March, 2015: Podcasts are exploding in popularity. It’s easier than ever to start a podcast and put it online, but just because you record something and share it doesn’t mean that anyone will listen or care. If you want to grow an audience, engage your listeners, and make a podcast that stands out, you need to have the right mindset. When most people talk about starting a podcast, the conversation is usually focused on gear. I will be covering gear in the next episode, but for this first episode, my friend Sean McCabe joins me to talk about the mindset that will set you up for long term success in podcasting. In this episode, we discuss why I decided to start this podcast, who this show is for, and what topics I’ll be covering in future episodes. We also talk about the benefits of podcasting, why preparing takeaways is the key to a successful show, why your first five listeners matter the most, how long your show should be, the importance of showing up consistently, and more.
For my backstory and more about why I'm starting this podcast, check out the trailer for this show. My guest for this first episode is Sean McCabe, who produces online courses for creative professionals at seanwes.com.
Aaron: Let’s talk about how we met. It was at a Dribbble meetup in fall 2013. We got introduced and you said you wanted to start a podcast. I asked what it was going to be about, and you said design and creativity. Why did you want to start a podcast?
Sean: I had a lot of experience with client work, especially in the design world, and I was starting up my own business, but I had a lot I wanted to share on client work and professionalism in general. The reason I hadn’t done it before that point was because I wanted to be out of client work before starting a podcast about it. I wanted to do a podcast where I talked about design, client work, and professionalism, all in the context of business and creativity.
Aaron: At the time, I was very interested in learning about those things. When we started the podcast, you were—and still are—very focused on providing value to the listeners. I was still in learning mode. I was more interested in learning and I was less focused on providing value.
I've learned that when you start a podcast, you need to think about providing something valuable to the people listening to you.
Sean: Now, when you say providing value, what do you mean? What’s the alternative?
Aaron: In a lot of podcasts, I see that they’re not focused on what they’re giving, it’s more like they’re just hoping for attention. They’re not thinking about what the audience is going to get out of listening.
Sean: It’s kinda like, “We’re just gonna show up and we’re gonna talk,” but they’re not thinking about what they’re going to give the listeners in exchange for their time, or the reason they’re showing up and talking.
Aaron: Exactly. You have to ask yourself: What is someone going to take away from this podcast? When you start with that question, it changes everything.
Sean: For this episode, we’re talking about who you are, who I am, why we’re doing this, and how podcasts changed out lives. What people might not know is that you started with an outline. We’re starting off with who you are, how I fit into this, why someone should start a podcast, who is the show for, what topics you’re going to cover in future episodes, and at the end you have takeaways. So you’re coming into this asking yourself, “Why should someone listen to this? Who am I trying to reach, and what am I going to give them?” I like how you’re starting this. Most people just jump straight into the gear. “Oh, you want to start a podcast? Let’s talk about mics.” I like that you’re taking one step back even further than that, and asking, “Why are you doing this?”
1. You can build an audience
Aaron: First, you can build an audience. You’ll become known as an expert in your field if you share what you’ve learned. We know Sean as an expert hand-letterer because he’s podcasted about it and written a whole course about how to make a living as a hand-letterer.
I was doing a little reading yesterday in preparation for this show, and I came across an article about why you shouldn’t start a podcast. The post basically said, “Podcasts aren’t a very effective way to reach people.” A bunch of people left comments saying, “But we found and started trusting you because of your podcast.” So I do think podcasting is a very effective way to build trust with your listeners.
Sean: It’s very intimate. I don’t know about you, I think you have pretty good mic technique, but I’m about three inches away from my microphone. How many people do you allow to be three inches from your ear? I’d think most of them are pretty close to you, so it does have this kind of intimacy.
2. You’ll learn more about whatever it is you’re starting a podcast about
Sean: Hang on; I thought you had to be an expert to teach stuff on a podcast.
Aaron: Would you call me an expert at podcasting?
Sean: I think of you as one.
Aaron: Right, but that’s mostly because I started a website about podcasting and you know I’ve worked on podcasts full time for over a year now.
