If you want to grow, you need to hook listeners and keep them coming back.
The best way to do that?
Create great episodes.
Of course, this begs the question: What exactly makes for a great episode?
And if there was a simple rubric, wouldn’t everyone just follow it and we’d be awash in great episodes?
Well, I don’t know how many podcasts you listen to, but we’re kinda awash in great podcast episodes these days.
And if you look closely, you’ll recognize that these shows do in fact have a rubric they follow.
In fact, great episodes almost always feature 8 specific elements that ensure their episodes consistently resonate with listeners and keep them coming back.
The good news?
These components don’t rely on having a budget or production team.
Which means they’re just as accessible to you.
Learn to apply them to your episodes and you’ll instantly elevate the quality, resonance, and retention of your show.
So what are they?
The 8 Elements of Highly Engaging Episodes
1. Central Problem or Challenge
Every episode should be structured around a core problem or challenge that your audience faces.
In narrative-style episodes, this challenge is likely facing—and explored through—the subject of the story.
In education-oriented interviews or solo shows, the core problem should be one that the listener is facing which the host and/or guest will help them resolve.
Within interview shows, your job as the host is to draw out and highlight the problems and challenges in a guest’s story that reflect and speaks to the core challenge or problem the episode is built around.
Stakes are what make a listener care about a given topic.
In short, stakes refer to what the listener (or subject of the episode) stands to gain or lose by overcoming… or failing to overcome the problem that has been posed.
Stakes almost always exist within an episode and are often implied by the problem (if they don’t exist, why talk about the problem in the first place?), but most hosts don’t specifically frame the episode around them, which is a missed opportunity to hook listeners and make them care about the topic.
This is often best done in a scripted intro or cold open, but it can also be very effective to get the guest to articulate the stakes as they see them, especially through their personal story and experience.
Tension is the essential ingredient in holding attention throughout the course of an episode.
It’s often created through the use of Open Loops, where the host will introduce a topic or question… but then withhold important pieces of information until later in the episode, keeping the audience listening to fill the gap.
This tension might last for a few seconds or stretch over an entire episode when a loop that was opened in the intro is finally closed toward the end.
The core problem or challenge of an episode, along with the stakes, ideally creates a throughline of tension that runs through the entire episode.
Open Loops are just one form of tension, however.
Another primary source of tension can emerge from the exchange between the host(s) and guest(s).
Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean confrontation or argument (though it certainly can).
Some of the most delicious tension is introduced by asking the guest questions they’ve never encountered before, challenging (respectfully) their point of view, posing a hypothetical scenario for them to talk through, and asking them to use specific concrete examples to ground their ideas in.
Most hosts shy away from tension out of fear of putting off their guests.
But if you want to improve your episodes, you need to learn to lean into it.
Tension will keep people listening through an episode, but without a satisfying resolution, they’ll be left with a bad taste in their mouths, making them unlikely to come back for another episode.
Resolution might mean answering the question posed in the framing of the episode, leaving listeners with a concrete map of how to overcome the problem, or fulfilling the promise made by the episode’s title and setup.
If the question or problem hasn’t been (and perhaps can’t be) answered, resolution means being intentional about the open questions it leaves listeners with, guiding them to something specific to reflect on.
More than anything, resolution is about being intentional about the emotional state you leave your listeners in.
Too many episodes leave this entirely up to chance, simply ending the episode wherever the interview ends.
Crafting episodes with satisfying resolutions requires more attention.
This might mean cutting out a significant chunk of an interview when the guest drops the mic 3/4 of the way through the recording, bringing a satisfying resolution and payoff to the topic that was being discussed.
Or, it might mean scripting and recording an outro that ties up the loose ends and guides the listener to a specified idea, feeling, or reflection.
Music and production elements play an important role in bringing the episode to a satisfying resolution as well.
However you achieve it, your job is to tell the listeners—through your editing, scripting, and production—how you want them to feel, ideally in a way that leaves them wanting to come back for more.
