Podcasting Tips

Taking it to the Next Level with a Killer Podcast Script

how to write a podcast script

In reality, scripted audio and video is all around us. Movies and television shows are obviously scripted, but so are news broadcasts, live radio, and even late-night comedy shows. At the end of the day, all of the content you consume, including podcasts, has been scripted in one way or another. The key is to make sure it matches the tone of your production, and more importantly, it sounds as natural as possible. This American Life, Serial, Hardcore History, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and On the Media are five very different podcasts with five very different sounds, but they are all either fully or at least partially scripted in some way. So how do you write a podcast script?

Writing a script for your podcast is a very personal thing. Scripts serve to make your life easier so it goes without saying, that while your script can be guided by what others do, it is ultimately up to you and the style you prefer. Some hosts feel most comfortable when they script their entire show word for word, others write down the show title and nothing else. Most go for a combination of the two. There really is no right or wrong way.

Why is Podcast Scripting Important? 

A script is a guide. It makes sure that you get your message across and your facts straight. For mediums like film, television, or radio, scripts are essential for timing, accuracy, and delivery. This is definitely the case for podcasts as well. Planning your podcast is crucial, no matter which podcast format you choose. But the beauty of podcasts is that they leave room for personality and flare. So keep in mind that if you try to make everything too structured, or too perfect, you run the risk of losing what made you unique in the first place. 

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Now, whether you choose to script out your episode in full before entering the studio, ad-lib on the spot, or go off of a simple episode outline, preparing for your podcast episode is a very useful first step. You want to gather your thoughts and have your topics prepared so that you don’t waste your or your guest’s time. You will want that same structure when you enter post-production so that you can remain focused as you move through your podcast episode.

The right script can revolutionize your podcasting experience.

Preparation of any sort takes time. So, together with a longer pre-production period and the fact that scripts must be read, you will be faced with considerably more work than you had expected. But don’t let that scare you off! The good news is that with practice (lots of practice) you will not only progress at writing the perfect script for your podcast but you will also improve at reading a script in a more natural way. 

Finding the Best Way To Script for You: 

Let’s take a step back. What is your podcast format? Are you embarking on a conversational podcast or interview-style podcast? Is it non-fiction narrative storytelling or maybe a solo-cast? It is important that you identify what your podcast format is as this will certainly influence what your scripting format will look like. A conversational podcast with you and your business partner allows for a lot more ad-libbing than say, a solocast where you are relying solely on your expert knowledge with little to zero feedback from anyone else.

Once you’ve identified your podcast format, next is your podcast script, and it’s important to figure out which scripting format works best for you. The instinct is often to script out everything word-for-word. This could be because you’re nervous, you’re worried about forgetting things or you’re simply intimidated by this new medium that you’re trying out. Some seasoned podcasters will use a word-for-word script but they have spent years perfecting how to read naturally, while others are able to read three key-words and know exactly what they’re going to say. The truth is that most of us fit somewhere in the middle. 

There are a number of options available to you, but like most podcasting formats, feel free to mix and match to find something that suits the needs of you and your team. 

Option 1: The Word-For-Word Podcast Script

This option is great for those who deal with complicated subjects and want to make sure that they cover everything in the script. It’s also good for those who don’t yet feel comfortable ad-libbing in front of the microphone. If done right, this format is a sure way to guarantee that you have few mistakes and very little to deal with in post-production. Podcasts like Lore, Hardcore History, and Supernatural all follow complete scripts, with no improvisation, and they sound natural because practice makes perfect. 

If you decide to go down this route, you need to make sure that it doesn’t sound like you are reading off of a script. We listen to podcasts to lose ourselves in the story and conversation, and oftentimes a stunted and monotone voiceover can cause us to completely disengage from the episode. Unless you are a trained voice actor or have a lot of practice reading directly from a script, if you use this format you will need to make sure that you retain the emotion and energy that brings your podcast to life. We will get into sounding natural and using mark-ups to help you do so a little later. 

Whether you’re new to the game or an experienced podcaster, try writing a script for a one-minute segment on your show. Write it word for word, and try reading out each sentence as you’re writing it. This will give you an idea of how readable and how conversational it is.

