To Listen, or Not To Listen

sign saying you are what you listen to

Podcasts are all the rage and they feel like one of those those pop culture things that I just don’t get. I’m not trying to be contrary; in fact I keep trying over and over again to find a podcast conversation that I really want to listen to. But to me, most of them are boring.

Sure, there are lots of different types of podcasts: self-made reporters describing true crime which may or may not be true, famous people talking about their famous lives, funny people who are not really that funny, serious thinkers rehashing the news, self-help gurus talking in cliche, radio shows that are still on the radio, and story-based shows. No matter how smart or fascinating are the talking heads, listening to them feels like eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table over. You’re really only sort of interested.

What am I missing?

There must be something I’m not getting. I say that having been a featured guest on umpteenth podcasts, and my Story Mode partner, Beth Nyland, wants to start one of her own.

If you’re a podcast lover, help me out and answer these two questions:

Number One: How do people have so much time to stick in their earbuds and listen to other people chatting? Since so many of us are still working from home there’s not that commuting time to relax and listen. We’re still on Zoom calls all day so we can’t be sitting at our desks faking work while listening to 99% Invisible.

When do you listen?

I suppose listening to a podcast while you’re doing something else is a good idea. The few shows I do listen to I only turn on when I’m cooking or Marie Kondo’ing a room. But what usually happens is I can’t find a show that I want to listen to.

Which brings me to me to Number Two: Too much choice. The podcast market is mushrooming and Spotify can’t wait to recommend more and more shows to me. There are multiple podcasts about anything and everything- from the paranormal to play-by-play recaps of TV shows. It’s overwhelming. I can’t even go to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory without getting hives because that menu is, like, 15 pages long.

I Need A Problem

Action! Give me action…turbulence… conflict. That’s what makes a good story and let’s face it, the only thing that will keep my attention these days is a good story.

If you’ve worked with me, you know that when I say “story,” I don’t necessarily mean the movies and shows we all binge on Netflix–tales with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, I’m thinking about situations in which something is amiss or there is a problem that has to be solved, adversity that must be overcome. I’m not talking about the “hero’s journey” (I have many thoughts on that, but that is for a different rant.) The difference, especially with podcasts, is that I want to raise my hand to be called on because I have an idea to help solve the problem. Just like how you feel watching Mare of Eastown, silently urging her to not chase that guy down the alley.

Before you raise your hand with suggestions for me, understand that a major component of any shows I consume is that I, as an audience member, am included in the conversation. This is what I preach for all communicators–don’t talk at your audience, start a conversation.

And that is what’s wrong with so many podcasts; those talking heads imagining they are in My Dinner with Andre and that their in-jokes will resonate with the world. In reality, a podcast is never just about what is being discussed; it’s got to be about its audience and building a conversation that goes way past a microphone in a studio.

An example of feeling like I am outside of the circle is listening to Smartless, where Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett talk about famous people and things they think are funny…but are they?

Worthy Candidates

Here’s what comes to mind:

Fresh Air interviews are fantastic and never boring but that’s a radio show with host Terry Gross, who always does her homework.

Smartless, where Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett talk about famous people and things they think are funny…well, it makes it clear that these guys are funny…but are they?

The story-based shows are the best of course. Remember Serial? That was a first and led the march toward really good storytelling through an earbud. (I’m not huge fan of true-crime stories, but Serial does a great job of elevating the conversation.)

Sandra is a fictionalized account of who Alexa really is and will kind of blow your mind. Dolly Parton’s America is fascinating and kept surprising me and asking meaningful questions about so much more than the Goddess Dolly.

But what about all those talking heads? Especially the podcasts you should be listening to be better at your job?

Here are two to put in the queue.

People Business–O’Brien McMahon talks to colleagues who can tease out new perspectives of how we deal with people at work. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “human capital” on that show. O’Brien has a deep voice, a curious mind, and a great sense of what makes a story.

Full disclosure: Beth and I were guests on People Business a few months ago and we had a blast recording it. (Our segment is now the second most popular edition out of 75, she said modestly).

The three of us prepared enough to know the general topics we wanted to cover, but where we took ideas was wide open. O’Brien asked us a question or two and the conversation rolled on from there. I remember laughing a lot and not taking ourselves too seriously; a key ingredient when you’re asking someone to spend time listening to you.

Beth and I shared storytelling concepts and blew the roof off of preconceived ideas about how we should communicate at work. We also complained loudly about lost opportunities when people resort to speaking CRAP.

The Improv It Podcast–Listening to people succeed is boring. Listening to how they effed can be fascinating. This is what Erin Diehl often investigates on her show in which she says, Fail Yeah! a lot. Erin, has improv in her blood and is known for being fun and funny, but here she plays against type. She is truly interested in the difficult stories her guests share and their changes in perspective.

At first, I thought Erin’s show would remind me of NPR’s How I Built This where the folks behind famous products or apps tell their origin stories. Except those guests are often ex-Google employees who retired with millions in the bank and were bored so they started, say, Zillow. Not very relatable for most of us.

Erin is interested in entrepreneurs who start from almost nothing, make some big mistakes, and have to find their way, bootstrapping it until the future comes into focus.

One of my favorites is an interview she did with another improv artist and writer, Dionna Griffin-Irons, who has an unbelievable story.

Okay, that’s my list. What’s yours?

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