When it comes to producing a podcast for your business or personal brand, one of the key early decisions you’ll need to make is which format you’re going to run with.
There are five main podcast formats to consider, which I explain in more detail below.
While it’s not the end of the world if you switch things up and try different formats (indeed, it can keep the podcast fresh for both you and the listeners), on the flip side, be aware that many podcast fans are creatures of habit and stick to specific shows because they enjoy the format employed.
Consistency is queen, not just in publishing cadence and the frequency with which you put out episodes, but also that the your treads the same line in terms of quality and format.
Okay, let’s get stuck into the five different formats you need to be aware of if you’re about to embark on a podcast project (alternatively you could just watch the video below).
FORMAT 1 – One-on-one interview / two-up conversation
The straight one-on-one interview is the most popular format. It’s the one I use with my podcast, Reputation Revolution. This is where you’re basically interviewing someone, whether in-person, or via an web-based recording studio such as Zencastr, Squadcast, or Riverside (I’m a big fan of the latter – this is the tool I use).
There are nuances to this format. For example, it could be a structured question-and-answer type interview, or it could be more of a conversation around a specific topic or theme between host and guest.
The host-plus-guest format is a very popular way to package your podcast and for good reason. It can be a positive experience for the listener if they like the host and the curation of guest interviews.
Of course, for this format to work, the host needs to be on top of their game on a number of fronts. Yes, they need to have done their homework and know enough about the interview topic to be able to ask sufficiently interesting or probing questions of the guest. But just as important is the need to keep things moving, while at the same time letting the guest wander down ‘rabbit holes’ with a story or two, but then knowing when to get the interview back on-track again.
Guest curation is a real skill, and can make or break an interview show.
There’s no point being a great interviewer if (a) the guest is not relevant to the theme of the show, or (b) they’re just plain dull. The first part is critical and easy to get right from a pre-production point of view – but (b) can be a bit tricky. We’ve all had guests who we’ve seen present, or maybe heard on another podcast and they came across well, but on your show, for whatever reason, the interview becomes an exercise in ‘pulling teeth’.
So, while an interview show might feel like it’s easy and fun – a bit of a laugh – to do it well requires a few things to fall neatly into place – guest selection, pre-show research, interview technique etc.
Alongside the one-on-one interview we have the two-up format.
Here’s an example of what that looks like – A lawyer and financial advisor walk into a bar, with Alex Martin (the lawyer) and Dave Murdoch (the financial advisor).
This format is when there’s you and one other person in the physical or virtual studio, you riff on a particular topic.
This conversational format is quite popular as well. A couple of things to be aware of:
- you don’t want to end up just rambling and going off-topic – make sure you have an defined topic before you start, along with several talking points to make sure you cover everything you need to
- don’t let the conversation become too ‘in’ – in other words, if you know the other person well, there’s every chance you’ll start talking like friends and telling in-jokes and stories etc. Just something to be aware of.
With this format, if the pair of you disagree on some things and passionately bring your own points of view to a particular topic, that can make for good listening (as long as it doesn’t degenerate into an argumentative mess!).
Also, you might bring a guest in occasionally as well, turning the two-up show into a three-way conversation/interview. These can work well!
The two-up is quite good because it takes the pressure off versus if you’re a standalone host.
Plus, the more episodes you record, the (hopefully) the better your interaction is with one another. If you can find a podcasting partner with whom you bounce off well, that’s a terrific starting point.
One final thing on this format: it’s easier for the listener if there is a combination of male and female voice – the contrast just helps people work out who’s talking at any given time. Not a dealbreaker, obviously, but just something to be aware of.
I like the two-up format: with the right people, it can be very effective. And then if you include a third party interview every now to mix things up, happy days!
FORMAT 2 – Solo riff into the microphone
Riffing solo into the mic is also a popular format, particularly with thought leaders, educators and experts.
It can be a tough one to do properly though – I have just started a new podcast using this format – Become your own PR Machine – and I feel that after hundreds of episodes of my other podcast plus scores of appearances on other people’s shows, I am comfortable with this format. Previously, not so much, but it works for me this time around.
Some people script their solo podcast. This certainly adds a layer of preparation, and also means the podcaster needs to be adept at reading off a script without sounding like they’re reading off a script. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend doing it this way.
That said, when it comes to preparation for the solo episode, you definitely need bullet points and a pre-determined flow of sorts. You still need to be ‘pretty good on your feet’ (even if you’re sitting down!), but the bullet-points will help keep you focused and on-track because it’s easy to meander when there’s no-one (i.e. an interviewer) reeling you in!
The key to solo riffing is to be able to self-edit as you go, and this takes practise.
All said and done, the solo riff into the mic can be a solid format for the right people.
Done well, it can certainly demonstrate you ‘have the chops’ – that you know what you’re talking about.
The format allows you to get deep into a topic and more expansively tell stories, which can sometimes be hard to do in an interview format where you’re always worried about taking up too much airtime.
