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Positive Podcasting


There’s been a surge of interest recently in podcasting among learning and development professionals. Behind the hype, though, hard information seems hard to find. Donald H Taylor outlines some ways to get started and make your mark with podcasting.

Back in the Autumn of 2004, Godfrey Parkin wrote an introduction to podcasting for TrainingZone. The article closed perceptively:
“With a little vision and a willingness to experiment, I suspect that podcasting will rapidly find a valuable place in the already crowded chest of tools available to marketers and trainers.”

Eighteen months later, Godfrey noted that while podcasts appear now to have hit the training mainstream, they are still generally misunderstood and often poorly executed. And he’s right. At first glance it does indeed seem that podcasting is now part of the training toolkit. IBM has a library of 2,700 training podcasts, and over a million downloads, while National Semiconductor has spent $2.5m on video iPods for all 8,500 employees.

But how well does this impressive performance match our own experience? Not very well. While blue-chip companies may have the resources to produce high-quality output, the general standard is indifferent at best, and many people who are interested in possibly using podcasts have little idea where to start. In fact, I’d argue that the variable quality of many podcasts stems from their production by a small group of enthusiasts, whose expertise ranges from highly professional all the way down.

And – crucially – there isn’t yet much sharing of podcasting expertise in learning and development. In June, Rob Foster asked the TrainingZone community for tips on corporate podcasting, and was underwhelmed by the response. About 450 read the question. Nobody replied.

It’s not that the information doesn’t exist. It’s just that it’s unevenly distributed. If you’re contemplating adding podcasts to what you already do, here are some suggested next steps and some pointers on what makes a good podcast.

The basics
A good first stop for potential L&D podcasters would be Ufi’s good practice guide Podcasting reviewed. Practical and straightforward, it is non-technical, but still outlines the steps you need to follow in podcasting. It also describes different types of podcast, and suggests what does and does not work.

Consider also Podcasting: A teaching with technology whitepaper, from the Office of Technology for Education and the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University. 3 pages longer than Ufi’s, at 15 pages, this contains some valuable L&D podcasting case studies. For further tips and background information, Jane Knight’s library for podcasting is a great resource.

However, if you really want to start podcasting, there’s one thing you’ll have to do a lot of first: listening.

Open your ears
To best way to understand podcasting is to experience it. You don’t need an iPod to do this. You don’t even need an MP3 player if your computer has speakers. I would recommend installing iTunes (it’s free) and browsing and listening widely. You can pick up a lot.

Here are some things I’ve learnt from listening:

  • Production values are essential. Podcasts must be clear and loud (try listening to a quiet one on a train, or while driving). For more on sound quality, see Clive Shepherd’s blog post. They should also be short (under 15 minutes) – to reduce production time, and to maintain listener interest.

  • The quality of voice is crucial. A good voice expresses enthusiasm through a range of tone, speed and volume. Boring ones don’t. Find an enthusiastic expert with a good voice, put them with an engaging interviewer and you have the recipe for a great podcast.

  • Content is everything. I can put up with dull voices and even poor sound quality if the content excels. If it doesn’t, I tune out – literally and figuratively.
  • Non-L&D podcasts I have enjoyed recently include:

  • The FT’s Lucy Kellaway – a great voice and delivery, often wickedly funny content, railing against the nonsense of modern office life.

  • Odd IT – the British Computer Society’s round up of odd stories from the world of IT has a good balance of three bright voices, and sufficient variety among three or four short stories.

  • BBC Radio’s In Our Time – the benchmark for quality content, this shows how to hold an audio audience for 40 minutes.
  • But it’s all too easy to get it wrong. On a web site you are one click away from losing your audience. On a podcast you may have 20-40 seconds to capture a new listener’s attention, and you can lose them at any time.
    So how do you keep your audience interested?
    Tips from the pros
    Tony Valle, a US professional podcaster lists the Top 5 Corporate Podcast mistakes to avoid like the plague:
    1. Let the “Computer Nerd” do it.
    2. Let the “Marketing Nerd” do it.
    3. Don’t bring in help.
    4. Trying one episode out to “see how it goes” will gain you nothing.
    5. Don’t promote your show.

    Tony is a podcasting consultant, which explains point 3. Do you need external help to make a training podcast? Talking to people who’ve done it elsewhere is probably just as valuable. (Check the comments below Tony’s article, which extend the list further and includes comments against ‘over production’ and ‘padding’.)

    One person who’s been there and done it is Marcelo Lewin. Marcelo podcasts for his US employer, and his ‘How to’ podcast is a good example of a well-produced (but not over-produced) corporate podcast dealing with the generation and marketing of podcasts. If it sounds like a crisp, clear production from BBC Radio 4, that’s because he knows what he’s going to say, has recorded it using a professional setup, and has edited his recording.

    The message is clear: keep it simple, keep it relevant, and keep at it. This could be applied to a lot of training delivery, and indeed there are many good podcasts in the Learning and Development space (surfing iTunes will reveal a great number). The Australians have a great tradition of distance learning, and the E-learning Insights web site is a blog-based podcast with plenty of useful insight into different aspects of technology-based learning, including Second Life and e-learning.

    Is it worth it?
    After a while listening, you may ask yourself whether you really want to produce a podcast for Learning and Development. Ignore arguments from both technology lovers and haters. They will exaggerate the value (or otherwise) of podcasts. There is only one question that matters: will it work for you?

    That is up to you. Podcasting is a cheap way of reaching anyone capable of playing your message, but it is very easy to do it badly. Still, provided you start slowly and don’t jump in with a big-bang solution, you are unlikely to meet the opprobrium that the Home Office attracted recently in this <a href="" target="_blank"Times article. Instead, like Norwich Union (sales training) and the BBC (radio interview training), you are more likely to find that podcasting does indeed have a place in Godfrey Parkin’s ‘already crowded chest of tools’.

    About the author: Donald H Taylor is Alliances Director at InfoBasis, and Chairman of the Learning Technologies and IITT National Trainers conferences. In January he was presented with the Colin Corder Award for outstanding services to IT training. He blogs at


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