There are still so many things I don’t know about podcasting. There are so many more things I’m going to learn because I’m starting this podcast about podcasting.
This applies to anything you start a podcast about: You’re going to learn more about it.
How many episodes of the seanwes podcast have you done now, 160? Did you have any idea when you started of all the different topics you were going to cover? All the things you were going to learn about and share?
Sean: No way. Not even close. I had a few topics prepared, but there was no way I had 160 episodes of information to share with people, all I did was start off with a commitment to show up and podcast.
Aaron: Knowing that you had to show up and podcast twice a week put you in a learning mindset; as you’re going through the week, you’re paying attention to things, you’re writing stuff down, and you’re thinking about what would be good to put in your podcast.
Sean: It changes your mindset. I’m glad you brought up the learning thing. So many people think, “I shouldn’t start a podcast. I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not expert enough.” You’re saying start a podcast to learn.
I’ve had my mindset changed because I started a podcast. Everything is an opportunity to teach something. You see the world in a different sense; this is something that I could teach. This is something I could bring to the show.
3. Starting a podcast will help you make new friends
Aaron: Another great reason to start a podcast is you’ll make new friends. Sean and I met because he was interested in starting a podcast. It turned into a close relationship that has benefited me in so many ways. In fact, he built a whole online community around his podcast. Tell me a little bit about that.
Sean: The Community is a group of people who are, essentially, entrepreneurs—people in various stages of wanting to forge their own path, starting their own business, do their own thing, freelance, sell products, or teach other people. Maybe they’re still in a day job, but they’re working towards that. The Community is a bunch of people who have similar mindsets of sticking with their values, professionalism, and encouragement. It’s a very positive atmosphere. We stream all of the shows on the seanwes network live to the Community. Every weekday we have a show, there’s a topic, and everyone comes together to discuss that topic. We also have the live chat and mobile app available 24/7, so there’s people constantly connecting and discussing things.
Aaron: This all happened because you decided to start a podcast. I know you had Twitter and Instagram followers, and people who emailed you, and that’s all great, but think about how many people have met and become good friends because of your podcast. You’re one of my clients now, but I’ve met other Community members, including Adam Martin, that have become clients as well.
I’ve met so many people just from this one podcast. If you think about providing value and you care about your listeners, even if you just have 20 listeners in the beginning, get to know them and open yourself up to growing those relationships. It can be life-changing.
Sean: You were talking about number of downloads, or someone was saying that podcasting is not really effective; but podcasts are so engaging. It’s very intimate. If you have 20 listeners, that’s incredible. That’s 20 people that allowed you to come three inches from their ear. You probably don’t have that many people in your life that are willing to listen to you, so for the people just starting out, don’t get caught up in the numbers.
I say show up every day for two years, and don’t expect to see any results in that time. I didn’t discover some of the best, and my favorite, podcasts and TV shows until at least two years into it. I didn’t listen or watch from the pilot episode, like maybe some people are doing with this show or TV shows. A lot of the ones that end up being my favorites have been around for a few years by the time I listen. I get excited and I go back and I binge listen or I binge watch all of the episodes and I’m really into it. Now, I’m engaged.
I remember this one podcast, I went back and listened to all of it—I think it was 90 or 100 episodes. They had this community (this was before I had my own community) and I was ready to join. I was so on board with what they were talking about. By the time I caught up, he’d been doing it about two years, and he said, “We’re moving on. We’re going to be doing other things. We’re not going to be doing the podcast anymore, thanks for listening.” I was so disheartened. I felt so let down. I had just discovered it, it was so new to me.
Of course for him, he’d been showing up for two years. It felt like he’d been doing it forever. That’s what it feels like when you’re a podcaster or you’re a blogger and you’re showing up and you’re not getting those downloads or you’re not getting those numbers.
Even if it feels like you aren’t getting results or as many downloads as you'd like to have, keep going. Do it for the people that are going to discover you in two years.
