There are plenty of blog posts and newsletter pieces about ways to “take your podcast to the next level” 🤮, which all amount to scrabbling around for the same ground like so many Hungry, Hungry Hippos, so for this week’s feature piece I wanted to look at how we can find ways to nourish our creativity – not to stock back up on fuel you might have lost, but to feed an already roaring fire.
1. Put your feet up and read
Take time to read. I don’t just mean snatching a moment on the loo or in-between Zoom calls. Take time over a late morning, sit with a drink you enjoy, turn on your tablet, load up your Kindle, unlock your phone, or pick up something where the ink is printed fixedly on a piece of dead tree, and read… about podcasting, about the topics you cover in your show or your clients’ shows. Read articles whose headlines pose questions you already know the answer to, because maybe one of the “seven incredible things” they’re promising could be new to you.
The intention is as important as the information you might glean from the act. It’s about carving out time for your creative fulfilment, but without the weight of expectation. It’s entirely possible you might come away learning nothing, but that’s not really the point… the point is that you took the time.
2. Enjoy a story told in a different medium
Play a narrative video game, listen to an audiobook or check out a concept album. Watch a film – fictional or documentary, as long as it tells a great story. Don’t feel like you have to consciously take notes or be aware of how tropes or techniques are deployed. Instead just enjoy the work with your whole heart, and let whatever droplets of relevant creativity drip through your filter and percolate.
Equally important is giving time for the work to sink in, what writer Charlie Brooker once described as “letting your mental food go down”. I know I’m guilty of this; turning off the TV after an impactful hour-long TV drama and reaching for my earbuds to play an episode of a podcast. That’s probably why I have so many conversations with people about TV shows we both love and have just finished, in which I look blank when people reference a particularly hard-hitting moment that hasn’t had time to enter my long-term memory because it got wiped out by something about iOS 15.
3. Do something unfamiliar
Engaging your brain in an unfamiliar activity, or even doing a familiar activity but in a different way, can be really useful in helping you see what your brain is automatically editing out. Say you’re a guitarist, and you tried playing a solo further up the neck, so you produce the same notes but on different strings.
The guitar teacher and flat-cap-rocking YouTube legend Justin Sandercoe taught himself to play the guitar left-handed so he could experience what it was like to learn an instrument he was an expert in, from scratch. You probably don’t need to go to that extreme, but switching up an unfamiliar task – whether it’s related to your podcast or not – puts you enough out of your comfort zone to open you back up to learning something new, without being entirely in unfamiliar territory.
4. Go behind-the-scenes on someone else’s podcast
Hopefully you’ve got a friend in podcasting (I mean someone you know within the medium who you count as a friend… not that podcasting is your friend… you get it), and if you worked your way up through podcasting differently, so much the better. It’s surprising how many things we do that we assume everyone else does, and you might find there are things you could be doing that hadn’t occurred to you.
If you’re feeling brave, why not agree to produce an episode of each-other’s podcast? This doesn’t have to be signalled to the listener and doesn’t have to be about cross-promotion; it’s simply a way of trying on another podcaster’s shoes, to see how they fit. Or if you’ve got the time, you could document each-other’s processes – maybe just keep a screen recorder running while each of you is working on an episode – to see what differs.
I know literally no-one will do this, but it’s a fun thought exercise at least!
5. Stop listening to so many podcasts
It’s a good idea, at least in my humble opinion, to pick out the lint in your podcast subscriptions. What are you listening to out of habit? Are there podcasts in your app you feel obliged to listen to? Can you identify the podcasts that spark joy, and find more of those? I know that, if you need to listen to a particular show for your work, you might not have that luxury, but if you want more listeners to your podcast, you want to explain to non-listeners how podcast consumption is a joy, so you should be filling your ears with as much pod-joy as you can, right?
Paring down your listening also gives you more time, and might enable you to listen at 1x speed instead of 1.5x, thus experiencing the podcast like most human beings – ie, non-power-listeners – do.
6. Bring the real world into your podcast
Narrative shows do this really well, and it’s an easy task to accomplish. You can add a sense of space and geography to your podcast, by weaving in sounds of the outside into your work. I mean, they needn’t actually be sounds from the local area you’re covering – I won’t tell if you don’t – but if you can spare 10 to 15 minutes to go out and sit with a portable recorder and a decent mic, you could capture an authentic piece of audio that captures the essence of where you’re recording from.
