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Why Podcasts Are Powerful Learning Content

by | Dec 14, 2022

This afternoon, I tried listening to an audiobook about blockchains.

I shut it off after 15-minutes. Not because the content was dull (woo, merkle trees). I shut it off because the audiobook format wasn’t working for me. The recording was stiff, over-produced, and the tone felt…forced.

This got me thinking…how can I successfully listen to a 3-hour Tim Ferris podcast no prob, but can’t stomach 15-min of an audiobook?

Since audiobooks and interview podcasts are both used frequently for learning, I decided to do a deeper analysis.

Audiobooks vs. interview podcasts

First, I wanted to understand the core differences between audiobooks and podcasts. Why do I find podcasts more engaging for learning? Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences:

An audiobook is a word-for-word audio recording of a written book. They are:

  • Recorded in a studio by a professional voiceover actor
  • Spoken with perfect grammar, with zero “um” fillers
  • 10-hours in length, on average
  • A one-way channel of communication (one human sharing information with no interruptions)
  • Originally written for the purpose of reading the text (not speaking/listening)
  • Costs about $12-$25 per book

An interview podcast is an unscripted audio recording, typically with two people; an interviewer and an expert. They are:

  • Sometimes recorded with professional audio equipment, but other times they’re just lofi Zoom calls
  • Spoken with natural language, tons of filler words, and imperfect grammar
  • 39-minutes in length, on average
  • A two-way channel of communication (one human asking questions, the other human responding with expert answers)
  • Unscripted, natural conversation, ideal for listening
  • Typically free to listen

The key differences? Podcasts are shorter, informal, and use two-way communication patterns that work well for human brains.

Podcasts provide a natural format for auditory learning

You’ll never hear me say “X is better for learning than Y.” Everyone learns differently. Our understanding of the human brain is far too immature to make such a pointed claim.

But I will claim that podcasts provide a more natural format for human learning. And for me personally, interview podcasts are a more effective medium for learning. Anecdotally, they keep my brain engaged for longer time intervals and are better at helping me retain information.

Here’s why podcasts are effective for learning:

  • The natural, two-way conversational style fits with how the human brain consumes information. Learning through natural speech is a core biological advantage of our species. We’ve been doing it for 1M+ years (far longer than written words). Our brains are still primed to learn from each other, in natural conversations. It may sound counter-intuitive, but informal chatter, laced with filler words and imperfect grammar, can actually be an advantage for auditory learning.
  • Well-timed questions help boost audience learning. This is the key ingredient to a quality learning experience. A good podcaster asks the right questions, at the right time. They understand their audience’s knowledge level, and can artfully guide the expert toward clarification. (Scroll below for more on this point and how you can use this in your learning design)
  • The short length and free cost allow listeners to experiment and find the best resource for them. There are 850,000+ active podcasts right now. This means you can look around to find your favorite podcast format, personalities, guests, etc. If you aren’t vibing with a podcast, you can quickly pivot to another with no cost. In comparison, audiobooks are expensive. Once you commit to buy, you feel stuck and obligated to power through the last 9-hours and 45-minutes.

How podcasters create powerful learning content

Experts aren’t very good teachers. They’re often so deeply knowledgeable about their topic, they’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to be a n00b.

That’s where the podcaster becomes a learning designer. They magically extract key information from the expert, then simplify the information so any beginner can understand.

Podcasters create powerful learning content by knowing when and how to ask the right questions.

They are highly skilled at creating learning material on-the-fly. They know their audience. They’ve done their research on the expert. And they know how to guide the conversation for optimal clarity and learning.

You’ll hear top-tier podcasters say things like, “Let’s pause for a second and go back to X. Just in case our audience isn’t familiar, can you explain X a bit more?”

This awareness of both the conversation and the audience, is what makes podcasters such effective learning designers. By asking good questions, at the right time, the audience is rewarded with a powerful, organic learning experience.

Learning design tips you can try

What can podcasting best practices teach us about learning design? Here are a few ideas to try for your next learning content project:

1. Make your content sound more organic

Many training videos are stiff and overcalculated (kind of like an audiobook). Video scripts are often written to be read, not spoken.

To make your video feel more organic, write scripts based on natural speech patterns. Try using Loom to record a video of yourself (or your SME). The tool creates a downloadable word-for-word transcript of every recording. From the transcript, analyze the language and sentence structure. This will help you write better video scripts that flow like natural human speech.

2. Know your audience (and your SME)

As a learning designer, you’re the connector between your audience and SME. To know your audience, think like a marketer. Try these strategies to understand what makes your audience tick.

Knowing your SME requires personal research and rapport-building. Podcasters dedicate hours to researching their guests. Before you speak with your SME, know their position in the company, their motivations at work, their role/responsibilities. You can also ask your colleagues for helpful anecdotes or do some light digging online.

The more you know up front, the better you’ll be able to build rapport and extract quality information your audience will connect with.

3. Plan your questions strategically to guide the conversation

This takes practice. Most podcasters have a list of questions they’re going to ask and know how they’re going to guide the conversation.

As you build your learning content, think through your questions strategically. Make sure they flow naturally, as a genuine human-to-human conversation would. Be willing to pivot to more useful topics if they surface on their own.

Not sure which questions to ask? There are plenty of good podcast-related resources online, like thisthis, and this.

4. Try recording a podcast as a final learning deliverable

In learning design, we often conduct a SME interview, then translate that information into formal learning content (video, animation, eLearning).

Instead, think of how you can use your SME interview as the learning deliverable. Maybe it’s not a traditional podcast, but a recorded Zoom session you share out with your stakeholders.

Heads up, be careful trying this idea. You’ll need to have top-shelf interviewing skills to make sure your final content is 100% valuable to your audience. You don’t want to bore your audience with a long-winded 60-min interview.

To improve your interviewing skills, start thinking of yourself as a podcaster when you practice. Ask good questions, make it interesting for your audience, and guide the conversation so it’s optimal for learning.

(Admittedly, I haven’t tried this idea yet, so this is more of a ‘theoretical’ suggestion. But it’s on my list!)

Remember, podcasters are great learning designers because they know when and how to ask the right questions. Do your research, keep it natural, and get really good at asking questions. This combination of tactics will help you create powerful learning experiences your audience will love.

Happy building.

About the Author:

Andrew DeBell is a learning experience strategist and content developer on the customer education team at Atlassian. Connect with him on LinkedIn for more.