when determining how to write podcast scripts.
Those are some of my tips and tricks for how to write podcast scripts. Whether you’re scripting your podcast completely or leaving some room for natural conversation, these how-to’s for writing podcast scripts are a great way to lighten cognitive load and help your listeners remember what you’re saying.