It’s undeniable: Some podcasts are more intriguing than others.
Certain shows have the power to seize listeners’ attention, entice them to play every available episode in the backlog, and inspire them to recommend the show to friends.
Meanwhile, an entire galaxy of shows flirt with obscurity and struggle to build a significant following.
What, exactly, do these memorable, gotta-have-more shows do differently? They use storytelling hooks.
These narrative techniques draw listeners deeper into the story and compel them to invest in the characters.
After all, stories are the fundamental way humans intake information and develop an understanding of the world. Our brains are conditioned to respond to them.
Storytelling hooks are how all your favorite podcasts keep winning the hearts and minds (and ears?) of new listeners, even as the competition keeps growing in number.
But hey, there’s good news: You can use these same techniques to make your show more intriguing. The rest of this article covers three of the most effective ways to hook your listeners.
Nail the introduction
According to data from NPR, “a typical podcast loses between 20 to 35 percent of its listening audience in the first five minutes.”
Without a doubt, your introduction is the most important part of your podcast. Those crucial first few minutes are when listeners decide if the rest of the episode is worth their time.
Crafting a good introduction requires setting clear expectations for the audience, teasing the best content of the episode, and creating momentum toward the next part of the show.
That’s a lot to accomplish in a few minutes. However, there are a few tried and true ways to equip your opening with hooks:
Create an open loop.
If you have an episode with a guest, open the show with something profound they said during the interview. Then follow up with some backstory about the guest and the topic of the episode.
This is essentially a teaser trailer, because it gives your audience a sniff of the awesome content that’s waiting inside, but makes them wait to enjoy the full course.
Now you’ve created an open loop, which our brains interpret as an incomplete tasks.
Turns out, the human mind naturally hones in on open loops until they’re closed.
So if your teaser is good enough, you’ll hook your audience to listen to the rest of the episode to find out more about the awesome stuff your guest said.
Ask a rhetorical, compelling question.
Ever heard a question that you immediately agreed with, or made you want to learn more?
Chances are the answer is yes. This type of hook is called a rhetorical question, and they’re great at simultaneously creating agreement and stirring curiosity. That’s why you hear them used so often in the beginning of newscasts, infomercials, articles, and yes, podcasts.
The trick is not to settle for any ol’ question. You’ve got to make sure what you’re asking is both compelling to your listener and relevant to the content of that particular episode.
Find a rhetorical question that checks both boxes, and you’ve got yourself a formidable hook for your story.
Dive right in.
Novelists and screenwriters alike will tell you that exposition is typically a bad thing. Taking time to explain the backstory taxes the audience’s attention. Plus, it’s boring because nothing is happening.
If your show is a full-blown narrative, like S-Town, you could hook your audience by diving directly into the story. NPR’s Steve Inskeep provides an excellent example of this technique in his story about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The episode opens with the barest of explanations. The moment moves quickly as Steve knocks on the door of someone’s house. There’s immediate tension. Will someone open the door? What will they say?
The audience is on the edge of their seat. They have to know more. They’re hooked.
Be warned, this technique is more advanced than the previous two. You’ve really got to be an experienced storyteller — and have a great story — to make this one work.
Still, if you can pull it off, this is one of the best hooks around.
Build some tension
No story is complete without conflict. The hero / heroine must overcome something to make the climax of the narrative satisfying. Otherwise the whole thing feels unearned, like the stakes were never that high.
Stories need conflict because people respond to tension. There’s science to back this up.
Research has indicated that when people experience tension in the context of a story, their body releases oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter.
In some experiments, oxytocin has been shown to increase empathy, which means people are more likely to understand the characters’ emotions in the story and fall deeper under the narrative’s spell.
So to make your podcast more compelling, build in tension. It’s a storytelling hook with biological backing.
If you’re interviewing a guest, take time to examine the hardships they’ve gone through to get where they are. If you’re solving a problem, focus on the pain the problem causes before you provide a solution.
And of course, if you’re telling an epic tale, make sure to detail the struggles of the hero/heroine before they reach the promised land.
Develop some characters
Building tension into your podcast isn’t a standalone technique; it’s more like a one-two punch.
You see, people will indeed feel more empathetic when tension arises in a story, but your audience needs characters to invest in. Otherwise, there’ll be no one to identify with.
Character development is a huge topic, to say the least. So this post isn’t going to give you a dissertation on the subject. We’ll just cover the highlights.
The basics of character building include telling someone’s backstory (specifically, their struggles) conveying they are authentic and vulnerable (basically, a real person) and showing how the character works to overcome their obstacles.
Since character-building is itself a narrative hook, think of each of these techniques as a mini-hook. They all fit together to form a more complete, more effective draw for the audience.
Anyone can become a character in a story. Prime candidates include the subjects of your story, your guests, or even yourself.
Marc Maron — along with many other hosts — does a remarkable job of building his character by being vulnerable and authentic with his audience. So the script flips a bit. Rather than cheer for someone in a story, the audience cheers for the storyteller himself.
Edison Research found that “rookie” podcast listeners (people who have only been listening to podcasts for six months or less) only finished an episode 41% of the time.
“Veteran” listeners who have consumed podcasts for three years or more did so 71% of the time.
It’s harder to hook new listeners because they have more choice.
Of course, there are other ways to make your show more appealing and grow your audience. Getting a good microphone and focusing on audio quality is critical. So is choosing the right podcast music and sound effects.
However, the stories you tell are always the most important thing to listeners. Becoming a master storyteller can take decades of practice. But using the three hooks covered in this post will help you start telling better stories much faster.