Crafting a compelling podcast episode description is just as crucial as the episode itself. If your description fails to convince especially new listeners to give your podcast a chance, they will likely move on to the other million options. A well-written description can mean the difference between a successful episode and one that gets lost in the feed. But how do you write an episode description that grabs attention and convinces listeners to tune in?
This was studied in Camilla Sager’s master thesis from the Centre for Journalism at the University of Southern Denmark, partly by mapping the existing knowledge about episode descriptions, and partly by thoroughly analysing a carefully selected sample of the best-performing podcasts in Denmark in 2021. In short, the literature review in the thesis concluded that there is limited research about what works in podcast episode descriptions. Furthermore, the thesis showed that there is a need for an actual guide for podcast practitioners who wish to grow their podcast audience.
Based on the master thesis as well as research-based knowledge, we have compiled five pieces of advice that may help writers save time and effort when creating episode descriptions in the future.
1. The episode title should capture the listener’s attention
”I don’t want to fuck you.” The first step is to make the listener stop scrolling down the feed when they see the title. One way of grabbing the listener’s attention is by using surprising words and quotes – as, for example, this episode title from the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet’s podcast ’Kvindetribunalet’ (The Female Tribunal). The word ‘fuck’ is unexpected in a podcast feed and prompts the listener to stop scrolling to find the answer and find out: Who does not want to fuck whom? And why?
If a title doesn’t grab the listener’s attention and make them curious within seconds, they’ll likely scroll on. The explanation is that because the brain is constantly bombarded with sensory information and cannot possibly process it all, it automatically filters out the familiar and what it expects. In other words, the brain reacts when it gets surprised. Imagine a cooker hood that has been running all day; you don’t notice its noise until it is turned off.
Consequently, all received information is part of a competitive relation – a zero-sum game about attention; only information that is considered relevant, interesting, or evoke an emotion is selected and prioritized for processing. This is precisely the reason why it’s a good idea to use surprising words and quotes. Using capital letters, hashtags, and other characters that are not commonly used in the feed can also be effective in attracting the listener. For example, question marks invite the listener to stop and answer the question, while exclamation marks create drama – and we know from the classical news criteria that people are drawn to conflict and sensation. Another useful trick is to include the names of famous people that the listener would want to know more about.
2. It must be clear what the episode is about
”Cecilie Erland and Sune Fischer are in the studio to provide an overview of three shootings in Copenhagen.” This sentence is from an episode description from the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet’s podcast ’Afhørt’ (Interrogated). While regular listeners may be familiar with ’Cecilie’ and ’Sune’, new listeners who do not know the concept might think: Who are they? And what do they have to say about the shootings? Worst case scenario, the confusion could cause them to search for another podcast that makes it crystal clear why they should spend their time listening.
If it is not clear who and what is at stake in the episode, it might scare away potential new listeners. If the title, episode description, and thumbnail picture are too vague or lack a common thread, the listener’s brain experiences cognitive dissonance – a term covering a psychological discomfort and instability caused by conflicting values, opinions, and actions. People will do much to avoid this state of mind, as it could potentially lead to, for example, increased stress levels. If cognitive dissonance occurs, the brain will flee to a place it understands better.
To avoid scaring away listeners, make sure your podcast is clear and cohesive. For example, you can add relevant information and titles, like in the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet’s podcast ’Bag Forbrydelsen – Mordet i Holsteinsgade’ (Behind the crime – The murder in Holsteinsgade), which reads: ”Hosts: Mette Fleckner, Ekstra Bladet’s crime section and Peter Kaae, writer and journalist.” Even if you don’t not know ‘Mette’ or ‘Peter,’ the clarification of their titles lets the listener know that they are competent and reliable in connection with dissecting a murder – including that in Holsteinsgade, as the title states. This does not mean that you need to include long background stories or specify the participants’ full resumes. Most people know, for example, who Brad and Angelina are. Just include enough information so that new listeners understand who and what is at stake as well as the value they will receive in return for the time they invest.
3. Use emotional language
”Claus Meyer’s confirmation marked the culmination of a childhood plagued by an alcoholic mother and a father who almost exclusively criticized his son. The childhood laid the groundwork for a life in constant pursuit of recognition. So, when Claus Meyer’s grand, prestigious project in New York almost capsized, he was terrified of being labelled a failure and fell into deep depression.”
This is the beginning of an episode of the DR podcast ’Mænd der knækker’, (Men who break), featuring Danish culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer. All the details help set an emotionally catching and dramatic frame that is image-creating and appeals to emotions. It activates the reader who becomes curious about Claus Meyer’s childhood, personality, and motivation. This is much more effective than if the text had read “Listen to Claus Meyer talking about how his childhood affected his adult life and work.”
Since people are essentially story-telling beings, an episode description that convey an emotional story will to a much larger degree be able to create listener conversions than if it consisted of basic facts about the episode’s content. This is precisely why it is good to add some extra sentences with detailed, descriptive, and figurative language – even though the general idea is that podcast descriptions should be short.
By using descriptive and figurative language that appeals to emotions, you can invite readers into the story even before they listen to the episode. The explanation is that it is easier for the brain to perceive and store messages that activate emotions and create ‘arousal.’ Therefore, it is beneficial to invest time in crafting vibrant, dynamic, and figurative language by using metaphors, alliteration, and three-step rockets – and to steer away from empty words and clichés that make the text boring, predictable and uninteresting.