The Podcast Host

Option 2: The Detailed Podcast Script Plan

For podcasters who prefer to have structure but don’t need every single word written down, a detailed podcast plan can provide the outline they need to develop an episode.

These outlines aren’t word-for-word, but they do have most of the information that will be included in the episode – it is a great compromise between writing a script and conducting a voiceover or interview on the fly.

You would include details on things like facts, numbers, names, etc. along with the tone and style that you plan on delivering the information with.  You don’t need to write out fully formed paragraphs of narration. A detailed plan acts more like a thorough cue card that you can refer to when you need and not read word-for-word.

This format is great for those podcasts that have a conversational tone but cover current events, sciences, or politics, and need to make sure they cover specific points during the episode. 

Option 3: The Flexi Plan

Finally, there is the flexi plan. The majority of podcasts rely on this less detailed episode plan when developing their content and voiceovers. A simple outline with a short set of section headers will help guide the hosts and make sure that they cover all of the main talking points in the episode. 

Each header represents a theme or topic within the episode and serves mostly as a reminder for the hosts. In this instance, the hosts will rely on their expert knowledge and confidence on the subject to fill in the gaps. So while a piece of narration in your Detailed Plan for your political podcast may read:

Narration: Kamala Harris advocated the Green New Deal as an element to overcome the climate crisis together with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She campaigned for climate justice and climate protection.

Quote: “From forest fires in the West to hurricanes in the east to floods and droughts in the heartland, we will not swallow the lie. We will act based on scientific facts, not on science fiction.” 

The flexi-plan would look more like:

Narration: Discuss Kamala Harris stand on climate protection + AOC backing Green New Deal. 

Quote: “From forest fires in the West to hurricanes in the east to floods and droughts in the heartland, we will not swallow the lie. We will act based on scientific facts, not on science fiction.” 

Narration: Kamala Harris advocated the Green New Deal as an element to overcome the climate crisis together with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She campaigned for climate justice and climate protection.

These episode outlines tend to lead to the most conversational type of podcast and are often the most engaging. Rather than having no structure at all, or conversely having an entire episode scripted out word for word, having a basic episode outline helps the host stay on track with the possibility to improvise. 

Script out enough to get the gist of the concept. Rely more on phrases, themes and leading sentences that provide you with the information you need and establish the tone you’ll be using. 

This format is a great way to convey the content of the podcast while giving hosts the freedom to customize and it works for all podcast formats so long as you know what you are talking about. Of course, we’re only human and there is a chance that you may leave things out, make mistakes or go a bit off-track but remember, it’s a podcast, not live radio! If you get it wrong, forget something, or start rambling you can always pause and redo it – either on the spot or edit it out in post-production. 

writing a podcast script

The Main Things to Keep in Mind while Scriptwriting 

Script the way you Speak

The last thing you want is to sound like a monotone robot when you go into the studio to record. Write how you speak remember that scripts are meant to be heard and not read. As a result, they should be written for the ear. This is a common mistake of podcasters who (rightfully) want to emulate their favorite hosts and creators, but lose themselves when developing their podcast’s voice. You don’t sound like Ira Glass, and that’s ok. Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not, because your listeners can tell when you aren’t being genuine and authentic.

Be Flexible: 

If there are certain stories, news pieces, or topics that you want to talk about, include them in your script. Similarly, if there are certain words that you want to use, include them in your script too. Make sure to include different options for vocabulary and the delivery of stories. You want to be flexible and have the space you need to explore the thoughts that you have while podcasting. This flexibility makes you sound much more natural and gives you room to change things that seemed to work on paper but not behind the mic. For example, 

Keep It Concise: 

Having a script that is to the point provides you with the structure you need while making sure that you have room to improvise. Ensuring that your scripts are concise without any extra fluff, i.e. adverbs, exclamations, and unnecessary facts, allows you space and time to be creative with your delivery. And we love creativity!