Aaron: Do it for the five people that are listening and really like what you’re saying.
Sean: They’re your ambassadors! If you don’t care about those people because the numbers aren’t big enough, you’re never going to get there because those people are the ones that are going to spread the word.
Aaron: That leads to a better understanding of the people in your audience. If you start a podcast with them in mind and engage with the people that are responding—having conversations and asking them questions—you’re going to start to learn what they’re struggling with, what they’re having a hard time with, what they like about your show, and maybe what they don’t like about it.
If you’re open to that conversation, you can start to refine and tailor your content to the people giving you feedback. Sean, people think you read minds because they ask a question and then you actually listen. People in the chat go crazy and ask, “How’d you know I was thinking about that?” and you say, “Well, you asked the question yesterday.”
The key to a successful podcast or blog is doing it for the reader, not just showing up and writing or talking about only what you want to write or talk about.
Which makes total sense when you think about it; you’re not the one that’s going to be reading your blog posts, the other people are! You want to write or podcast about what they want to hear.
Sean: I still have this mindset. We have hundreds of people in the Community, I have nearly a million downloads on the podcast, and I’m still expecting no results. To me, the seanwes podcast is just getting started—we’re only 18 months in. We haven’t even started yet. That’s where my mindset is. Are we scaring people away? Were we supposed to tell them to show up and do two episodes, not two years?
Aaron: No, I think this is something people don’t think about. I’ll say that this is intimidating to me, showing up for two years. Even thinking about showing up every week for two years is intimidating. You start to doubt yourself, or at least I do. I think, “How am I going to come up with a great show every week?” You really just have to go for it. I’m going to do it; I’m going to spend the time to prepare, and show up and listen to the people that engage with me. If someone asks me a question in the chat, if someone sends me an email, I’m going to pay attention to that. I’m going to use that to fuel future episodes. I’m getting to know my audience, I’m building relationships. That’s why I’m podcasting.
Sean: And if you don’t have the answer to a question, you’re going to go find out. You’re gonna learn.
Aaron: That way, it benefits me, too. It’s a win/win situation, but it’s still scary. I know you’ve had struggles with showing up. You’ve shown up on a Tuesday and said, “Guys, this is hard today.”
Sean: I don’t know what I’m talking about on tomorrow's show, but I’m gonna show up and figure it out.
Aaron: The cool thing is that now you have this community of people, your audience, that you can go to. You can ask them, “What are you guys struggling with? What should I do a show about?” They’re gonna tell you, and you’ve got some options there. That’s way different than sitting alone in your room and wondering what you’re going to do a show about this week. It’s gotta be about the audience. It’s gotta be about providing value, and building relationships.
Aaron: This episode is titled How to Start a Podcast, but there are so many things to talk about and while I can't cover everything, I do want to give you an overview of what the process looks like, and what topics I’m going to cover in future episodes.
This show is for anyone who wants to start a podcast, but also for people who already have a podcast and want to make their show better.
There’s going to be some overlap for people who are interested in audio in general, because the skills I’ve learned from editing podcasts have helped me when making video, when recording interviews, bands, demos, etc. I’m going to be covering a lot of stuff like that, in addition to other things I think will be helpful to podcasters.
You have to record yourself talking, so I’m going to be talking about microphones.
Sean: I’m interested in hearing how you address that, because there’s always the interesting “quality vs cost” issue.
Aaron: People should invest in great microphones, but I realize that’s not a reality for a lot of people, so I want to go over the options. Like, if you only have $100, here’s what you need to buy.
I'll be convering how to set the levels right for your mic, what programs you can use, how to record interviews over Skype, etc.
Aaron: How do you edit a show without making it sound all chopped up and unnatural? Should you edit at all?
I know there are a lot of podcasters that don’t think you need to do much editing. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think you have to cut out every little bit of silence, or every filler word or mistake. People have a natural way of speaking, and that’s fine, but there are things that you can cut out.