Oh, and solo episodes also tend to be shorter, for obvious reasons. Say 10-20 minutes, although someone like Joe Pulizzi regularly publishes punchy 5-6 minute solo episodes for his Content Inc podcast.
Interviews, on the other hand, can easily go for 45 minutes to an hour; some of the big name interview-based podcasts go for several hours!
FORMAT 3 – The multi-headed panel
I don’t see a lot of podcasts featuring a ‘multi-headed’ panel (that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of them out there though!).
A big plus with having three or more people on the one episode is that you can get a diversity of views; if the topic is a controversial or provocative one, you’ll likely get disagreements, which can make for interesting listening.
Of course, this makes things a little bit harder to manage: you’ve got to make sure that the panellists don’t talk over each other as that doesn’t make for a good listening experience.
Other things to consider: You need to wrangle more people to make sure all in the one room together (this format works better when recorded face to face, but can also be done virtually as well).
I certainly think there’s some good scope with this format.
For example, if you’ve got partners or internal experts in a professional services firm – this format could work well. You could even have revolving panel members, and switch it up – two panellists, three panellists. four panellists. I think this could work, just make sure you have breathing space between speakers 🙂
FORMAT 4 – Solo + short contributions from others
This, I believe, is quite rare in podcasting circles – the format is one solo podcaster (host) with multiple contributions from others (these contributions are recorded separately and inserted into the episode in the editing process).
I used this format for the 250th episode of Reputation Revolution – I went back to a slew of past guests and gave them a question to answer: What’s working for you in a personal branding and professional marketing sense?
Just a general open-ended question, and I loved the types of answers that I got back.
People recorded videos of between one and two minutes which I edited into the show along with a riff from my good self. The whole episode ended up being about an hour and 10 minutes or so, which was much longer than I normally do, but I think it was worth it as a way of recognising the milestone.
Of course, this format will require more effort on your part.
Going back to my 250th episode, the planning phase required a lot of contact with people to get them to contribute (being just before Christmas didn’t help matters). I wouldn’t recommend doing this on an ongoing basis unless you had someone helping you.
It worked for me because it was a one-off, and I was reaching out to people who had been on the show before.
Having them record a video meant I could strip out the audio for the podcast, and then use the video to share on social media. I had 17 contributions so that gave me 17 posts on LinkedIn and Twitter featuring their videos – how good is that? It gave me variety, and provided my audience with heaps of top ideas and tips to ponder.
The 250th episode had a bump of an extra 20-30% downloads, but it’s hard to know if it was the format or the subject matter – or the extra (sustained) promotion of the episode. I’m tipping the latter!
So I love the idea. I just realise how much time and effort it took. But I think it’s a good one.
If you’re wanting diverse views on particular topics every now and then, go solo, but bring in extra people who contribute to it and then you can insert their comments in the editing process.
A quick tip: If you’re interested in exploring this format further – i.e. solo + contributions from others – whatever you can do to streamline the process will make life a lot easier.
Getting a VA to help with organisation/pre-production will be beneficial. Plus, maybe consider employing an asynchronous recording tool such as Rumble Studio which allows you to invite people to record answers to your interview questions in their own time. You then edit them together, and BAM!, you have a podcast with diverse answers to your questions.
FORMAT 5 – Narrative-style
Format #5 is the domain of deep pocketed media companies – it’s the most difficult to pull off for most of us mere mortals, and requires a lot more editing.
I’m talking about the narrative format, popularised years ago with the true crime podcast Serial: big budget productions like these tend to come out of the established media companies (and specialist podcast producers such as Gimlet Media – check out their slate of shows here).
Basically, the narrative-style format involves having a narrator telling a (scripted) story with other people’s comments and answers to questions being cut in as required, along with sound effects and other audio snippets (a TV newsreader reading the opening lines of a relevant story, for example).
When done well, it’s a terrific listen (if the story is a good one). Done poorly, it could sink like a stone.
So, how can we use this popular format for our own podcasts?
Speaking from experience:
I tried the narrative format once – it was very rudimentary, without the bells and whistles, but it came out okay. Well, good enough that I was happy to publish it.
Basically what I did was tell the someone’s entrepreneurial story, which I knew well.
I interviewed said entrepreneur and rather than publish the full conversation, I told his story (in linear fashion) and then cut in their answers and comments during the editing process.
While I recorded it as a Q&A , there was no extended conversation on any points. I basically narrated around the questions and edited it so his answers embellished (brought to life) the story I was telling.
Can I say, it was time-consuming and while it came out fine, at the end of it, I did think: Why didn’t I just publish the full interview? (I actually couldn’t do that because I recorded it for editing the answers, so it was stilted and not really a conversation per se, but you get the idea).
If you run a business and are wanting to give this podcasting caper a shot, I think the best formats to employ are:
- the straight interview
- the two-up
- the solo riff into the mic
But again, what’s going to work well for you? And you know what, if you start using one format but change to another down the track, it’s not the end of the world!