Podcast Structure: The 3 Acts Of Every Great Podcast Episode

Last updated on March 6th, 2020

People love stories. Stories don’t just entertain us. They’re powerful ways of transmitting emotion and information between one another. In order to tell the best stories, you need the right podcast structure

Brands have known about the power of storytelling for a long time. Stories can be used to sell products because, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins, the structure of a piece of content is more important than the content itself.

“People are attracted to stories,” says Keith Quesenberry, a research partner at Johns Hopkins, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.”

Essentially, stories change our behavior by changing our brain chemistry.

Here’s a great explanation of how this works by Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of Trust Factor: The Science of High-Performance Companies and The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works.

As a podcaster, imagine having the ability to change your listeners’ behavior with just your words.

But in order to create that response, you must tell stories through your podcasts that capture your listeners’ attention, build tension, and then satisfy that tension. That’s a skill every podcaster should master.

That’s why each podcast episode you produce should follow the three act podcast structure.

In episode 3, Crafting The Narrative, on Audience we talked to storytelling experts about crafting the perfect podcast episode. Listen now to discover how to best tell your story.

The Three Act Podcast Structure

The three act podcast structure is a storytelling model that divides a story into three parts. It’s a construct that neatly organizes a story into a logical and satisfying order.

In school, our teachers referred to the three parts of the structure as “beginning, middle, and end,” but that description doesn’t really do it justice.

podcast structure
The Three Act Structure storytelling method.

You’ll find this structure (with some variation) throughout all types of content: books, movies, articles, and podcasts. It’s everywhere, from Shakespeare’s plays to Aesop’s fables to Spielberg’s movies.

In fact, if you listen carefully to how you and your friends tell stories to one another, you’ll notice all three acts.

If you plan your podcast episodes with the three act structure in mind, you’ll create more engaging content that hooks your listeners from the first moment and keeps their attention all the way to the end.

Let’s talk about what goes into each of the three acts of this podcast structure.

Act 1: Setup

In the first act of the episode, your goal is to use exposition to establish a setting, introduce the listener to characters and their relationships, and build the world they live in.

Most importantly, this is where you set the stakes. If a bad thing happens, or a good thing fails to happen, how will your characters (or other people) suffer?

The first act also includes the “call to adventure.” This is the moment the conflict becomes unavoidable and the characters are forced to act.

Now, that probably sounds heavier than you intend your episodes to be. But even small stories should contain these elements.

The first act must grab your listener’s attention. This is why it’s a critical element for podcasters.

Movie-goers and book-readers will wait through a weak beginning because they’ve paid for the experience, but your listeners don’t pay for your content, so there’s nothing lost by closing their browser tab.

Hook your listeners with a strong opening. Be dramatic, unique, and surprising. Make them think, “Okay, I need to hear the rest of this.”

For instance, if you wanted to talk about website conversion optimization in one of your episodes, diving straight into your list of actionable strategies wouldn’t be very powerful.

Actionable advice is good, but you can create more drama and power by setting the scene with the problem, explaining why a poor conversion rate drags businesses down, and introducing the listener to a situation where you (or someone else) were affected by poor conversions.

Basically, you have to create stakes, otherwise no one will care.

Act 2: Confrontation

The second act is the part of the story that raises the stakes. It’s when the characters deal with ever-worsening challenges and obstacles. There’s usually a point where the main characters attempt to solve the problem, but fail and find themselves in a more dire position.

(Keep in mind that whenever I say “character,” that very well could be you.)

In many stories, characters fail to resolve their problems because they lack the right skills, tools, or information. In a fantasy epic, the hero lacks the mythical sword. In a heist film, the thief needs the access code. In a drama, the love interest doesn’t know how to commit.

Characters who have everything they need to solve their problems are, well, boring.

Characters are only able to resolve the plot by changing who they are. In most cases, they’re supported by mentors or co-protagonists (the posse, the sidekick, the hero’s party, etc.).

An important part of the second act is authenticity. Plot twists and problems should seem real. For instance, people make mistakes. It’s good to highlight characters’ errors, bad habits, near-failures, and failures. Characters who conquer adversity without a sweat aren’t interesting.

This means that when you tell stories about how you or other people overcame problems, don’t be afraid to weave in the failures, whether external or internal. If a lesson was expensive, explain the real cost. If you or your guest had to grow as a person, create a contrast between old and new versions.

If you bring guests on to your show, they may try to minimize their trials to make themselves look good. Everyone wants to be the hero who solved the puzzle, fixed the problem, and got the girl in first 10 minutes.

Don’t let your guests skip through their challenges. Push them to elaborate. Ask them what caused their circumstances and why they struggled.

Stories with ups and downs are more believable and captivating because they seem like life.

Act 3: Resolution

The final act of your story resolves the plot and any major subplots. It’s closure. It includes a climax moment or scene where you raise tension as much as you can and then suddenly satisfy it.

The purpose of the resolution is to give your listeners a pay-off. It’s a satisfying end to reward them for following the story. If you fail to resolve your story, at best they’ll consider your podcast unmemorable. At worst, they’ll feel cheated.

In your podcast, the resolution is the moment you solve the problem and reveal that final piece of information that solves the problem or bestows the lesson. It’s when you explain the main thing you want your listeners to walk away with.

This means you should plan every episode with an end in mind. You should always know where you’re going. Most importantly, you shouldn’t reveal the climax early in the episode, otherwise you’ll never build tension.

Podcast Structure Helps You Build A Story

The nice part about the three act podcast structure is that it’s intuitive. Even if you hadn’t heard of it before you read this article, you probably do most of it anyway.

For instance, you probably begin every episode with some background information. If you have a guest, you explain to your listeners what he or she does for a living and why you brought them on the show. That’s the beginning of act one.

This means that while your listeners probably won’t openly criticize you for poor podcast structure, they internally know when something isn’t right.

As you plan each podcast episode, take a minute to consider the structure; the beginning, middle, and end. Even if you can’t identify three distinct acts, organize your episode into the setting > tension > resolution format.

With the three act podcast structure, you can hack your listeners’ brains and turn them into avid fans who can’t wait to come back for more stories.

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