Editing is about respecting the listener—cutting out super long pauses, or things they don’t need to hear like coughs, etc. It’s about polishing. It’s saying to the listener, “I care about this enough to give you the listener the best version of this that I can.”
Sean: A lot of people might think that edited podcasts are super highly produced and it doesn’t sound natural, but people often say they don’t even realize this show is edited, and you say that’s kind of the point.
Aaron: If someone listens to something that I edited and they notice the edits, then I’m not doing a good job.
Sean: How do you like that, Aaron? If you do your job well, no one knows you exist.
Aaron: I’m good with that. I follow some of the Twitter accounts of the shows I edit, and nothing makes me happier than to see someone saying, “Oh my gosh, the Shoptalk Show sounds so good, they’re doing a great job.” They don’t ever mention me, but I know they’re talking about my work. They don’t know they’re talking about my work, but I know what the show sounded like before I did the editing, mixing and mastering, and it makes me happy. The point is to make your listeners happy. I’m going to be going into a lot of depth about editing content, mixing and mastering, plugins, etc.
4. Writing and Preparing Show Outlines
Aaron: I’m also going to be doing some shows about writing and preparing show topics and outlines. I’d like to have Sean on the show to talk about that topic, because he does a lot of preparation for his shows. Sean, you said something a couple weeks ago: start with the takeaway in mind.
That really resonated with me. What’s the takeaway? It could be anything from how to launch a WordPress blog to how to design a header image for your blog posts.
When you start with a single idea—a takeaway—you can get a whole show out of that idea. Break it down, write a couple of headlines or bullet points, then expand on that. It turns into an outline, similar to what I have right now.
Sean: We’ve gone pretty far off of this outline, had side discussions, and none of this is scripted. A lot of people don’t want to prepare their show because they think it’ll sound scripted. We’re not talking about writing every word, we’re just saying have a takeaway so it’s not just showing up, turning on the mic, and hoping we get something out of it. You actually have a purpose for being there, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have these little explorations and adventures along the way.
Podcasting doesn’t have to be about being ridged and lifeless.
Aaron: I love those side rails. It’s natural. You don’t have to stick to the script, this is a conversation. In some ways, it’s a live performance. We do it live and we’re streaming to people right now.
You should be flexible, but you have to prepare beforehand. You have to know what you’re going to talking about, and what you’re going to be providing to the listeners.
Sean: You want to have these little magical moments of spontaneity, but you can’t have spontaneity without structure, because then you have chaos, you have anarchy. Plan, not 100%, but plan a good amount of it, then within that structure you can have spontaneous moments.
5. Writing Great Episode Notes
Aaron: I’m also going to do a show about writing episode notes, since they're great for a lot of reasons.
6. Sticking With It & Showing Up
Aaron: I’m also going to be doing some episodes about showing up and sticking with it. It’s important to show up consistently.
So just to recast: This is a show for people who want to do podcast, or have started a podcast and want to make their show even better, whether that’s gear, workflows, mindset, or motivation.
Q: What’s the single most common mistake people make when starting a new podcast?
Sean: I actually answered this in the chat earlier, but I wanted to know if you had another answer. I guessed that you would say, “Not preparing beforehand.” Was I right, or do you have a different answer?
Aaron: You’re right, but I want to expand on that a little bit. It’s actually two things. You do need to prepare and plan out your show, but you also need to learn enough about recording audio to make something that sounds good, or at least something that sounds ok.
When you start a podcast, you only have one shot to make a good first impression.
Sean: We’ve got a couple of questions that are related to this. Cory asks, “Is it more important to just get started, and iterate, or to get started right?”
Sarah asks, “What is the level of audio quality that you consider the minimum to start?”
There’s this balance of getting started with whatever you have vs. having one chance to make a good first impression. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Aaron: You do need to prepare for the show. Write an outline and start with an idea. Even if it’s just 10 minutes. Whatever you feel comfortable with: If you can talk about a subject or explore some ideas and give some value to the person who is going to listen, that’s good.
The audio quality minimum that you need to meet is you need to have some kind of microphone that is not the built-in microphone on your laptop or Apple ear buds.