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Paint a Picture: 

You want to take your audience on a journey with you, so use any opportunity to set the scene for your listener – whether it be for an interview, a vox pop (where people on the street are interviewed about their knowledge or opinion on a specific topic) or a solo narration. Think of your favorite podcasts and how they bring you into the story. If your story takes place in an 18th Century dining room then describe the opulence! How does it look, how does it smell, what do you see? Take the time to build out narration that engages your listener as much as possible. 

Script to your Needs:

As we mentioned before, everyone’s needs are different. If you are creating a solocast, depending on your comfort level, you may need more detail or less detail in your scripts. If you are podcasting with a co-host you will need to script based on each person’s style, their role in the podcast, and what they feel comfortable with remember that one piece of narration for two different voices will be difficult to navigate. Don’t forget that different segments of your podcast will also require different styles of scripting. Things like introductions, sponsor messages or baked-in advertising might need to be scripted. Most podcasters still script out these elements (even if it sounds like they don’t!). 

Scripting for an Interview

Even interview podcasts, which may seem largely unscripted, have some element of preparation and scripting. While it may not be as detailed as a fully developed, narrative fiction storytelling podcast, an interview podcast still requires a little work ahead of the interview. When preparing to interview a guest, you will want to put together a certain number of questions (ideally following a logical conversational progression), and send this to your guest ahead of time.

While you can’t script for an interviewee, you can prepare as much as possible to make sure that they feel comfortable and excited about the interview. This is a courtesy that is given to guests so that they don’t have to come in blind and also serves to highlight any possible misunderstanding between you and the guest beforehand. 

While great questions are a prerequisite for any interview, oftentimes the best audio comes from how you and your guest interact when you’re off-book. People love interview podcasts because they’re able to glean new information and insights and see another side of the interviewee.

A good host and interviewer will have to improvise questions based on the guest’s responses. Successful hosts are malleable. They follow their curiosity and engage in active listening. If you’ve got your nose in your questions you could miss out on some amazing content! Depending on the nature and structure of your format you might have scripted segments and narration. If you do, remember to sound natural, and make sure that it doesn’t sound like you are reading your questions off of a piece of paper. 

Before the interview, familiarize yourself with your guest by reading their book or their research, listening to other interviews they’ve done, and familiarizing yourself with their ‘about me’ page on their website.  By doing this, you won’t be starting the interview at square one, and you will be more comfortable improvising during the interview itself. You want to sound like you’ve invited the guest for a casual conversation. Listeners can always tell if you yourself are not actually curious about a certain guest or topic, so make sure that you are genuinely interested in your interviewee and their work! The more you let your curiosity  guide the conversation, the more comfortable your interviewee will feel. 

writing a podcast script

Scripting for the Final Edit

Step 1: Transcribe your interview.

The first step to building out a script around an interview or conversation is to transcribe your audio. Now, back in the day, you had to sit and manually transcribe each piece of audio over hours and hours. Luckily there are a number of online tools and services to help transcribe your interviews in a cost and time-effective way. Programs like Trint, Descript, and Otter.ai will transcribe your interview in minutes, or you can use OTranscribe to follow along using keyboard shortcuts and transcribe the interview yourself.  The things to focus on here are identifying the various voices, separating questions from answers, and creating a visual representation of your interview.

Step 2: Isolate key themes and talking points.

Start to look for interesting themes that stand out to you. Start by looking for three clear topics of discussion or stories that you could center the episode on. They should be unique and captivating and be what could potentially keep the listener interested.

Step 3: Identify quotes you’d like to use as talking points.

Much like isolating key themes, look for powerful quotes that you can build narration around. If your guest has said something provocative or emotive, consider using that as your hook to attract listeners into the conversation, keep them there or leave them with something to reflect on.

Step 4: Collect soundscapes, found footage & music. 

Once you have transcribed your interview, identified themes and pulled the interesting quotes you should have a better idea of what you want your episode to sound like. Is it serious or is it playful? Do you want to include sounds from the location you are talking about? Is there an event you are referring to that you could find audio clips (found footage) for? Having these as part of your script will help you start to storyboard your episode.

Step 5: Storyboard/Flesh out your episode plan.

