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Podcast Notes: Gimlet Academy hosted by Alex Blumberg

Gimlet Academy is a recently released a 5-part podcast miniseries hosted exclusively on Spotify (their parent company). The series is a podcast about making podcasts—or more specifically, per host Alex Blumberg, “how we think about making podcasts broken down into fundamental steps.”

I’m an avid fan of podcasts and Blumberg’s work and many Gimlet Media programs. I don’t have a podcast of my own nor do I intend to start one in the future, but I found the information in the podcast so compelling that I decided to create some notes for the series.

Gimlet Academy won’t teach you any of the technical aspects of podcasting (like what software and hardware to use, where to upload your content, etc.). Instead the focus is on story telling: how to discover, research and shape a compelling story for your audience. The process is not dissimilar from the one I described in an earlier article about writing (barring any medium specific differences, e.g. audio vs. written word).

If you are interested in story-telling in any medium, this podcast series is a worthwhile listen. If you are an avid listener of podcasts, this mini-series will provide a greater appreciation for the methods used by skilled podcasters. And naturally, if you are a podcast creator or aspiring creator, this is a master class on the form.

Notes & Highlights

Episode 1: Great Pitches Make Great Episodes

  • The pitch: The initial idea for a podcast. A story about something or an interview with someone AND the reason why that story is important.
  • An effective pitch needs three things:
    1. An answer to the question: “So what?” — people need a reason to listen to your story.
    2. A character: This is a person to talk to who has something interesting to say in your story.
    3. Details: Specificity makes your pitch and your story unique, interesting and distinctive.
  • Pitfalls:
    – Topics are not pitches. Examples from the podcast: pinball machines no longer in existence, community gardens. A topic lacks an answer to the “so what?” question and specificity.
    – “Because it is important” is an insufficient answer to the “so what” question.
  • Example of a successful pitch: “This American Life” episode about prisoners performing Hamlet: What can convicts performing one of the most famous plays in the Western Canon tell us about murder and violence?
  • Horace in “Ars Poetica” states that all art should both “instruct and delight.” The failure with many pitches is that they fail to entertain.
  • A good pitch will help shape the questions and the narrative that develops from your characters.
  • It is important that the story you pitch is one that you are truly interested in. If you are not interested or invested in the story you are pursuing, that lack of passion will come through in your output.
  • Let your gut guide you. “Is it really interesting to you or are you just pretending you find it that way? If you—deep down—don’t care, you can’t expect your audience to either.”

Episode 2: The Search for Engaging Voices

  1. Booking: Finding the people you want to include in your podcast and getting them to talk to you.
  2. Two types of booking:
    1. Booking an individual: You know exactly who you want to talk to (e.g. an author who wrote a specific book).
    2. Booking a category: This is when you need a representative from a group or people (e.g. a person who was in high school at a particular school when a certain song was popular).
  • Strategies to contact and book individuals:
    1. Get creative: Explore social media channels. Try contacting other people in the target’s network that might help connect you.
    2. Be human: Be brief, to-the-point and polite. Try to find a point of connection with the person. Ask: “Is this the best place to have this conversation?” (This gives them an option to suggest alternatives)
    3. Don’t give up: Making contact may take multiple attempts.
    4. Strike while the iron is hot: Don’t string the interview along. It’s better to get something on tape than wait for a perfect studio setup/arrangement.
  • Strategies for booking a category:
    1. The usual suspects: Run a Google search and look for publications, articles and professional associations for that topic. Pay particular attention to individuals with interesting quotes or colorful language or metaphors (they might make for interesting conversations).
    2. Enlist the usual suspects to help widen your search. As the people you find from step 1 to point you toward other voices in their specific domain or field (they can introduce you to mavericks or innovators, for instance).
    3. Get on the phone with those other potential voices (short 5-10 minute call). Be sure to combine email or social media contact with a phone call (since many people no longer use phone as a primary communication method).
    4. Think with your gut: who among the people you talk to has the most charisma or makes the most interesting comments. Once you’ve identified that individual you can book them for the full, in-depth conversation.

