How to get listeners addicted to your show

TL;DR make them feel emotions

Here we are back in the #vanlife of podcasting publications! How does it feel in here? Cozy? Safe? Full of potential to go wherever we want? We’ll be talking this week about the feelings evoked by creative works, and why they’re important. I think we’ll park at a pharmacy so that we can have some mood-altering drugs while we’re here.

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This week I did a triathlon—my first one. The race took place at 9000 feet in the mountains of Beaver Creek, Colo, and I put in six months of training—sometimes 12-14 hours a week—culminating in that single day effort.

My sister texted me to ask how it went, and I told her that I got sixth place overall and first in my age group. She said, “Wow that’s awesome. I’m sure you’re addicted now.” And I had to stop a second and think, “Am I addicted?”

I wrote back, “Maybe a little addicted. It reminds me of a quote from the movie Drugstore Cowboy. “Most people don’t know how they’re gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.”

For me, for the last six months, all I’ve had to do to know how I’m gonna feel is look at what my training plan prescribed for the next day. There’s comfort in this. There’s addiction in this.

Now’s where I connect this concept to creative work. In the aughts we all watched Grey’s Anatomy. Somewhere around three or four seasons deep, I was watching on the couch and noticed my heart was racing and I was keyed up—nearly grinding my teeth. I didn’t know how they did, it, but I said to Kelly (my wife) that that this stuff is made to be addictive. The emotional ride it sends us on is basically the equivalent of popping a pill.

I have no doubt that people in writing rooms for TV dramas talk about the emotional arc of a show. They know how people are going to feel while they watch, and they deliberately tune the emotional knobs within an episode and across a season to deliver the best high they can.

Everyone doing creative work should do the same. You don’t have to be creating Grey’s Anatomy for the emotional journey to be important. Ira Glass said that emotions and feeling are core to TAL in an interview with Slate in 2008:

If any story is going to be good, whichever one of us is working on it, we have to go through the feelings of the story ourselves. Nobody’s going to feel it if we don’t feel. It’s honestly not worth making a story if you’re not going to have strong feelings about it, if it’s not going to create empathy.

Even if you’re doing an interview show or your trying to teach concepts, the same rule applies. If listeners have to choose between two shows that teach them how to do tax preparation with the new child tax credit—a very boring topic—they’ll prefer the one that has an emotional arc to it. It might make a promise in the beginning that creates a feeling of anticipation. It works best if the promise is tied not just to the facts on offer but to some deeper human desire—like, “feeling confident that you know these new rules will grow your trust with your clients.” The show that takes us on this emotional journey will win out over the one that dryly addresses the new policies and rules.

Likewise with an interview show, first and foremost the host should get the interviewee to tell stories because well-told stories naturally evoke emotions. The host can even ask for stories in the context of emotions. Imagine interviewing Desus and Mero about their days of making the podcast Bodega Boys. We might ask them to describe a day where they were about to give up on it. What did they eat? Who did they call? What did they say? What was waiting for them if they quit? What was the thing that happened where they decided to keep going?

Even as I type those questions, I bet you want to know, right? In the example, we’re mining for some negative emotions that we want Desus and Mero to walk us through in the context of the events surrounding them. You might be able to imagine the emotions you want to hit in your show before the interview, ask for stories related to those emotions, and then edit them into the order you want them.

If we get good enough at evoking emotions, our listeners will know how they’re going to feel when they listen to our shows, and they will get addicted.

And hey, if you’re about to go into the pharmacy, would you mind grabbing me some Band-Aids? All this triathlon training was murder on my feet.

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See you next week!

—Jon Christensen