4. Remember to credit
”Host: Anna Thygesen
Produced and edited: Rasmus Søgaard
Sound design: Leo Peter Larsen
Program head: Knud Brix”
This is how the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet’s podcast ’Kvindetribunalet’ (The Female Tribunal) is concluded: with a form of static credits. In many places, crediting is standard practice: articles have bylines, and movies have end credits. However, the master thesis concluded that there is still no standard form of credits in podcast episode descriptions. But it is a really good idea to credit the team behind the production, or at least include the name of the production company or an email address for the editorial office. This builds credibility as listeners will know that there are actual people who can be held responsible for the content.
Furthermore, credits might lure more listeners in. Like how we might be enticed to go to the movies if we see the name of a well-renowned instructor on the movie poster, recognizing the names of podcast producers and sound designers we like might encourage us to listen to an episode. In the example above, listeners who may not be familiar with ’KvindeTribunalet’ (The Female Tribunal) might recognize the host Knud Brix and thus be lured into playing the episode.
A tip is to develop a fixed model for credits that can easily and quickly be copied into the end of the episode description. It saves time and ensures a consistent layout across episodes.
”My interest was sparked by an ad in which the woman, who sells sex all the time, is replaced, but the profile text remains the same.” This is an excerpt from an episode description of DR’s podcast “Det brændte bordel” (The Burned Brothel). And even though it is grammatically correct, there seems to be an error. In the sentence, the comma is placed after ‘all the time’ which indicates that the woman is selling sex all the time. However, it is more obvious – and also the case, if you listen to the podcast – that the episode is about the fact that the sex-selling woman of the ad is replaced all the time. And so, that the comma should be after ’all the time.’ This is a minor mistake, but it is misleading, and that is a problem. Because, if a text is full of errors, it signals that the producer might not have made an effort with the actual episode, and why should anyone then listen to it when there are so many great alternatives?
You could easily argue that an episode description works as an advertisement selling a product – that is, the episode. If customers discover a mistake in the advertisement, it negatively affects both perception of the brand and the willingness to buy. A study with 1000 respondents, carried out by SurveyMonkey, showed that 81% of the surveyed women answered that they were less likely to buy a product that was advertised with sloppy grammar and misspelled words. 77% of the men said the same. So not only does a sloppy ad reflect poorly on the brand, it also affects the bottom line.
Therefore, it is a good idea to prioritise an extra round of proofreading – either internally or by hiring an external to give the text a loving and corrective hand.
Put yourself in the place of the listener
Before placing the final period, we would like to encourage you to always put yourself in the place of the listener and try to scroll through the feed. If the episode description turns out to be inadequate, confusing, or if it is inconveniently cut over by “show more”-dots, it would be a good idea to rearrange the characters. Use the five pieces of advice for inspiration when creating and as a final quality check to increase the chance of making a good first-hand impression when podcast meets potential listeners – to make them want to hear more.
About & litterature
About the master thesis
The master thesis on which this article builds is written by Camilla Sager, student of cand.mag. in journalism at the Center for Journalism at the University of Southern Denmark in the spring of 2022, as a continuation of an internship at Heartbeats. Lene Heiselberg was supervisor, and Tine Maria Borresø was examiner of the thesis.
Camilla Sager is the owner of Koncept Kommunikation, a company that specializes in helping small and medium-sized businesses improve their communication through web design, newsletters, social media, and photo, video, and sound production. She holds a professional bachelor’s degree in communication from the Danish School of Media and Journalism and a cand.mag. in journalism from the University of Southern Denmark. In 2021, she interned as a podcast producer at Heartbeats and has since worked as a freelancer in the same capacity.
Lene Heiselberg is assistant professor, PhD at the Center for Journalism and affiliated with the Media Research and Innovation Center. She studies how journalism affects the recipients with qualitative methods and psychophysiological methods, as e.g., EDA (perspiration measurements). Lene joined SDU in August 2019 from national broadcaster DR where she held a position as a media researcher focusing on the transition from broadcast to streaming, target group behaviour and program tests of, for example, dramas, lifestyle formats, and journalism.
Andersen, H. (19 September 2016). Kognitiv dissonans. Collected from Den Store Danske: https://denstoredanske.lex.dk/kognitiv_dissonans
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Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House.
Hjortsø, A., Kirkvåg, N., & Rud, M. L. (2020). Podcasterens håndbog. Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur.
Lang, A., Dhillon, K., & Dong, Q. (1995). The effects of emotional arousal and valence on television viewers’ cognitive capacity and memory. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, pp. 313-327.
Mozafari, A., Amani, E.-A., Kunemund, A., & Trevor, F. (13 November 2017). Impressions of businesses with language errors in print advertising: Do spelling and grammar influence the inclination to use a business? Current Psycology, vol 38, pp. 1721-1727.
Sorman, A. (6 July 2017). SurveyMonkey. Collected from Can you put a price on good grammar? Study says yes.: https://www.surveymonkey.com/curiosity/can-you-put-a-price-on-good-grammar-study-says-yes/
Boost your podcast’s listenership by using this guide to craft podcast episode descriptions. It contains five pieces of advice and questions to help you follow them. This guide will save you time and frustration when writing or giving feedback on a text. Save it on your virtual or physical desktop – it’s formatted in A4 for printing.
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