Puzzle Bait: How Podcasts Get (And Keep) Your Attention

You have just 30 seconds to lure--or lose--the listener. An Audible producer shares the secrets of quickly creating tension.

What makes a podcast great?

A successful narrative podcast does what any great story does: It causes the listener to feel hope or fear. Hope and fear stir curiosity — what on earth is going to happen to the central character? Is he going to die? Is she going to defeat the villain? By making us feel hope or fear, a story creates tension, a reason why we want to listen further. Without tension, the podcast becomes the digital equivalent of fishwrap.  

Audible producers know this well, after generating thousands of popular audiobooks. But books have an advantage over podcasts; books can spend pages, sometimes chapters luring a reader/listener in. They can afford to take us on a small journey before the tension is made clear, before the listener knows what he or she is supposed to hope for, or fear.

The most successful podcasts hook the listener within the first 30 seconds.

By contrast, the average length of a podcast is somewhere in the 12-20-minute range, so a producer doesn’t have the luxury of time to capture the listener — the most successful podcasts hook the listener within the first 30 seconds. In fact, many shows just jump into the drama without any introduction, which is an obvious acknowledgement of how competitive the marketplace has become, and how quickly you want to pin those ears to your show. 

NPR’s podcast Planet Money does that a lot. In the following episode, listen to how it jumps right in with: “We have a special guest warning today: ‘Hello, this is Richard Thaler … and the warning is that listening to this podcast may be a waste of your time.’”

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This is a pretty radical departure from the way public radio (or really, any radio) used to be. When I was working on NPR’s All Things Considered, I’d write or edit a straightforward introduction, like the one in this two-part story that I edited with Melissa Block a year ago or so, about Nebraska residents affected by the proposed installation of the hotly disputed Keystone XL Pipeline. This is a livelier-than-normal intro as we begin with a clip from Obama on the Colbert Report:

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Despite getting to the hook quickly, both intros include the pretty standard “who, what, where, and when,” and a set-up of what’s going to happen in the piece. Here’s another example of that in something I edited with WBUR reporter David Boeri. (Our piece won the 2012 National Murrow Award for investigative radio.) It’s about a 16-year-old girl who was charged with the murder of her infant and jailed for three years after police arguably coerced her into a false confession. After viewing a videotape of the confession made by police, which was later obtained by WBUR, a judge ruled the confession involuntary and prosecutors subsequently dropped criminal charges.

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When I stepped away from daily news, I had more freedom to play with intros. Here’s an example of a sort of hybrid intro, a statement that teases the story without describing it too much, and then morphs into a more traditional news lead. Our team, including myself and reporters Sarah Stuteville and Jessica Partnow, won a 2014 National Murrow Award for this one-hour documentary on young people in the former Soviet Union trying to protest the policies of Vladimir Putin. The protest was pretty unusual by our standards, which you learn quickly as host Brooke Gladstone opens with, “Picture this: A 22-year-old Ukranian woman wearing nothing but safety goggles, a crown of flowers, and a pair of tiny orange shorts. Oh, and she’s holding a chainsaw. She’s using it to cut down a towering wooden cross … “

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What we’re now seeing in the podcast world are intros — if you can even call them that — that totally skip over the descriptive “who, what, where, and when” in favor of something I’m coining here as “puzzle bait.” Puzzle bait is a question or a strange postulation that will hook the listener within 30 seconds or so. Take this example:

In the Strangers podcast episode “Elizabeth and Mary, Part 1,” narrator Lea Thau starts off by saying that she received an email from a woman who said this: “I have been inspired, by your show, to give a kidney to a stranger.” Wait, what? We begin the episode by wanting answers to a whole host of questions: Who on earth would donate a kidney to a stranger? What is the thought process that person went through to reach that decision? Is that person crazy?

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Then we confront a second, deeper, and possibly unconscious level of questions that evoke the tension: Is this person like me? Would I do the same thing? How will society judge me if I decide I would never give one of my kidneys to a stranger? 

The hope and fear I talked about before immediately kick in. The hope is that if, as you suspect, you’re one of probably the majority of humans who wouldn’t give a kidney to a stranger, you can find some justification for that decision from a moral and societal standpoint that will let you off the hook. The fear is that you won’t. So you listen. 

Here’s another example — an episode from the show Reply All, reported by Sruthi Pinnamaneni. It’s one of my favorites for many reasons, not the least of which is the real-world impact this story had, and the access the producers got to the central character. But that’s not what sucked me in at the outset. The puzzle that the hosts of Reply All bait us with from the start is this: “This is a story about destroying someone’s life completely — and making someone’s life better. And it’s the same person.”

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The podcast is supposed to be about the internet, and it is, but these are big, universal questions that have suction power on unsuspecting ears. 

This works with fiction podcasts, too. The first episode of Panoply’s production of The Message begins with the words, “Now, who wants to one hear one of the most highly classified — I’m talking top-secret — radio transmissions ever recorded?” 

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OK, who wouldn’t? And they don’t let you hear that transmission until well into the podcast. Puzzle bait.

Of course, there are a lot of other things that go into the making a great podcast besides creating hope and fear, “puzzle bait,” and universal questions. In nonfiction, the voices have to be authentic, the information credible and solid, and the editing tight so you don’t waste the listeners’ time. In fiction, the writing and editing have to be flawless, the acting superb, and the plot well wrought. It is very hard to do all of these things.

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