Ever wanted to start a podcast? The importance of a good script is often underestimated but getting it right can be crucial to the success of a podcast. Jessie Aru-Phillips, a seasoned podcaster, is here to guide us through how to perfect it.
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It can sometimes feel like everyone in the entire world has a podcast – after all, in an age where we’re all plugged into our phones and computers more than ever, the demand for audio-based escapism has never been higher.
In the UK, 15.6 million listeners tuned into a podcast in 2020. The demand is clearly there for podcasts but if you’re looking to start one, how do you go about making it stand out? Effectively scripting and preparing for your time behind the mic is a huge part of this.
Jessie Aru-Phillips has been writing podcast scripts for years, and has got them finetuned to perfection. In 2018, she set up The Sista Collective, a BBC podcast created to better represent women of colour. The key aim, she says, was to “tell stories of underserved communities” in the UK, using the podcasts as a platform for new conversations that weren’t being had in the wider media.
“Anyone can start their own podcast,” she says, but it’s the script that is the brains of the operation, keeping listeners interested and passionate about what they’re listening to – and can set you apart in a saturated market if you’re doing it right.
Jessie calls podcasting “embryonic” – although the world of podcasting might seem overcrowded, we’re still very much at the beginning of what we can do within it. This means there’s time to perfect your craft, push the boundaries and be part of its growth. Here are the most important things you need to know when putting together a podcast script.
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The uniformity of your opening is crucial
You know the drill with a podcast opening – if you don’t, here it is: a short burst of music to identify your show from others and a short introduction of your podcast’s name, mission, and what you’ll be discussing on that episode.
To keep your podcast memorable in the minds of the masses, it’s important that you script your opening to be as uniform as possible when it comes to the music and the way you announce its name and mission.
For Jessie, the opening is all about “identifying your podcast” and building a rapport with the people turning in. “It’s almost like creating a new friendship group. Introduce yourself as the person who’s going to be going on this journey with them. Keep it snappy as well, it shouldn’t be any longer than 15 seconds,” she says.
When writing your script, it’s important to finetune the delivery of your introduction by rehearsing until it’s pitch-perfect. “The intro galvanises people, getting them in the mood of the podcast,” Jessie says. “Make sure you give them your Twitter handle or website address, so they can interact with you from the beginning of the episode as well.”
If you’ve got guests on the episode, introduce them. “Always introduce guests with more than just one line – ideally a short and sweet two-line intro that allows both people who know your podcast and those who have happened upon it to discover who your guest is,” Jessie advises, adding that you need to assume no one is reading your show notes or the little biography that might come along with the episode – at least, not at first.
Identify a clear beginning, middle and end to your podcast episode
Once you’ve established how you’re going to open, Jessie advises mapping out in your script how your episode will run into its “nitty gritty” middle and then how it’s going to end. So the middle will cover the lion’s share of the interview or conversation, and the end will serve to draw together what’s been discussed and entice your listener to come back next time.
“If you think about just how intimate the podcast listening experience is, you need to almost know that there’s going to be a middle – the heart – to know where you’re going to land,” Jessie says.
This clear structure gives the show an “anchor”, giving you something to centre the conversation around. As a key part of scripting, identifying this is also really helpful for the listener, she says, as they’ll respond to the familiarity and uniformity and are less likely to skip through or stop listening halfway through. “People are fickle – you don’t want people skipping through all your hard work,” she says.
Jessie advises keeping the beginning, middle and ending of your podcast proportional to each other – not letting one section run too long in comparison to the others. You can do this by planning out rough timings in the script, which you can refer to while you’re recording and editing.
If you can, she advises ending on laughter – even if you’ve discussed some tough subjects. “Offering a solution, some perspective and a few jokes will help you end on a high, which is important,” she says.
Change up the pace of your podcast with stings
You should be looking at ways to divide different parts of your podcast episode, and a key way to do it when scripting is using “stings”. This is a brief three to five-second sound byte re-affirming the brand and message of the show to the listener – “You’re listening to The Sista Collective on the BBC,” for example.
Jessie calls this an important “mainstay”, a way to split things off and indicate to your listener that you’re moving on to a different stage in the episode, while also reaffirming your podcast name in their memory.
