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Recording of an episode of Deloitte’s The Green Room podcast Recording of an episode of Deloitte’s The Green Room podcast

CAN PODCASTS CUT THROUGH THE NOISE IN INTERNAL COMMS?

Portable on demand (POD) systems are giving internal comms teams a new way of reaching colleagues wherever they are. But where do you start when setting up a podcast aimed at employees?

WORDS: ADAM GALE

16th September 2021

Video may have killed the radio star, but as any audiophile will tell you, podcasts are alive and kicking. Downloadable, bingeable and never more than a thumbprint away, they are one of the fastest growing forms of consumer content, with one in five of us now listening to at least one podcast a week.

For some time, it has been a trend that seemed to have passed internal communication by. Debbie West, founder of podcast-training company Seren Creative, and an advocate for internal comms to use the medium, believes IC has finally caught up.

“A lot more internal communicators either have a podcast or are giving it a go,” she says. “I think podcasts have immense potential. I hope they will rise in popularity.”

Making the most of that potential requires understanding how and why people listen to audio rather than reading text or watching video. For podcast launch consultant Sarah Mikutel, podcasts stand out for being easy to consume on the go, without having to look at a screen: “You put on your headphones, you listen on your way to work or when you’re cooking, whenever’s most convenient for you.”

For those of us who best absorb information aurally – or whose lives are spent fending off email-mediated information overload – this makes podcasts uniquely engaging.  

“People skim blogs,” Sarah adds. “Most podcast listeners are listening to the whole episode.”

Listening on-the-go means that podcasts don’t tend to work as well for communications that are heavy with technical details as they do for more human-centric stories. If you’re tuning in while walking the dog, you’re unlikely to be taking detailed notes.

“Those human stories work so well on audio,” says Debbie. “The listener is generally alone with a headset, and listening to somebody’s voice literally in your head does make you feel very personally connected with the speaker.”

On the other side of the mic, guests tend to be more relaxed about telling their stories in a podcast than a written interview, with the lurking fear that words may be taken out of context, or a video, which many find intimidating.

Debbie says this makes audio particularly suited for discussing sensitive topics such as equality or mental health: “Podcasting is the ideal medium to tap into those subjects and enable people to explain themselves in depth.”


The purpose of podcasts

Like any other tool in an internal communicator’s arsenal, podcasts need a clear, specific purpose if they are to achieve something rather than just adding to the noise, Sarah says. “It can’t just be a shiny object. You need to know the goal.

Is it to educate employees about the company’s new strategy and direction? Is it to inform salespeople about new products and services, or excite the workforce about a new corporate responsibility event? And then, who’s the audience? Is it all employees? Is it a specific segment?”  

Because internal communicators are short on time and staff have limited bandwidth, this also means thinking carefully how audio will fit into your wider channel mix. For Emma Wright, internal communications officer at South

Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, which has run its internal podcast, Firecast, since March 2019, the point was never to replace email or intranet, but to complement them.

“A large proportion of our workforce don’t always access written communications such as our weekly bulletin, so we wanted to do something that all staff could listen to at their leisure,” Emma says.

At 15 minutes long, Firecast is split into three segments: something operational; something practical, such as an update on a new fire station; and then an interview, usually with a senior leader. It is designed to help staff understand the issues and stories affecting the service.

“We do use the pods for informational output, but often it’s less heavy than in written communication,” explains Emma. “We used them during the early months of the pandemic to distribute messages from our chief as they were much more personal. There’s definitely still a place for traditional methods of internal comms – a podcast just supports those.”


Telling a seductive story

Once you know what your podcast will be used for and how it will fit into your channel mix, you need to think about execution. Podcasts mostly follow the same rules of storytelling as written pieces, but there are some differences. Too many voices in the same podcast can be confusing (Sarah recommends having no more than four per episode). And while all stories need a beginning, middle and end, a strong opening hook is particularly important in longer-form audio: if you don’t capture listeners’ attention with a clear angle early on, they are more likely to switch off than skip ahead.

 

TOP TIP: Keep it personal. Podcasts are a great way to share people’s stories and successes in a warm, friendly way; keep formal corporate updates or technical instructions to other channels.

 

Sarah describes the goal as being “seductive”: “You want a show that will entertain, educate and/or inspire. Obviously your messaging still needs to be aligned to your vision and values and the key messages of the company, but there’s licence to be creative in podcasts,” she says.

You can see seduction at work in Deloitte’s much-acclaimed The Green Room podcast. Each episode is centred on a topical and intriguing question rooted in one of Deloitte’s written insight reports or where the firm has an authentic voice or expertise; examples include “Do working fathers have it easy?”, “Will I ever feel good enough for my job?” and “Is technology our planet’s best hope?”

“In storytelling, ‘story’ comes before ’telling’ for a reason,” says Matt Gale, Deloitte UK’s head of creative content, who led the internal comms team that launched The Green Room in January 2019. “We spend a lot of time debating the question; sometimes it’s quite heated. How do we make it relatable, and not too obvious or corporate?”

That was partly why Matt chose to make The Green Room publicly available: to hold the internal podcast to the highest external standards. “Our competition is not other businesses, it’s people’s time. Why would they listen to our podcast, when they can go and listen to something like the Peter Crouch podcast instead? Even if they are our people, we’ve still got to respect their time.”