We need to remember that listeners tend to drift off after a few minutes – I think it’s 7 without looking it up, but that might just be because 7 is always the number anyone gives about brain stuff – so anything that breaks the monotony of two people speaking could be welcome. It doesn’t have to be a jarring sound, it simply has to be different, so why not make that a bit of found sound from your area?
7. Put a record on
I’ll bang on to anyone who’ll listen about my love of the MiniDisc format, and the physical appeal of putting a disc in, hitting play and feeling the moving parts do their dance. That’s part of the appeal to vinyl… it’s the ceremony. Why not try bringing a little ceremony into your listening experience?
The conscious, intentional act of putting a record on – or loading a cassette into a tape deck – informs the listening experience, because it now has a little more weight to it, since you did more than just press a virtual button on a slab of glass. When’s the last time you listened with real intention to a piece of spoken word audio? Give it a try, and make note of the thoughts that crop up as a result.
8. Take a week off your podcast
They say a change is as good as a rest, but sometimes a rest is just what you need. Again, this doesn’t have to be a remedial measure, or a way of dealing with burnout. It could simply be an act of self-care, but also again a way to let your and your audience’s mental food go down, to give a bit of air-gapped space between output, and to be missed.
There’s nothing like missing a show you produce to make you realise how important it is to you.
9. Don’t post your next episode to social media
It’s easy to get into a rut: you edit, publish, promote, then prep the next episode and the cycle continues. What would happen if you stepped off the social media treadmill for a week, and didn’t push your latest episode to Twitter and Facebook?
Doing this could give you a sense of how many subscribers or followers you actually have, but more importantly you may be able to gauge the kind of reaction you get to episodes. Does the number of mentions or comments you get go down if you skip a week of promotion?
By taking a fresh look at the promotion cycle, you might be able to spot patterns you’re falling into out of habit. Maybe it’ll even give you some ideas for other ways to promote your episode, other than “Latest of the X Podcast is here: [url]”.
10. Find someone who would enjoy your show if they only listened to podcasts
I’ve mentioned before that we need to appeal to people who don’t consider themselves podcast listeners. It’s so easy to listen to podcasts, but some people still feel like there’s a technical barrier (I think it’s the word “podcast”, which may be a topic for next week’s piece).
If you have a hobby podcast, you probably know someone who would enjoy what you’re putting out, but who doesn’t listen to podcasts. How about picking an episode out for them, showing them what to search for on their phone, then saying “give it a listen the next time you walk the dog or do the dishes” etc. Ask them to listen as a favour to you, so you can get their feedback.
This isn’t about trying to gain them as as a listener, but about understanding how a non-podcast-native listens. You might find there are turns of phrase you use that just wash over someone who isn’t familiar with the ecosystem. (For example, many of us say “rate and review us” but we don’t explain that we mean they should do that on one specific app.)
Find out what this person enjoyed and didn’t, what they felt encouraged to do or were confused by. Re-assess the assumptions you’re making about your content, how welcoming it is to new listeners or how heavily it relies on in-jokes. When you say “a link is in the show notes”, what does that mean?
It’ll take time, but if you view this as a way of strengthening your output, not simply as an exercise to gain a new listener, you could come away with some valuable insight.
11. Listen to a podcast you’ve already decided you won’t like
It might not even be a show you don’t think you’ll like, but maybe one you assumed wouldn’t be for you, because it’s from a publication you don’t follow, or it’s a top 10 show and you don’t listen to top 10 shows, and so on.
There is a reason certain shows are popular, and it’s not all down to celebrity (as Mr Webster has already pointed out this week). And while you might not be able to compete with a full-time production crew, you can probably weave an interesting story and tell it in a compelling way, if that’s what you want to do… it just might not sound quite as NPR-ish, and that’s in your favour.
There’s also an outside chance you’ll find a new show you enjoy, and there’s no harm in that. I recently started listening to West Cork, and surprise surprise, it’s really good. I’m not currently working on any narrative shows, but being connected to what’s popular in the podcast space is good for me, not just as someone who writes weekly about podcasting, but as someone who makes podcasts.
Give these a try
I’m sure not all of these will float your boat, but if you fancy giving one or two of them a go, let me know how it went. I’m helping a few people start or relaunch shows at the moment, and that’s giving me an option to look again at the work I’m doing with them, to gain perspective on the patterns we’re falling into and the assumptions we’re making, and ultimately make more interesting, enjoyable, and impactful work.