Also, make sure you record in a room that doesn’t have a lot of echo. You need to record in a quiet room that’s as “dead” as possible.
Sean: If you’ve got a laptop, even a closet will work, because the clothes will absorb the echo.
Aaron: You need to record in a quiet place without a lot of background noise. Make sure you don’t have AC running, fans, dogs barking, etc… Try to record in the quietest place possible.
You'll need to learn about setting input levels. Some USB microphones have gain knobs, some don’t, and then if you have an XLR microphone (like the Shure SM7B mics that we’re using), you need to learn how to set the input gain levels right on whatever interface you’re using, so that your levels aren’t too hot or too quiet.
That’s the starting point: Have an idea of what you’re going to talk about and then be able to record some audio that doesn’t sound terrible.
Sean: That’s a decent answer without going super deep, which I’m sure you can and will dedicate entire shows to answering.
Q: If you’re coming at podcasting from blogging, how do you adapt your mindset to the new medium?
Aaron: If you’re coming to podcasting from blogging, you’re in a good spot.
If you have a blog post, you can adapt that content to a podcast very easily. You can take the topic and turn it into a podcast epiosde.
You could even just read the whole blog post like a script. Some people will enjoy hearing you read your blog post even more than reading it themselves.
Different people like to consume content in different ways.
Q: How long should my podcast be? Why are so many shows about an hour long? Can shorter or longer shows work and reach big audiences?
Sean: There’s no golden rule that says you’ve got to hit 22 minutes, or you’ve got to go an hour and a half for anyone to care. It’s different for everyone, it’s different for every show.
My answer—and this is the same for newsletters, blogs, landing pages, podcasts, etc.—is make it as long as it needs to be.
Don’t force it to be 20 minutes if you have more valuable stuff to say, and don’t force it to be more than an hour because you think that’s what the more successful shows do. Share it with people, that’s why we invented to pause button—they can watch it, listen to it, or consume it whenever they want. They can stop at any point.
Give it all to them and let them consume it the way they want to. If you have a lot to share, make it long and if you don’t, make it short, but don’t worry about it.
If you have valuable information, don’t worry about going over some arbitrary threshold.
Aaron: There have been a few podcasters that have asked me to cut an hour-long show down to 20 minutes. My first question is why? Why would you make this shorter if there’s good stuff? Why not focus instead on making it be the best show it can be; including everything that’s valuable and discarding or editing out the things that aren’t?
Sean: I know that’s a rhetorical question, but I think the answer in people’s heads is, “Well, because so-and-so does it.”
The successful shows they listen to are 20 minutes long, so they think that’s how long a show should be. The people that are thinking they need to make an hour long show are listening to hour long shows that are successful, and they don’t know about the ones that aren’t.
It’s just a skewed confirmation bias; it comes as a result of looking to other people and trying to imitate their success when really, you should just be making the show you need to make, with whatever you have to offer to your audience.
Aaron: I know that this first episode is going to be longer because you and I have a lot to talk about. But it’s a lot different when you are doing a solo show, or depending on who your co-host is. Either way, focus on making it good and make it only as long as it needs to be.
Q: Should I have a co-host?
Sean: Coby asks, “Is it more effective to get a dialog going by having a co-host or guests?”
Aaron: It is easier. When you started the seanwes podcast, you were thinking about doing it solo. I said that I thought it’d be easier for you if I joined to ask questions and bounce ideas off you and have a conversation.
What’s helped me (with starting a solo show) is thinking about what questions I’ve already been asked in emails. I started an email newsletter a few months ago. I started writing content for it, writing blog posts, and I asked people for their questions about podcasting. Some people responded, so I saved those questions, and made a note to do shows about them. That’s kind of a dialog, but I do think it’d be a little easier if I had a regular co-host.
