How to make a great Racket

How to make a great Racket

Start strong. Tell a story. Stop.
How to make a great Racket

→ Listen to this story on Racket.

“I have a dream.”

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade…”

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

We remember the quotable quotes, the memorable bits, the parts where orators’ voices swell and repetition imprints their ideas on our minds.

Yet that’s hardly how famous speeches tend to start. Those—from Martin Luther King Jr., US president John Kennedy, and Apple founder Steve Jobs—in fact, start out far more pedestrian:

“I am happy to join with you today…”

“I am delighted to be here…”

“I am honored to be with you today…”

Scarcely the lines we’d quote later, much less something that’d grab our attention in passing.

You’ve gotta grab their attention, fast.

But that was fine. If you were in the audience for those and other historic speeches, you didn’t have all the time in the world, perhaps, but you did have that half-hour or so set aside to listen. A few minutes of filler was fine.

Then the world sped up.

On the radio, something more interesting was just a dial turn away. So the news started putting less emphasis on “This is the BBC” and more on sound bites and quips that would grab our attention and keep us listening. They’d start a story right in the middle, then backtrack to add the foundational details once they already had our attention.

And that was on the radio, with a dozen or two stations to choose from. When someone’s listening to you on their phone, literally the whole world is just a swipe away.

You’ve gotta grab their attention, fast.

That’s how you can make better audio for the internet, on Racket or anywhere else.

Start strong.

So jump right in. Surprise people. Say something that takes them off-guard, that makes them want to keep listening, that says enough to make them want to know what happens. Put those quotable quotes and surprising statements up front, where they belong.

“So I definitely have analysis paralysis,” said Humble the Poet, right off the bat, in his most popular Racket recording. “We're here because of mystery,” starts Josh Constine’s talk, and if you weren’t originally here for the mystery, you are now. “You want excitement? Visit the first aid station…” opens Scott Monty’s Missing Bullet story, and your interest is already piqued.

It’s easy to want to save the best for last, or at least to set the stage and then give the most interesting details. That’s the standard story arc, where you build to a climax around ⅔ of the way through the story where everything suddenly comes together. And it’s still a great way to tell stories—only you have to grab people’s attention first.

That’s not something new to audio; it’s something the best fiction authors have done for centuries.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” began Orwell’s 1984, and you instantly knew everything was wrong.

“The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” And with that, Douglas Adams referenced the Christian Bible’s opening creation epic, added a humorous twist, and made you wonder what was next.

It’s why movies switched from slowly showing credits over opening scenes to jumping right into the action, why radio news now often starts with a soundbite, then a description of what’s happening, finally followed by the list of today’s top news stories that originally would have come first. They’re trying to grab your attention first, then expound when they have it.

“People don't have short attention spans,” writes Julian Shapiro. “They have short consideration spans: they must be hooked quickly.”

What can you say that’ll grab listeners’ attention, take them off guard, keep them from swiping to the next thing, hook them quickly? If you’re interviewing, what question can you ask first that’ll get listeners hooked, even if they don’t know your interviewee?

Say that first.

Intros later.

But perhaps you’d like to say hi, introduce yourself or your guest speaker, add some establishing facts and details?

That’s next.

“Are you a perfectionist? So am I. But I don’t think that perfectionism is the problem,” starts Patricia Leveque’s Racket with a question and follow-up that makes you want to keep listening. “Hi friends, it’s Patricia,” she then follows up, before resolving the issues she opened with.

Friendly banter, chats between friends, can be fun on podcasts when you’ve followed them for years, much like directors’ and casts’ commentary on special editions of the movies you love. But when you’re listening to a podcast or watching a film the first time, you want the real thing, not the banter. The Hi and welcome to the show only tempts you to skip to the next thing in your playlist.

Maybe you’d like to introduce your show or guests, add some extra details to your story, say something with a bit less energy than your core show. Add that in—just grab people’s attention first, then add the details.

