Journalists are excellent storytellers, but that doesn’t always translate naturally to podcasting. Although many of the skills can be easily built up, staff still need the right support in order to sound comfortable and confident. Christopher Phin shares his advice for publishers looking to put their editorial talent in front of a microphone.
Listen to this article, narrated by Christopher Phin
The boom in podcasting has allowed many publishers to find new revenue streams, new audiences, and new ways to tell their stories. If you think podcasting could work for you, you probably have a flock of tabs open right now with a dozen riffs on “everything you need to know to start a podcast”.
And every one is good and useful, but I’m willing to bet that nowhere among the advice on what mic to buy, how to market a podcast or which commercialisation approach will work for you, will be perhaps the most important consideration of all:
How do you turn a journalist into a broadcaster?
As journalists, we’re used to marshalling thoughts, carefully picking le mot juste, revising, crafting, polishing copy. Speaking extemporaneously on a podcast, even though it’s often telling the same stories, is a completely different skillset, and often this isn’t anticipated by organisations as they start a podcast.
Here, then, is a distillation of what I learned coaching more than a dozen teams through the process of swapping the keyboard for the mic, all in the service of getting the very best from them in this new medium.
The first big thing is trust. Your journalists are going to have to trust that they’ll be supported as they develop these new skills – in immediate, hands-on ways, but also in knowing that the company has their back. And that’s because if you have a journalist speaking on a podcast, with a few notable exceptions such as longform narrative shows, they’ll be more informal in their delivery and likely more personal and opinionated in what they say.
You want this. Don’t stop them doing that; actively encourage them to do it, indeed, and you’ll have to say it a hundred times before they believe you. None of this means they should turn into a US right-wing shock-jock, but think about what it will feel like to have your journalists showing more of their personality than usually comes across in copy. (Spoiler: it will feel wonderful, for them, for the brand, for the audience. But go in eyes-open.)
Almost everyone gets a little self-conscious when you stick a mic in front of them, and so be ready to encourage, reassure and cheerlead teams through awkward silences and, yes, bouts of full-on self-loathing, but actually, you can tell them this straight: we’ve stuck this microphone in front of you, and just that act in itself means that what you have to say or how you are going to say it is valuable and valid. Tell them: internalise that message, don’t doubt yourself, be an active part of the conversation. Be a voice for the voiceless.
And if you’re in the room with them, you should be prepared to make big, silly encouraging gestures as they record. Even if they’re not yet completely brilliant, every time they take a step towards brilliance, every time you can see they’ve overcome a doubt or a challenge, let them know they’ve done good. People will improve at different rates, and they’ll have started at different levels, but every step on that journey should be celebrated, and it should be you leading that celebration.
Part of that reassurance comes from editing. I had the experience so often that I’d finish a record with a new team or person, and they’d have cringed themselves inside-out. As I reassured and enfranchised them, I tell them that when they listen back they will be astonished at how assured they sound, in part because it was never as bad as they imagined in the first place (if it was, I’d have done something about it before now) but also because even some very light editing can transform someone from sounding skittish to sounding poised.
If you can, show them how it’s done. Show them the editing process so that they can see how simply trimming that “Umm, so” off the start of an answer gives it much more bite, show them how you can edit the awkward overlap in a multitrack remote recording into a smooth-flowing conversation, show them how yeah, you can just take out that whole section where you misspoke, and actually the flow is so good you’d never know it was there.
Ideally, even, get them involved in audio production, because knowing what you have to do to fix yourself each time – whether that’s a technical thing like mic technique, or dying a little inside each time your hitherto unnoticed verbal tics fire – means you’ll improve on-mic too.
In many cases you neither have the time to nor want to take every stumble and ‘um’ out of a podcast, but of course you don’t want the thing to embarrass the brand or its people. You may find that you have to be a little heavier on the editing at the start of a podcasting journey for a team, but can nurture them to deliver more assured speech over time. You want to maintain your editorial standards, even as you develop a more informal voice, and so don’t, too, be afraid to adapt and use existing structures.
It can be a good idea, for example, to have someone else not involved in the recording or editing of a show to review each episode, like a proofreader or sub-editor, and if you’re covering tricky subjects, by all means vet audio for legal concerns just like you would in print or online. That cycles back to the trust point: I’d far rather my teams or external guests pushed themselves to be a bit more colourful than they might be altogether comfortable with, but that only works if they can trust that they’ll be supported in the moment and in post to row that back if you anticipate issues.
Make tech secondary
As much as you can, get the tech out of the way so that the journalists can focus on the content. That doesn’t mean have the tech physically unobtrusive – often the opposite – but try to adopt robust hardware choices and workflows so the talent isn’t getting bogged down in process.
Do pilots. Iterate. Learn internally – but don’t be too good for learning in public either.
And finally, all of this will be easier for a company to deliver if you can have a producer on the podcast. This doesn’t have to be someone whose job title is ‘producer’ though it would be good if it was; it can just be another member of the team, or even at a pinch, one of the hosts who also is doing a producer role, but the point is if possible to have someone slightly outside the core hosting team who can both shoulder the technical elements of recording and editing, but can also be a kind of podcasting Jiminy Cricket, doing that job of encouraging and cheerleading the talent, but doing a more important job too.
Your producer is the first person to hear your podcast, and should have the role of a listener proxy too. They’re your quality control in the moment, and they’ll get the best quality from you in the edit too. It takes a certain arrogance, but your producer should know when to step in if something’s going wrong in a recording, and suggest ways to fix it – keeping in mind always what can be fixed in post, and what will need a patch that you can record at the end or afterwards – and yet the times when they don’t step in are more important. Tell your teams: I know this can feel artificial and weird, and that for some of you this will be way outside your comfort zone, but trust me; if I’m not stepping in to tweak something, you’re doing great! Don’t stop! Believe in yourself and your message.
In this way, you can get journalists out from inside their head, second-guessing everything they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it. If you trust that your producer will – in the moment or in the edit – catch you when you screw up, then you’ll fly.
Trust, encouragement, nurturing and development. It might not happen overnight, but then neither will the success of your podcast. Be kind, support, and delight in these new skills.
Christopher Phin is an award-winning podcast producer and creative director. He helped more than a dozen teams at DC Thomson create innovative, revenue-generating and audience-acquiring podcasts, and he’s looking for a new home for his skills in product and talent development, recording, editing, commercialisation and more. If you want to make podcasting part of your strategy, ‘meet’ him in this video, and then connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.