Listener-Oriented Episodes: The Key to Improving Podcast Listener Retention & Engagement

By Jeremy Enns

By Jeremy Enns

By Jeremy Enns

Imagine you’re attending a conference.

You’ve arrived early to a session featuring a conversation between two of the luminaries in your space so you could grab a front-row seat.

But as the lights dim and the speakers take the stage, something strange becomes apparent…

The chairs at the center of the stage have been positioned to face away from the audience.

“Maybe one of them has terrible stage fright,” you think to yourself as you glance around to see if anyone else in the packed auditorium is finding the setup as confusing as you are.

A few quizzical looks exchanged with other attendees confirms you’re not alone.

Regardless, you decide to settle in for the talk. It’s not like this was some kind of accidental oversight, after all… Right?

Thanks to the PA system, you can still catch every word of the conversation and the information that emerges from it is as illuminating as you hoped it would be.

And yet…

You can’t help but feel a sense of disappointment that what could have been an intimate shared experience between the speakers and the audience has been lost.

What’s more, it’s clear the two speakers have entirely forgotten that the audience is even there, at times rambling off into tangential anecdotes that you lack the context to understand.

As the conversation drags on, you find yourself growing restless.

Many attendees at the back of the auditorium have already started to quietly sneak out. If you weren’t stuck in the front row, you’d probably join them.

When the talk ends, the speakers get up and turn around, clearly tickled with the conversation they’ve just had.

At this point, the room is nearly empty.

Unfazed (or oblivious), they boldly proceed with a request.

“If you enjoyed this session, we’d love if you could rate this session through the conference app.

“We’re also doing another talk later today, and you can pick up each of our books at the booth at the back of the room.”

The session mercifully over, you get up from your seat and speed walk past the book booth without looking up, tapping the 3/5 star rating in your app and removing the speakers’ next session from your calendar as you exit the auditorium.

• • •

I’ll admit the above story might be a little absurd.

It’s hard to imagine a conference session actually proceeding with the speakers facing away from the audience, after all.

And yet for many (if not most) interview or conversation-based podcasts, this is exactly the vibe that is unknowingly being set.

I think of this as a lack of Listener Orientation.

And while you as a host may not be aware of it, your audience can sense it immediately.

Unlike a conference session, however, there’s no social pressure keeping them glued to their seats until you finish speaking, which means it can kill your ability to hook and retain new listeners, and thus, grow your show.

So how do you achieve (or improve) your Listener Orientation to attract and retain more listeners?

What Does it Mean to Create a Listener-Orientated Podcast?

At its core, creating a Listener-Oriented podcast is about addressing and including your audience in the content you share on your podcast.

About treating them as an equal (if silent) participant in every conversation.

Orientating yourself toward your listeners starts with a clear understanding of who your ideal audience is and why they’re listening in the first place.

Then framing your content in a way that aligns with their:

  • Current context
  • Existing knowledge
  • Goals & desires
  • Pain points, frustrations, and challenges

This alignment begins during the recording process and is then reinforced in post-production.

Let’s look at each.

Recording Listener-Oriented Podcasts

With a Listener-Oriented podcast, your role as a host is two-fold:

  1. Expert Guide — Helping them navigate and understand the unknown territory of the topic at hand.
  2. Personal Proxy — Acting as their voice in the conversation.

With a highly Listener-Oriented show, your audience feels as though you’ve somehow anticipated every question they would have asked, while also guiding the conversation in directions they would have never thought to take it… but in hindsight recognize as vital to their larger understanding of the topic.

The result is a deeply rewarding and insightful listening experience that keeps them coming back episode after episode.

In practice, crafting Listener-Oriented episodes boils down to:

  • Topic Selection — Choosing topics that align with what you know your audience needs (even if they don’t know it).
  • Question Selection — Knowing the questions to ask and the topics to explore that will best serve your listeners. Often, this means asking “dumb” questions on behalf of your audience… even if you already know the answer.
  • Context & Clarification — Pausing the conversation to zoom out and explain more about a concept, word, or topic that may not be widely understood.

​The Daily​, from the New York Times, is an excellent example of these principles in practice.

And it has to be.

The show’s mission is to share the biggest news stories affecting the world in a way that a large and diverse audience—with carrying levels of baseline knowledge of any given topic—can understand and connect with.

Given that the hosts and guest journalists spend their lives immersed deep in the weeds of these topics, presenting these often complex, technical, and multi-faceted stories in an accessible, engaging manner is no easy feat.

Their ability to do so consistently is a testament to their understanding of their audience and their ability to orient their show in their direction.

It also hints at the second part of the process, which comes in the edit.

Reinforcing Listener Orientation in Post-Production

Delivering a Listener-Oriented recording is the first step.

But what you do after the recording stops has an equal or greater impact on your ability to hook, retain, and connect with your listeners.

It all starts with your framing, which (ideally) begins as soon as a listener clicks play.

The Framing

Episode intros are the most overlooked and undervalued aspect of podcast creation.

Great intros increase the value of the entire episode by framing the topic in a way that your listeners:

  • Understand
  • Emotionally connect to
  • Perceive as valuable to themselves (and thus are willing to invest time & attention into)

They also do the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to convincing first-time listeners that the show as a whole is worth sticking with.

