“Successful” podcasts and language

Spotify’s Research and Development department released a report detailing how the language you use can make your podcast more successful. Use “I, we, you” not “her, him, them”, don’t swear, use positive language and don’t talk slowly – and people will listen to your show more. They do note: … “It must be emphasized that the stylistic associations that were observed to distinguish high and low engagement podcasts in this particular dataset are correlations with no causality established, and therefore must be interpreted with caution”.

Through a combination of reading podcast advice blogs, previous research on correlating linguistic features with consumption metrics in other media like books and tweets, and intuition, we devised a set of interpretable, automatically measurable features of the titles, descriptions, and transcripts. These are features like the proportion of swear words or the reading grade level.

Much of the popular advice of language usage is validated by the data. Compared to low engagement episodes, high engagement podcast episodes tend to have longer and more relevant descriptions, use diverse vocabularies (as measured by word entropy and reading grade level), contain more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, more conversations and personal narratives (as measured by the prevalence of first and second person pronouns compared to third), and fewer words associated with swearing.

On the other hand, some of the correlations are surprising. High engagement podcast episodes use language more like the average podcast creator, as measured by the cross entropy of the episode under a language model trained on the rest of the dataset, which contradicts the general advice to create a distinctive “voice.” They are also associated with faster speech rates (number of words per second) than low engagement episodes.

This report coincides with our first piece of negative feedback from a listener in some time: “These stories were read too slowly to keep my kids’ attention. I get trying to have a soothing voice for bedtime, but this was like Ben Stein calling roll in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Some feedback should of course be ignored.