Episode 3: Now THAT’S Good Tape

  • Tape is just the (anachronistic) term for capturing audio. In this context, audio with an interview subject.
  • Two things you want to capture when recording an interview or capturing “good tape”:
    1. A story.
    2. Emotions.
  • Blumberg: “Stories are little nuggets of narrative. They’re the building blocks of pretty much any podcast—whether it’s a call-in show, a chat show, reporter-driven audio journalism like on Reply All or This American Life…stories carry immense power.”
  • To get good at making podcasts, you need to get good at finding and shaping stories.
  • If you have a good story you will command the attention of your audience.
  • The four elements of story:
    1. A sequence of actions: “When human beings listen to a couple of actions in sequence, we want to know what the next one is…”
    2. A point: “A good story gets to a point. The point can come in many forms: it can be a moment of surprise, a revelation or learning. It can be funny, it can be serious. It can be moving. It just has to be the point to which all the actions are leading.”
    3. Details: “Vivid, compelling details…details that make the scene come alive in your mind.” Dialogue is a very vivid kind of detail in audio.
    4. A moment of feeling: “How did that whole story make the person feel? When you hear a story you often want a feeling—a moment of reflection—to go along with it at the end.” Feeling at the end of a story give a kind of release or resolution.
  • Blumberg: “Emotion is audio’s special power.”
  • “There’s more than one kind of emotion out there. Your job in audio is to reflect all the different kinds of emotions that there are.”

Episode 4: How to Get Good Tape

  • “The place that you get tape (most of the time) is in an interview. So the rules of getting good tape are really the rules of getting a good interview.”
  • “You usually need at least one good interview to form the backbone of your podcast.”
  • Be a human being: “It’s really hard to get good stories or good emotions on tape when you’re acting like a robot.”
  • A prep document is essential. This is a roadmap for your interview.
  • Aspects of the prep document:
    – 1-2 sentence objective for the interview (why are you talking to this person and what is your goal?).
    – An outline for the interview organized into chronological or thematic “chapters” (Blumberg also calls these “beats”).
    – Questions for each outline section.
  • Questions should be open-ended to encourage detailed, interesting responses.
  • Examples of open-ended questions:
    – "How?" questions
    – "Tell the story of…"
    – "Describe a time when…"
  • Also ask questions to uncover feelings:
    – How did it feel when this happened?
    – What was going through your mind at that particular time?
  • Questions should be designed to get a story or a feeling.
  • Be polite but insistent. Ensure that you get answers from the interview subject for all of your important prep document questions. If necessary return to a question or beat that needs more detail.
  • Good listening is essential. Listen to the words, feelings and emotions. Pay attention to what is being said and what is left unsaid.
  • Prepping is the single most important thing you can do for a good interview.
  • A good prep document allows you too listen better.
  • More tips for being human:
    – “If you feel you have to challenge something your guest is saying, do it with respect.”
    – “If you have some tough questions to ask, don’t make that the first thing out of your mouth. Take a moment to break the ice. Share something about yourself.”
    – “If you don’t understand something your guest is saying, don’t pretend that you do. If you don’t understand in the room, your audience definitely won’t. Ask: ‘what do you mean?’ or ‘how does that work?’”
  • “Silence is golden. There’s this human temptation when you’re talking to somebody to fill an awkward silence. Just let it sit.”
  • “Almost all the best moments I’ve gotten on tape have come after an awkward silence.”
  • “A good question has the same narrative momentum as a good story.”

Episode 5: Putting it All Together

  • Three parts to every podcast episode: a beginning, middle and end.
  • Each part must be handled properly to make the resulting episode satisfying to a listener.
  • The job of the beginning: Provides a reason to listen and hooks the listener. Blumberg calls this “the sell.”
  • Ways to sell an episode:
  1. Pose a question. The listener will want to find out the answer to the question. Two approaches:
    – Direct: Ask the question literally and overtly.
    – Indirect: Drop the listener into a scene or conversation. The scene generates intrigue and raises questions.
  2. Promise something amazing. Blumberg calls this “signposting.” The storyteller tells the audience that they are headed somewhere interesting. Necessary when there is “boring” setup or backstory that will ultimately lead to a satisfying payoff.
    – Don’t go too far on your signpost: It should intrigue, like a question, but not give too much of the story away.
    – The signpost should preserve the surprise of the story journey and conclusion.
  • The job of the middle is to deliver on the question or the promise of the beginning.
  • The middle: “In the middle, something new has to happen every 45 to 90 seconds. And by something new I mean a turn in the story or a new idea or the introduction of a new voice or character, a new piece of information, a shift in emotion, even the entrance or exit of music can count.”
  • “If there’s a sameness for longer than 90 seconds, the listener will start to check out.”
  • Podcast episodes go through many drafts. Drafts are made better through the editing. Blumberg: “First drafts always suck.”
  • “The job of the ending is to get out gracefully. An ending is like the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. There are lots of ways an ending can go wrong. There can be a tendency to try to make some grand point about what the story means at the end. Or do a big summary of everything you just heard. In reality, you just want to get out with the feelings you’ve left people with in the story intact.”
  • “Hopefully you’ve ended the story in a different place than when you started. You learned something or felt something or told a story went through some transformation. The ending should reflect that but not step on it.”
  • Leave the listener with a feeling rather than some grand pronouncement.

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