Unfortunately, many hosts waste the first few minutes of their episodes with:

  • Out of context pull-quotes from the guest that do little to hook listeners or explain the content
  • Pre-recorded show intros that play before each episode and do nothing to frame or set expectations for this episode in particular
  • Episode-specific intros that share at length what the episode is about… without connecting it back to why and which listeners should care

The good news is that improving the framing of your episodes is fairly straightforward, and can massively boost your listener retention.

The easiest way to both hook and retain listeners is by establishing contextual relevance.

Establishing Contextual Relevance

Contextual relevance is about positioning your episode as a bridge between your listeners’ current state or situation, and their desired end-destination.

Listener Orientation.png

This all starts with the first 10 seconds of every episode.

Instead of opening with a clip of your guest, write a short script for a cold open.

If that sounds daunting, you can make it dead easy by simply:

  1. Making a list of:
    • Who exactly will find this specific episode most valuable?
    • What is their current situation related to the topic?
    • What is there desired outcome related to the topic?
    • What are they struggling with that’s keeping them from getting there?
  2. Describe that situation.

Consider this example for a made-up interview about how to travel in a more environmentally responsible manner.

If you’re like me, there’s nothing quite like travel to spark new creative ideas, recharge your internal battery, and learn more about both yourself and the world.

And after several years of canceled or delayed trips, you’re itching to hit the road.

But there’s a catch.

Since your last trip, you’ve read a lot about the negative impacts that international travel can have, both on the environment (thanks to air travel) as well as local communities (thanks to Air Bnb).

So what do you do? Book the trip and try to ignore the negative consequences of your actions? Or minimize your impact by staying home and trying and find another way to scratch your travel itch?

Well it turns out, there might just be a third option.

And in this episode, we’re going to explore exactly how to travel in a socially and environmentally conscious way… and maybe even save some money along the way.

Stay tuned.

In less than 45 seconds (yes, I timed it), this intro script connects to the ideal listener on both an emotional and practical level by:

  1. Describing the situation they find themselves in (stuck at home with itchy feet)
  2. Acknowledging their desired end goal (traveling internationally)
  3. Articulating the challenge keeping them from their goal (worries about their impact)
  4. Promising a solution (the episode content)

As a result, there’s a good chance that we’ve earned enough trust of anyone who fits our ideal listener avatar for this episode for them to keep listening to at least the next five or ten minutes, if not the entire episode.

Establishing a clear and specific frame at the start of each episode detailing who and what the episode is for, and why it matters to them in particular will improve the Listener Orientation of your entire episode.

In fact, it works even if you weren’t particularly listener-oriented during the initial recording.

But if you want to take this concept further, you can borrow a page from narrative-style shows by adding interstitial narrative breaks providing further context and framing within your interviews.

This is something I used heavily in my last show, ​Build A Better Wellness Biz​, as a way to:

  • Summarize long-winded explanations of boring or complex topics
  • Provide context and supplemental information about why they matter
  • Transition smoothly between topics, especially after cutting a large chunk of the raw recording

​Here’s an example​.

Effective framing will improve your listener retention both within and across episodes.

But it works best when the content of the episode itself is highly and consistently aligned with the frame you’ve set.

This is where editing comes in.

The Edit

One of the golden rules of writing is that you should always aim to cut 30–50% off of your first draft.

The same applies to podcast episodes.

No matter how great as a whole, every interview has its ups and downs, its lulls, tangents, and fun but irrelevant anecdotes.

Being listener-oriented means understanding what in your recording is most valuable, relevant, and aligned with the frame you’ve established for the episode, and then removing everything else to allow that content to shine.

In the case of The Daily, which we discussed previously, this means boiling down weeks, months, or even years of research and reporting into a single, digestible, 25-minute episode.

Other highly-consumed shows are no different.

Popular hosts like Andrew Huberman and Tim Ferriss have normalized long-form interview episodes that routinely stretch past the 3-hour mark.

But what most listeners don’t see is that the raw interview recordings for these types of shows are often 8 or more hours long.

On a smaller (and more relatable) scale, my friend Jay Clouse, host of ​Creator Science​ regularly edits his 60-minute recordings down to a tight 30 or 40-minute finished episode.

In each of these cases, what’s presented in the finished product is the portion of the raw recording that is most relevant, engaging, and useful to the audience, and nothing more.

This process is always painful.

You’ll end up cutting a lot of useful, valuable, entertaining content.

But the content that remains will ultimately carry a higher value density for your listeners, encouraging them to keep coming back episode after episode.

Beyond content editing, producing listener-oriented episodes ensures that the finished product flows smoothly, removing awkward and distracting pauses, background noise, and crutch words.

The goal of editing, whether by cutting out large chunks of content or tiny distractions is to reduce the friction between your listeners and the value contained in your episodes.

The lower the friction, the further and faster your listeners will go with you.

Wrapping Up: The 80/20 of Listener Orientation

While it’s not always obvious, the most popular (and profitable) shows are always highly listener-oriented.

This isn’t to say that they sacrifice their hosts’ interests and curiosities in favour of being steered by the listeners.

As the host, you are the guide, after all, setting the vision and charting the course that you and your audience will follow as a community.

Instead, being listener-oriented is about deeply understanding and accounting for the people who are on the journey with you.

It’s about understanding and accounting for where they’re coming from, why they signed up for the journey in the first place, and the fears & challenges they’re experiencing along the way.

When you have this information about your audience, you’ll naturally improve your ability to pick relevant topics, ask the right questions, provide helpful context, and frame your episodes in a way that attracts and connects with more of your ideal listeners.

Which means more subscribers and more growth.

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