Now that you have all your elements. Your themes, your quotes and your soundscapes, you can start to build out your script out narration.

So how do you do it?

Even with the best hosts and interviewees, most listeners will struggle to pay attention to the same two voices for an hour.

One of the easiest ways to break up and elevate an interview podcast is to bring in narration to keep the listener engaged. If, for example, a guest stumbles over a response or simply goes on for too long with a certain answer, you can script out a voiceover to tell their story in a more succinct way. You can also use narration to differentiate between unique themes and narratives within the interview itself.

Say your conversation touches on the interviewee’s work, upbringing, and personal life. You can build out unique voiceovers introducing each of these themes within the episode. It not only helps you to organize the episode but gives you a chance to expand on the storytelling elements within. Think of it as a chapter in a book. You can create different chapters in each episode by creating short voiceovers that help the listener to reset and prepare for a shift in the conversation. Always look for themes that add to the story itself, but bring the conversation back to your podcast’s core topic. 

In her podcast, Beyond Asian, Sen Zhan uses narration to delineate from different themes within the episode, but also to tell complicated stories in a succinct way. In her episode with a Chinese-Canadian psychologist named Julian, she used narration to set the scene and tell the listener about a key historical event, the cultural revolution in China. Rather than having Julian explain the ins and outs of this historical event, she is able to hit the ‘who, what, why, when, and where’ within a short narration to get the listener up to speed. 

Narration by Sen: [00:02:46] The cultural revolution in China. One of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the Asian continent. Spending a decade from 1966 to 1976, this movement purged Chinese society of the remnants of its traditional and capitalist elements and replace them with its signature communism with Chinese characteristics. … He was one of the few from this village who returned to the city afterward and pursued a college education. It turns out that Julian’s parents had a similar trajectory.  

Julian: [00:03:52] At sixteen, my dad was sent to the countryside. And so that’s how he met my mom. My mom was from the village and, and I was there for seven years, planting rice, right. To the very end of the revolution till Mao’s death, 76. And so he was 23.  Um, my dad is from a highly, highly educated family.

This short narration accomplishes several things, namely introducing the next topic to be discussed, providing the listener with an important historical context, and telling a bit of her own story. 

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How to sound like yourself

If we’re so good at having conversations with friends, family and colleagues then why is it so difficult to read off of a script? Why do we automatically slip into a lofty radio voice or simply freeze up entirely?

There are many reasons why people struggle to sound like themselves. The best conversations that you have are the ones where you feel relaxed and comfortable. This allows your personality to shine through and enables you to be yourself. But what happens when you have to create that conversational tone and atmosphere alone in a studio? Once you have to start sounding ‘like yourself,’ it’s very easy to get in your head and have an identity crisis about how you naturally sound. This is where writing a script that serves you comes in. It does take practice, but once you find the tone of voice and style that works for you, scriptwriting will come more easily and naturally. 

As we learned, scripts help you stay focused and organized, but often at the risk of losing the elements that make you uniquely you. One of the biggest mistakes podcasters tends to make when scripting is trying to sound like a standard radio presenter and leaving their own personality behind. People listen to podcasts because they feel a special connection with the hosts, and the more robotic and formal you sound, the less likely they’ll be to connect with you while listening. You have to be yourself because listeners can tell if you are being a phony. If you have a particular turn of phrase, narrative style, or even slang, don’t shy away from featuring these elements in your script. Find what makes you relatable. Everyone is different and this is something we need to lean into, not try iron out. 

SO HOW?

Viki Merrik of Transom and NPR says “don’t stand at a podium” when writing your scripts. Sure, you may be a voice of authority in your field, but you still need to find a way to bring your listener in. Don’t write to talk, talk to write, and let the way you would naturally string a sentence or thought process together to guide you. If you don’t say words like ‘therefore’ and ‘thus,’ then don’t use them in your script. The simpler the better. Rather than writing a convoluted and complicated script, ad-lib, and riff as you go. Avoid repeating a phrase or word too often. You often miss these when you write to talk, but you will soon start hearing which sentences you lean on as a crutch and which filler words (like, uhm, uhh)  you use the most. While no one likes hearing a podcaster say the word ‘like’ or ‘uhm’ dozens of times in an episode, you can potentially leave a few filler words in your narration because it makes you sound more natural and conversational. 

