Podcasts have become a regular part of our media diets — and for more and more nonprofits, a powerful channel for sharing stories. Nonprofit leaders considering producing their own shows often worry that it's too difficult to meet extremely high standards for production quality, fresh content, and engaging hosts. But you don't have to have a team of professionals to create shows that people love to listen to.
Straight from the podcast professionals at Podcast Allies, here are seven simple — and free — ways to level up your nonprofit's podcast.
1. Know Your Ideal Listener
We tend to want to create a show for a broad audience. In workshops, when I ask "Who is our listener?" most students stumble. "Um … it's for everybody …? Or maybe … adults over 30 who want to improve their lives?" Well, no. There is no "everybody" who wants your show. In your mission to attract devoted listeners, you will repel others. That's a good thing!
For a podcast to be compelling to listeners, you need to know who they are. So narrow your focus and concept. As a simple example, imagine you want to produce a show for dog owners. Too broad. Niche it down to dog lovers who enter their pups in agility trials, and now you have endless topics to explore.
At Podcast Allies, when we're developing a new show, we like to start with an avatar — a clearly drawn character who needs or wants what you're offering. Your nonprofit may already have an avatar that you use in your marketing efforts. This is your ideal listener, and you should create the show for them. It's not only easier to create a great show this way, it's also significantly easier to market it to your avatar than to a general audience. You know who you're talking to.
2. Get Clear on Your Central Question
Your "central question" is the idea, problem, or mystery that your podcast solves. It's an inquiry that you can address, differently, in each episode. A central, or driving, question keeps your show moving forward in every episode and throughout a series or a season. Crafting a driving question provides focus and creative guardrails for you and your team.
Here are a few good examples from well-known podcasts:
Good Life Project: "What makes a good life?"
Dr. Death: "How could this doctor keep getting away with murder?"
Adam Grant's WorkLife: "What is it that makes work not suck?"
Terrible, Thanks for Asking: "Honest answers to the question, 'How are you?'"
3. Really Talk to Listeners
My company produces Degrees, a show for millennials and Gen Z job seekers seeking planet-saving careers. Our listeners are purpose-driven young people who want to go to work every day to fight climate change. We survey them from time to time, and that gives us some facts.
But when we look at them face-to-face on Zoom and ask them about the realities of their job hunts, we learn things beyond our experience and imagination. For instance, many job seekers whose academic degrees come from universities outside the U.S. can't find jobs. They say American hiring managers are often biased to select job seekers who went to school in the U.S. Now we can address that problem on our show and know for sure that a portion of our audience will be grateful (and maybe astonished that we know them this well)!
When we speak with listeners directly, we gain empathy. Because podcasting is inherently an emotional medium, understanding our listeners with our hearts, not just our heads, helps us craft audio stories that reach people where it counts.
4. Take Guest Selection Seriously
The difference between a great show and a dud rides on your preparation. Learning how to find, select, and entice good guests the way journalists do is a long lesson unto itself, so just a few pointers here:
- Your listener's needs and desires come first. Why is your potential guest of interest to them?
- Why is your guest relevant right now? What's happening in your world or the world at large that makes this person significant to your ideal listener at this specific point in time?
- Does this guest have a fascinating story to share, a challenge they overcame (one shared by your listeners), or a deep well of specific, expert advice that answers a question your listeners are asking?
- Are they "good talkers?" Are they dynamic, conversational, and candid? Or do they speak in generalities, monotones, or speeches? Do a pre-interview to find out before committing.
Guest selection is crucial. You can make good interviews better in editing, but you cannot make a bad interview good after the fact.
5. Spend More Time on Interview Prep
Doing great preparation shows respect for both the listener and the guest and results in far better content. I think of a great host as an informed guide for the listeners. Like a tour leader in a foreign land, you need to know the way before you can successfully bring anyone with you. Don't go into an interview as unaware as your listeners.
Here are some simple rules of thumb:
- Don't ask questions that Google can answer. If a listener can find the answer in a 30-second search, it's a terrible interview question.
- If they have a book, read it. The whole thing. Take notes. Ask about passages, stories, and quotes that made you curious, that you love, or that you disagree with. Delve deeper than the page.
- Read LinkedIn profiles, news stories, research papers, blog posts, and everything else you can find about the topic and your guest. Use what you learn to contextualize your questions.
- Follow your curiosity. What is it about this episode that truly matters? Seek to learn about that theme (driving question) before you hit the record button.
6. Craft a Narrative from Your Interview
Once you've taped an interview, turn the raw tape into a narrative. There's no non-cliché way to say this: We are drawn to stories. But people don't talk in chronological order; they don't necessarily tell great stories; and they often circle through a tangle of subjects, no matter how much we try to direct our guests. Spend creative energy on this part of postproduction, and even consider hiring a story editor.
A good story editor makes sense of your tape. They're especially important when you have multiple voices in your show. They know how to build a compelling episode in scenes, how to ensure that the stakes are high, how to build the listener's curiosity, and how to reflect on meaning. They know how to land the ending.
7. Stay Curious
This is perhaps the single most important quality to bring to podcasting. Some of us are more naturally curious than others, but we can all exercise this muscle. Stick a post-it note on your screen that says "Be curious now." It's the best thing you can do to improve your podcast.
About the Author
Elaine Appleton Grant is a veteran public radio producer who now leads Podcast Allies, LLC, a podcast training, consulting, and production studio serving mission-driven organizations that believe in the power of storytelling. Among other nonprofit podcasts, Podcast Allies produces Degrees: Real talk about planet-saving careers for the Environmental Defense Fund. The studio offers Podcast Liftoff, a course (online or live) that helps nonprofit teams develop, launch, and grow podcasts that help them reach their strategic objectives.
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