Sean: It definitely makes it easier. That’s not to say solo shows can’t do well. I think they can, but you can’t really beat a super good dynamic between people with complimentary personalities and perspectives. It’s so engaging, it’s so fun to listen to. It’s also kind of hard to create that magic. Like with Ben and I, if you go back and listen to the earlier episodes of the seanwes podcast, we didn’t have that magic. It takes time to develop that and to be able to riff off each other.
It’s going to take practice, but it definitely helps having someone else on, and it helps to have a structure. Like we said, leave room for people to tell stories. You don’t have to script it all. Maybe have some planned questions, and some sort of conclusion in mind so it’s more cohesive.
Aaron: You and I have complimentary personality types. You’re a little more introverted, thoughtful, and you plan ahead more. I’ve picked up some of these good habits you have, but I’m much more likely to speak before I think. When you’re choosing a co-host, I think it’s important to keep those things in mind.
I’ve joked with my friend Cory Miller before about being the co-host on his new podcast, but I actually don’t think I’d be a good fit for him because our personality types are so similar. I think he’d be better paired with someone who’s a little bit more introverted.
Sean: It’s like any kind of partner, whether it’s marital, business, or co-host. You have to think about that, and treat it kind of like a marriage.
Q: Should I do my podcast in seasons?
Aaron: Brent asks, “Showing up is very important, but what are your thoughts on podcasting in seasons? What if I’m interested in sharing content through audio, but don’t see myself becoming a full-time podcaster? Would audio snippets be a good medium? (e.g. a blog post in audio format?)”
Aaron: I say do whatever you want and whatever makes sense for you, but...
I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with my band about consistency. I’ve been trying to push them towards putting out content on a regular basis, because I’ve seen how well it works for podcasters, for people who do video, and for other bands.
A typical release cycle for bands is an album once every couple of years, but I see that the bands that stick in people’s minds and have really engaged audiences are the ones that are putting out stuff on a regular basis.
I would love to be in a band that puts out a song every week, like Jonathan Mann, who put out a song every day. How much attention does he get for that? I mean, we have the technology! There is nothing holding us back from recording a song every week. Sure, it may not be super high quality and it might not sound like it was recorded in a professional studio, but by doing something consistently and showing up and putting it out on a regular basis, you get better at doing that thing.
If you want to grow an audience, if you care about making a name for yourself and a show that’s successful, then you need to show up every week.
Sean: There’s nothing holding you back except your lack of commitment, and your planning to have pauses or seasons where you’re not committing.
People think in weekly terms. Their life resets, they watch TV shows every week, it’s how they think. If you’ve got a show that’s every other Wednesday, or the second Wednesday of the month, that confuses people.
You don’t want your audience to have to think. You have to simplify it for them. Wednesday: new show. Tuesday: new show. That way, they know what’s coming.
People crave this. They want reliability and routine. They want to listen to their podcast or watch their show. Once they’re in, they’re in. They’re hooked. You’re three inches from their ear. You have an opportunity to speak a message to them and provide value. If you want to grow an audience, show up consistently.
Instead of doing what’s cool, or what other people are doing, or doing what’s easy, or planning on not showing up, how about start with a commitment to show up consistently? That’s where your audience is going to come from.
If you have a season, and you stop providing value, everything resets. Sure, you’re going to have some die-hards that discover you later, but it affects their perception of your brand and how committed you are.
Now that you've got the outline for what you'll need to do to start a podcast, all you need to do now is take action. Set aside some time for planning. Write out your goals and the topics for your first ten episodes. Set up your gear and make a practice episode.
It's easy to spend hours and hours reading tutorials and listening to other people talk about podcasting, but the best way to get better is to just start doing it yourself.
If you have any questions or want to say hi, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a voicemail at 817-381-8219. Feel free to ask questions or just say hi. I'll respond as soon as I have a free minute.
Finally, there's a fantastic blog post series from Simplecast called Everything You Need to Start a Podcast. I'd highly recommend bookmarking that and referring back to it as often as you need it.
And remember, no one gets everything right the first time. You're starting on a journey, so forward progress and taking action is pretty much always better than perfection. Good luck and happy podcasting.