When drafting your script, you should always proof-read your sentences out loud. The last thing you want is to go into the studio and realize that you don’t sound at all natural when reading your script. If you stumble over anything when proof-reading, or if you feel like something doesn’t fit into how you would normally speak, take it out. Always pay attention to what feels wrong. If you feel uneasy, or you trip over a certain phrase change it. When writing your script, you should also avoid alliteration. It’s a favorite of copywriters but alliteration doesn’t translate as well in audio it can potentially interfere with your flow when speaking. 

Many podcasters (and actors) prefer to rehearse and recite scripts with someone else in the room, and the same goes for writing anything meant to be read aloud. You don’t want to write in a vacuum, and having a friend, colleague, or co-host there when you script will help you to write as if you’re already speaking to an audience. If you can’t have someone with you to bounce ideas off of, start a sentence with “hey [name of best friend]….” to get your brain into the mode of speaking to someone you know.

Most podcasters will make changes to their scripts and voiceovers in the studio, no matter how much they prepared before. There will always be something that needs changing or tweaking, but don’t worry! The key is to not get stressed out when you have to make changes on the fly. It happens to everyone. If you feel ‘stuck in your body’ or trapped by the ‘professional’  shake it out, go crazy, exaggerate, dance, whatever you need to get out of your head. Even when you’re recording, make sure to stay hands-free so that you can gesticulate as if you were speaking to a friend. 

writing a podcast script

Using Mark-Ups to Guide You 

Once you’ve determined how you naturally speak and are able to script for yourself, you will start to develop your own style of script markups to keep you on track. Markups simply make it easier for you to read your script, and they act as a guide to help you pace and present yourself when reading out loud in front of the microphone. Even seasoned podcasters get the studio jitters every once in a while, and a well marked script can make sure they still sound as great as possible. 

Tone: Whether you are writing a script for yourself or for a co-host, you will want to make sure to include notes on tone for each section of the script. Will you be excited and authoritative, somber and melancholic, or happy and lighthearted? This will help you to reset your narrative style for each segment of the episode. 

Underlining: Underlining is often used to separate ideas, add emphasis, or guide the reading of a list. If there’s a particular word or concept you want the listener to take in and remember, make sure you underline the word or phrase as a reminder to focus on this particular part of the paragraph when reading in the studio. 

Pausing: Many of us forget to breathe and speak way too quickly when we get nervous. In order to combat this, use “[pause]” wherever you think pausing is of particular importance. A [pause] signals a longer-than-normal pause (more so than a comma). It allows for a moment of silence during which an argument, special term, or important point can sink in. It can also serve as a simple reminder to stop and breathe to make the narration sound more natural. 

Pronunciation: Always provide notes of pronunciation. Either break the word into its syllables or provide a phonetic/playable version of the pronunciation in the notes. It is okay if a word is pronounced in the narrator’s accent as long as it’s the correct pronunciation for the respective region.  

Color Coding: Consider making things even more obvious for yourself by color-coding by character, element, or segment. This will help you to organize a script even if it is dozens of pages long. 

Duration: Including the duration for each part of your script can also help you stay on track with the length of your podcast episode. You can also estimate how many words comfortably fit into the length of your podcast episodes to help guide you when writing scripts.

Podcast Script Template:

writing a podcast script

Whether you are an experienced podcaster or you’re new to the game, scripts can only help. Yes, they take time and it will take a couple of tries before you find the scripting format that works for you, but once you have it, it will revolutionize your podcasting experience. From prep to production, your process will be a whole lot less daunting and a whole lot more streamlined. That’s not to say that you won’t be met with rogue curveballs, mistakes, or guests who ramble on, but with the support of your scripting skills, you will be able to make anything work.

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Jill Beytin & Julia Joubert are the team behind Bear Radio, Berlin’s English Language podcasting  network and label.

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