That’s part of why Racket’s studio lets you chat with guests before you start recording. You can jump in the studio, get the intros and thank you’s out of the way, make sure everyone’s on the same page, then start recording—and stop right when you’re finished talking, saving the goodbye’s for after the recording’s stopped.

Jump in. Start strong. You can always dial the energy down and back up again later on.

Outline.

But don’t just jump in unprepared.

It can work well—sometimes something happens, you know exactly what you want to say, and all you need is a mic to get it out there.

Scripted audio can work well too, where you write out everything you want to say, first, then read or recite it like a book reading, similar to the audio editions of the New York Times or The Economist.

Then there’s the happy medium between the two: An outline. List out your key points and ideas, in the order you want to present them, or the questions you want to ask your guest with the most important ones highlighted.

“Outline your idea before you hit record,” recommends Eric Nordhoff. “Don’t take too long … but I do think it should be organized.” The outline’s a great place to list quotes you might want to reference—things you’d want to read directly instead of ad-libbing—along with stories that emphasize your point and calls to actions you’d like listeners to do after hearing your talk, he suggests.

You've got a story to tell—a narrative or set of questions, at least, and your job is to turn them into a story, one with a setting, plot, rising action, climax, and a resolution. Even an interview can have those elements, as you pry into the backstory, the problems the interviewee faced, and how they overcame. But odds are you'll get caught up in the moment, and forget the critical parts that would have taken your talk from good to great, if you don't have anything written down.

And at a minimum, the outline lends you confidence. You’ll have something to reference if you suddenly forget what you meant to say next, something to fall back on if the conversation dries up.

Be emotional.

Ever repeated the same phrase or word over and again while emphasizing different syllables? Grape_fruit_ sounds different from _Grape_fruit; “I love you” almost doesn’t mean the same thing as “I love you.” Do it long enough and words almost lose meaning, but a few iterations can reveal interesting variety to language.

And that’s the key advantage of audio over the written word. Include a joke or sarcasm in a blog post, and you’ll worry if people will get what you really meant. Tell the same thing out loud, and your tone and emphasis make it much more likely your listeners will get it.

That’s where the outline works best. It’s a framework for your talk, not a script. It gives you talking points while letting you figure out how to say in the moment. “Improvising during the conversation feels the most natural,” suggests Chad Moore.

As you’re talking, get into the story. Let your emotion show through. You’re you, not Siri. Improvise and play with words, see what fits, repeat yourself even until you hit the correct turn of phrase. Worst case, you could always delete this take and record a new one once you’ve figured out the perfect phrase, something that might only fall in place ask you let the words fall out.

That’s all, folks.

Then you’re done. You’ve told your tale. Stop recording and publish. Your storytelling job’s done; now it’s time to spread the word and share your Racket far and wide.

It’s easy to want to linger in the moment, to keep talking after you’ve already said your ideas, to let the timer run out instead of wrapping up when the ideas run out. With guests, there’s a human need to say bye and thank you, to finish your conversation with that person even if you’re done talking to listeners.

You’ve done so well grabbing and keeping people’s attention; no need to lose it now. Stop strong. There’s always next time. And you can chat with your guest more later, off the record.

In fact, you don’t need to ask for likes or remind people to listen next time. If you did well, they’ll hit like, spread the word, reference your talk the next time they’re talking about that topic with friends. They’ll be the first to listen next time, hoping this one’s as good as the last.

You’ve said your single thing. Save the rest for next time—and skip saying anything you’d skip over as a listener.

And that’s it.

Start strong, and grab people’s attention from the start.

Outline your ideas, and make sure to keep your talk focused.

Get emotional, let your feelings show through, make the most of what makes audio different from the written word.

Wrap up quickly, and finish as soon as the story’s over.

That’s how you’ll make a great Racket.

→ Listen to this story on Racket.


Now, it's your turn. Go make a Racket.