Preparing hosts and guests

Matt’s big lesson is not to underestimate how long it takes to prepare an episode. Although they don’t script the shows, they do create extensive briefing packs for hosts and guests, with key research points and suggested conversation flows. The team also spends time on the phone with guests ahead of the recording, which can help surface unforeseen angles. All this preparation allows the chat to be focused and coherent, without sounding staged.

“The best, the most relaxed, the most natural conversations require a lot of preparation,” Matt says.

Emma, who conducts the interviews in South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue’s Firecast herself, adds that careful preparation also extends to picking guests. Often, the person with the most to say – and from whom staff most want to hear – is not the CEO.

“We did a podcast recently with a former volunteer of the service who is also a transgender woman talking about her journey transitioning. We received some really positive feedback and I think the key to it being so good was that it was with someone who was passionate about what she was talking about and more than happy to be open,” Emma says.

“The key is to not force people, even if they are a senior manager and you’re covering something specific to their team. If they feel someone else would be better, then go for that person. There’s nothing worse than an awkward podcast.”

This also means thinking about your choice of host. Debbie suggests podcast listeners in your team are likely to have a headstart over those who are new to the medium.

At Deloitte, the regular hosts of The Green Room weren’t even from internal comms, but were instead selected by the team after a round of company-wide, X Factor-style auditions involving over 120 applications.

“Our main host George works in our PR team, and having somebody with a PR background is helpful for keeping conversations on track. But Ethan and Lizzie, the other two co-hosts, work in consulting and client relationship roles. Neither had previous experience of corporate communications or podcasting,” says Matt.


Uh-huhs and y’knows

Once the interview’s recorded, the editing can be done using free or paid software (see FAQs, page 19).

There’s some debate about how heavy-handed to be here, particularly when it comes to “um”s, “ah”s and “y’know”s.

“Don’t get obsessed about deleting every single one. You don’t want your conversation to sound robotic. You want it to sound like human beings talking to each other,” Sarah says, pointing out that Michael Barbaro, host of the New York Times’s wildly successful The Daily podcast, was actually instructed to add “yeah”s and “uh-huh”s to his interviews because it sounded strange without them.

Even if you leave in such verbal condiments, don’t expect the editing process to be quick. While the burden will vary depending on the type of podcast – simple conversations are easier than documentary-style podcasts with a narrator – Debbie’s rule of thumb is four minutes of editing for every minute of the finished product.

“A lot of people tell me that unedited content is more authentic, but I disagree. We’re professional communicators. If we pushed everything out without editing because it’s more authentic, nobody would read our content, because editing is the art of good communication. And that’s the same for audio.”

 

TOP TIP: Don’t script your podcast. Have a rough outline, perhaps, but make sure the conversation sounds natural.

 

Finally, don’t expect to get this right first time. Like all skills, podcasting takes a while to master, and you will get better at it with practice. Although it may seem daunting, the core skills behind podcasts are fundamentally the same as those behind internal communication generally – a clear understanding of your message and goals, and the ability to find and craft a good story.

“If you’ve got communication skills, you can definitely learn to be a good podcaster,” Sarah says. “It’s a great professional development tool for internal communications, especially if you have someone on the shy side, who’s used to just writing. Once you start putting yourself out there, it’s quite transformational.”


FAQs

What equipment will I need and how much will it cost?
All the hardware you need to start podcasting is a microphone and a computer. Laptop mics are generally a no-no. You could use your smartphone, but most professionals will recommend at the very least a clip-on mic (£10+), which can be attached to a lapel or collar.

Many will argue for a fixed mic. Deloitte’s Matt Gale says: “We had clip-on microphones for the first few episodes of The Green Room, which didn’t work at all because when people moved their heads we lost sound quality, so we invested in some proper podcasting mics.”

Fixed mics generally range from £70 for the Samson Q2U (Sarah Mikutel’s recommendation), up to around £300.

What are the best software and hosting options?
Editing software such as Audacity and Apple’s GarageBand are free and easy to use, but you can upgrade to paid services like Adobe Audition (£20/month). Hosting costs vary. Most providers, such as Podbean, SoundCloud and Anchor, have a free option, but for regular podcasting you’ll need to upgrade for the storage, which can set you back anything from £7.50 to £25 a month.

Once hosted, you can make the RSS available for streaming on Spotify or Apple for free. If you want it strictly for internal ears only, then you’d need a secure service like Podbean for business ($100 a month) or Storyboard ($1 per user per month up to 350 users; bespoke deals available for larger enterprises).

How do I get decent sound quality?
Beyond your choice of mic, think about the wifi connection, if remote, and the soundscape of the room you’re recording in, if in person.

“Hard surfaces are the enemy when it comes to podcasting,” warns Sarah. “Conference rooms with giant glass walls are generally not a good idea. Find a space with some soft material that could absorb sound. If there’s carpeting, that’s great.”

Emma Wright from South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue suggests finding somewhere quiet, and listening back to the audio when you first start recording, in case it’s picking up ambient sounds like a ticking clock.

“Make sure you buy a good soundtrack too,” she adds. “Don’t use free ones. It’ll make such a difference to the professionalism.” Paid options include Shutterstock and Soundstripe.

 

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