Only days after my initial careless omission of TWiT (this WEEK in TECH) in the list of the best free tech industry podcasts, I was fortunate enough to see Leo Laporte — who has a background in media, including radio and television — give an insider’s talk about podcasting at last week’s MacWorld. Here are some professional tips I picked up for current or would-be podcasters:
- Bring passion. When developing a subject idea for a new podcast program, don’t try to game the media market — find what you love or care about and talk about it. If you focus your show on what you’re passionate and knowledgeable about, you’re much more likely to generate interest and be successful.
- Specialize in a niche. There are thousands of audio shows available, and, for every topic you can think of, there’s at least one podcast for it. So instead of starting a new program about old cars, for example, start out by focusing on old Corvettes. Interview Corvette owners, dealers, and restorers. You can always expand your focus later. Also, don’t worry about getting a huge audience right away. If you have an audience of 1,000 dedicated listeners, you’re doing well. One thousand is a lot of people; if you were speaking to that many in person, it’d be an impressive crowd.
- Overcome self-consciousness. The way your voice sounds to you — i.e., how it sounds literally through your own head — is very different from how it sounds through a microphone or recording. This is because mics and recordings are not "accurate"; they boost some frequencies and eliminate others. Many people hate the sound of their own voice on a recording and become very self-conscious of it. Laporte advises novice media professionals to stop worrying about what their voice sounds like, and similarly, if they’re videocasting, to stop worrying about their hair, their clothes, their physique, and so on. His secret? Remember that your function is to "serve the audience." The audience isn’t there to judge your voice, your hair, your age, your looks; they’re listening, giving you their time, because they’re interested in what you have to say. When you understand this, it becomes much easier to stop worrying about what you look or sound like and instead to focus on serving your audience with the enthusiasm and knowledge you have for the subject. (I later remarked to Laporte that "serving the audience" sounds like a Buddhist approach to audio programming; he replied that he tries to live his life this way. Perhaps he could write a how-to book titled Zen and the Art of Podcasting: East meets Web?)
- Be genuine. Along the same lines as overcoming self-consciousness, Laporte warned against developing a fake persona to hide your true self. He described the talking heads you see and hear in the media, with their gel-sculpted hair and veneered teeth and "early-morning disc jockey voice." (You know the sound: think of "Duffman" from The Simpsons, or any cheesy radio commercial for a dubious get-rich-quick scheme.) Laporte said that he’d relied on such a fake voice when he first started in radio because he was so nervous. Eventually, though, he realized that being himself — and focusing on serving the audience — garnered much better results, including a bigger, more dedicated audience, and more personal enjoyment. People want to connect with a real human being, not a superficial facsimile of one.
- Speak extemporaneously. Of course, you want to plan, research, and prepare a bulleted list of points and topics for the show — but once you’re live, don’t read. Reading is considered "radio death." The exception to this rule, Laporte mentioned, is acting; a good actor can read from prepared text and make it sound improvisational. (In fact, Laporte recommends taking improv classes and has done so himself; improv helps you learn how to listen, which makes you a better commuicator and, again, better able to serve the audience.) But the vast majority of radio personalities use a combination of solid preparation before the show and spontaneity during it. In fact, Laporte said, some of the best talk show hosts are on in the middle of the night, when very few listeners call in (and often the ones who do can be a bit nuts), because they can "B.S. for hours" and sound comfortable and natural.
- Avoid verbal crutches. Verbal tics like you know, sort of and like, if used often, distract your audience from what you’re trying to communicate. Of the ubiquitous um, Laporte theorized that speakers rely on this vocalized pause to fill silent time in between thoughts — because, in our culture, when one person stops talking, someone else will take the temporary silence as an invitation to start. "Saying ummm . . . is a way of holding the floor so that no one else jumps in and starts speaking." Toastmasters — (find a local club near you) — helps many speakers reduce or eliminate their filler words. In addition, Lifehacker advises practicing public speaking to overcome nervousness, and the referenced Mother Tongue Annoyances article recommends reviewing video recordings of yourself speaking (the Reddit comments for this article contains a collection of excellent tips).
- Invest in a good microphone. Experienced in both video (television) and audio (radio, podcasts), Laporte says he prefers audio. The connection to the audience is more intimate, and — especially if a listener is hearing the program via earphones — the communication travels directly from the host’s voice to the listener’s brain, without the distancing effect of a video screen. To this end, it helps not only to develop a professional sounding voice, but to enhance that voice with the best recording equipment. Each make and model of microphone is unique, with its own set of specs and sound. Mics can run between a couple hundred bucks on the low end to several thousand dollars. (Laporte describes the podcasting equipment he uses in detail, including photos.) Try out different mics to find one that flatters your natural voice. Women and others with a high-pitched voice would benefit from using a mic with warmer tones to reduce any shrillness (although Laporte joked that Gilbert Gottfried has made a lucrative career out of his "annoying" voice). If you have a call-in show, don’t worry too much about the quality of the incoming calls, even if it’s featured guests who are calling in for interviews and discussions. As long as the host sounds good, the show will sound professional.
Following his talk about podcasting, the audience had a chance to see Laporte’s media skills in action, as he joined co-host Megan Morrone for a live-from-MacWorld recording of Jumping Monkeys, a show about parenting in the digital age. You can also catch the live MacWorld edition of TWiT and post comments to the Leoville Town Square discussion forum.