“It’s also a great way to make sure there’s a balance of heavy and light, of humour and intensity,” she says. It’s an auditory device you can pop into round off an intense conversation before moving on to a lighter section.
The key is having the time for these “stings” prepared, either giving them a rough place in your script or ready to use ad hoc as you go, in a more reactionary manner.
Jessie’s top tip is to try to have a famous voice record a sting for you – maybe someone who agrees to be a guest on your podcast – to add to the intrigue.
Don’t fall into the trap of scripting too tightly
“You need to give your guests or your fellow podcasters room to breathe, instead of scripting everything they might say,” Jessie says. Above all, you want natural reactions.
Handing people a script to read from verbatim normally creates more challenges than it solves, she adds, because the majority of guests aren’t going to be experienced in reading off a script in a conversational manner. It will sound, well – scripted.
“Instead, you should adapt your script so that there are pointers for both yourself and your guest, in terms of what you’d like to talk about with them,” Jessie says. “You need the presenter to lead the discussion, but others will have enough steer to know where the conversation is going without a tight script.”
Keeping things conversational is key – even though it’s really hard, she adds.
“In your script for conversation with others, map it out in bullet points, very short bullet points, and then talk around them. Rather than writing everything out verbatim, because then that allows for the conversation to take its own turns.”
Research and chat to your guests when you’re preparing your script
Jessie stresses the importance of doing your due diligence – researching your topics and guests, whether they’re big names or not, while you’re putting your script together.
“Make sure that you have a phone call with them beforehand – especially if you’ve never met them – if at all possible, you can run through your questions and get an idea of how they might respond,” she says.
These conversations might identify new things that you can incorporate into your planning, and your script. A big part of this is honing your skill of “active listening”, Jessie says, where you listen carefully not only to what your guest is saying but their non-verbal cues – how they say things – and then summarising what you think they’re saying to give as much clarity as possible.
This process should be carried out while you’re preparing your script, and when you’re interviewing for the podcast.
Jessie’s golden rules of podcast scripting
Don’t feel too constrained by time
Podcasting doesn’t give you a traditional linear format, so Jessie recommends “making room for tangents” in this way. “It’s not like with other mediums when you have a specific hour quota to fill and then go to the news at 12,” she says. So when you’re putting your script together, make room for some flexibility when it comes to timings.
But keeping it short and engaging can pay off
Jessie uses Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen’s podcast (Renegades: Born in the USA) as a great example of a podcast that keeps its duration under an hour. “If a president and rock legend can do it, you can,” she says.
Prepare as much as possible for potentially emotional moments
Doing as much research into triggering or intense conversations you might be having with a guest will help you to decide how to approach it in your script, Jessie says. That being said, making space for unexpected emotional moments is also part of the job. “Sometimes people don’t reveal all in a briefing session,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s not until they’re in that moment where they’re feeling comfortable and confident enough to share – so you need to prepare for that mentally and be aware.”
Planning your script – from beginning to end
- Research your subjects and guests – read up on them, call them on the phone and chat to them about your episode topics as practice and a way to feel out how the script can make space for them in terms of the right questions, how to get them to open up best etc.
- Make sure your opening is as uniform as possible, and explains clearly the mission of your podcast
- Bullet point the “nitty gritty” middle of your podcast: generally a conversation or interview. Don’t script too tightly, give it space to breathe.
- Add stings throughout to vary the pace and mood.
- End your episode on a laugh – or at least nothing too heavy – and think about how you’re going to bring your listener back. Can you tease what’s next?
Above all, though, Jessie says the most important thing while writing your podcast is “ensuring it creates a space where people feel comfortable.”
“I think if you can achieve that, then you’re doing alright,” she says.
Jessie Aru-Phillips, BBC and Spotify podcast presenter and producer
Jessie has worked as a digital video journalist for BBC News, going on to launch, executive produce and present The Sista Collective – a podcast shining a light on the experiences of women of colour – on BBC Radio 5. It’s now in its fourth season, and Jessie has interviewed a range of incredible voices, including Jamelia and Dawn Butler MP. As of April 2021, she is joining Spotify to be a producer on its UK podcasting team.