While there’s no magic formula for writing a winning documentary or non-fiction podcast, there are rules of thumb worth following. So, we decided to talk with some of the leading lights in the field to let them weigh in on the subject. Here’s what they had to say in a nutshell.
1- What’s a good topic for a podcast?
If the experts do agree on one thing, it is that the ultimate goal for any podcast is to please as many pairs of ears as possible. That being said, podcasting’s holy grail can be searched out in many ways no matter what the subject.
In fact, among the professionals interviewed for this article, most say that there’s no such thing as a good or bad podcast topic. It all boils down to how the subject is treated and the format that’s used.
That’s certainly the case for Transistor média’s Julien Morrissette, whose pantheon of all-time favourite podcasts includes an earthquake in Alaska, a goat balancing on a cow, a fraudulent call centre in India, and a completely off-the-wall radio call-in contest. “Sometimes it’s the most mundane stories that come up with the biggest discoveries, the most thought-provoking ideas, or the most universal appeal,” he says.
The way director Gabriel Allard-Gagnon sees it there should be no limits imposed when it comes to picking a subject. “The characters and the angles are the most important factors in making a story compelling,” he says. That’s also an opinion shared by Radio-Canada director Cédric Chabuel, who has a soft spot for naive and empathetic treatments. “You can never tell what the full potential of a subject will be when you start a project,” Chabuel says. “It takes time for the story to unfold, and most of the time, you’re in for a big surprise.”
“Of course, a subject with universal appeal is not without its merits,” says RECréation director Élodie Gagnon. “For me, a good podcast topic is one that stimulates curiosity, conversations, or observations. It’s a handy wish list to have when starting out on a new project.”
Among the professional techniques for increasing the universal reach of a story, Qub radio director Anne-Sophie Carpentier stresses the importance of using a bold approach and a clearly audible curiosity factor. “If you’ve got a topic in mind that you find interesting and you’re all fired up about it, it’s likely a good topic.”
Any new podcast still needs to find its place in the overall mix of things according to Radio-Canada director of digital audio development and production Annie Reeves. “It must discover its unique and distinctive character if it’s to stand out in today’s endless sea of content,” she says.
2- What’s the key to telling a good story?
Podcast pros have a few tricks up their sleeves for capturing and keeping listener attention. They start by telling an uplifting story about endearing characters in a treatment guaranteed to create intimacy and emotion. But to get there, you still have to master specific scriptwriting codes.
The narrative structure is certainly one of the codes. You must develop an arc of progression as the story is being told, starting from Point A and arriving at a Point B, along a path that has a definite intensity curve. In some audio productions, the curve is predetermined, but it usually takes shape at the post-production stage.
“You must pay special attention to that point in the story where you can no longer stop listening,” says Anne-Sophie Carpentier. “That’s the way it works with Le Casanova de Montréal. Each episode had its no-turning-back point and we carefully shuffle the narrative cards to maximize listener outrage and astonishment.”
For Élodie Gagnon, the narrative curve “is when you’ve succeeded in taking a personal quest and turning it into a universal one. A good example is the Pourquoi Julie? podcast where Émilie Perreault’s personal quest to understand why the idol of her youth left the stage becomes a universal quest about our relationship with celebrity.
While mastering the narrative curve is a skill in itself, the fact still remains that each project is different and requires well-honed instincts and creativity. Some like Gabriel Allard-Gagnon see creativity as the key. “What you’re looking for is the element of surprise, which is probably the most difficult thing of all. Those Aha! moments with all their marvelous twists and turns. I’m literally floored at times when the basic premise of a podcast suddenly breaks down and it takes on a whole new level of depth.”
3- The pre-eminence of the characters
Whether they’re in starring roles or just narrating, the pros interviewed for this article were unanimous on insisting that the key to a good podcast script is the characters. “Strong characters are the most important ingredient in any podcast as far as I’m concerned,” says Annie Reeves. “It’s no wonder we call them the story makers,” says Julien Morissette. “You can come up with the best idea or the best story line, but it’s not going anywhere without characters who can bring it to life. They’re the ones who make it real through their emotional buy-in.”
Some interview techniques can be used to make it easier to portray the characters. This is the case in scripted interviews, a technique Anne-Sophie Carpentier prefers. “When you begin an interview you really have to keep in mind the stories you want to hear from the person you’re talking to. Otherwise, the words may flow but the heartfelt moments will be few. Above all, don’t let your guests tell their stories before the interview begins, because the first time they tell them is often the best take.”
The idea is to work with people in building a narrative scene by scene with many details and impressions. “That’s precisely it,” Julien Morissette says. “Because we want to get into the real-life story of a transformation, we need to know as much as possible about the speaker. Unearthing the character’s transformation is the very foundation of success, something I repeat ad nauseum as any of my associates will tell you! I’m always asking myself how the events being described have transformed the person or the community in question, and even more importantly, how can this be felt in the audio?”
To create such intimate relationships, Annie Reeves points out, the interviewer must be open-minded, and free of judgment and assumptions. “Above all, keep the tape rolling after the interview is officially over,” says Élodie Gagnon. “Very often it’s when the pressure stops, that the real talking starts.”
4- A few tips for getting a podcast script off to a good start
Élodie Gagnon is a big believer in methodically organizing your work. “It’s really useful to create a master folder with a short summary of each episode, the characters in the series, highlights, research, important dates, and so on,” she says. “This anchors everything to a solid foundation you can build your series on.”
Annie Reeves maintains that the ‘why’ behind the podcast project needs to be identified early on. “You need time to develop and get across the purpose of the project, and how you’re going to map this out over the course of each episode.”
Anne-Sophie Carpentier finds it useful to root out the question the series aims to answer, and ditto for each episode. “It totally guides the audience, and as a listener, you always know which way the train is going.”
Gabriel Allard-Gagnon puts his money on going with your gut. “A good script must be nourished with the questions that came to mind when you first decided to produce the podcast, and they should be raised again and again during scriptwriting. I’m also very focused on what comes after, where my thoughts lead me, flashbacks, analogies, and the like.”
Julien Morissette recommends the opposite tack, doing as much research and scripting work as possible before you even think about recording. “I don’t belong to the let’s-start-recording-and-see-what-happens school. I keep always in mind that my SD cards are actually tapes and that I need to save recording time.”
And last, but not least, Cédric Chabuel recommends perfecting your listening skills. “Listen, listen, listen. Soak up every morsel in the other person’s story. Take the time to do it right, and above all listen to the way people tell their story. On Chemins de croix, for example, I listened intently as journalist Anne Panasuk told the story of the abuses against Indigenous communities. She spoke so well and with so much context that I said to myself, that’s how we have to tell this story.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to write a good podcast script. But with the right ingredients and plenty of instinct, it appears that success is a distinct possibility.