Characters aren’t just an element of narrative or fictional style shows.
In fact, educational interview (and even solo) shows are riddled with them.
Every guest is a potential character to be developed.
As are you as the Host (and a central one at that).
As is the listener.
And while listeners might seek out an episode based on the topic, what causes them to understand, connect, and resonate with the ideas and stories being discussed are the people.
Specifically, they need to be able to place the “characters” relative to themselves.
In order to process the information or story a guest (or you for that matter) is sharing, they need to be able to know:
- Do I like or dislike this person?
- Is their life experience relevant to mine?
- Does this person have the same values I do?
- How are we alike? How are we different?
It’s your job as a host to help them answer these questions as quickly as possible.
Whether through scripting or the responses you elicit from your guests (likely with the help of some intentional editing), within a few minutes of listening, listeners should be able to knowingly think to themselves, “Ah, this is the type of person who…”
Then, once the characters have been established, you go deeper.
Characters form the basis and reference point to establish connection.
But to really resonate with the content, listeners need to see some part of themselves in the characters, and perhaps feel seen themselves by the characters (especially you as the host).
This is true even if they generally dislike or disagree with the characters as a whole.
Engineering this type of resonance requires you to surface some combination of the characters’ relevant:
- Goals, aspirations & motivations
- Doubts & fears
- Decisions & choices
- Mistakes & failures
- Thought processes
Each of these presents a potential emotional hook for listeners to latch onto and connect to.
When seeking these qualities out, note that trite, rehearsed, or surface-level responses won’t do the job.
You’re looking for the real stuff and you’re probably going to have to work for it.
Once you learn to surface these qualities in your guests consistently, however, the reward is deeply resonant, connective episodes, regardless of whether you’re talking about the minutia of maritime law, business leadership, lost love, or childhood trauma.
Neither characters nor ideas exist in a vacuum.
One of the most overlooked components of great episodes is fleshing out the setting in which these elements take place.
This might be done by highlighting the key physical elements of a guest’s (or your personal) story by asking them to go deeper and flesh out the scene with descriptive words that help a listener understand the context.
On an intellectual level, establishing the setting can be done by laying out the state of the world in the forces that are arrayed across it as related to the topic at hand.
Along with defining the characters, painting a clear picture of the setting in which they exist helps listeners position themselves in the context of the conversation, allowing them to understand, remember, and connect with the content more deeply.
8. Surprise (Often Accompanying Insight)
Regardless of topic or format, every great episode has at least one moment of genuine surprise for the listener… and ideally the host and guest(s) as well.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this element of your episodes.
In some cases, surprise could mean a genuinely surprising or shocking revelation or plot twist.
More likely, however, it’s the moment where the dots connect for a listener and they experience a small “aha” or “huh, that’s interesting” moment that shifts their view and understanding of the world, even in the smallest of ways.
These are the payoffs that make listening to an episode worth it, and they are the backbone of every great episode, often with everything else in the episode leading up to, highlighting, exploring, and enforcing them.
Your goal should be to surface at least one of these moments in every episode you produce.
The best way to do so?
Follow your own curiosity and push your guest well beyond their rehearsed answers into new territory.
Applying These Elements to Your Show
Chances are, each of these elements has organically cropped up at some point in your past episodes.
If you listen back through your best or most popular episodes, chances are you’ll be able to spot them.
Your job now is to increase the frequency with which they appear in your show.
As you go listen through or edit your next few episodes, keep the checklist on hand and ask yourself: How many of the components are present?
Do the same when listening through your personal favourite shows.
Pay attention to what the host does to surface and highlight these elements and note how you might do the same.
If you script all or part of your episodes, work these elements into your scripts.
If your show revolves around interviews, design and experiment with different questions (particularly follow-up questions) to surface them.
Regardless of how you get there, learn to recognize these elements and the potential for them, and lean into them every chance you get.
Your listeners… and your business will thank you.