Nonfiction Writing Lessons from the Planet Money Podcast

Explaining Complicated Stuff in an Interesting Way

If you write about complicated topics, start listening to nonfiction podcasts—popular ones about science, the economy, or current events. The best podcasters know how to keep an audience’s attention while explaining abstract concepts.

Since the pandemic started, months, I’ve become a loyal, consistent listener of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. Why? Because it does an excellent job of explaining complicated topics in a fun and engaging way.

Recent episodes have covered topics such as:

Complicated, abstract topics come alive in a short audio format.

On May 15, the Planet Money team shared their methods in their 1,000th episode. If you write nonfiction, you can learn a lot from this episode.

The Structure of a Planet Money Episode

Over a thousand episodes, we have developed a kind of formula for what makes a PLANET MONEY episode a PLANET MONEY episode. And we thought-you know what?-for the 1,000th episode, why don’t we just share that formula with you today?

Kenny Malone, Planet Money

The Top

The start of the podcast grabs your attention with a quick story or scenario.

The episodes often begin with the voice of a colorful or important character talking about the subject. It’s all about intriguing the listener, inciting curiosity about the content to follow.

The Shoulders

Having captured your interest, the Planet Money team then lays the groundwork for what follows in a part they call the shoulder. Often, they deliver a brief history lesson to set a context. (Apparently, they harken back to the Great Depression quite often.)

They also introduce a key character at this point. For example, they might call on someone who is processing Paycheck Protection loans or someone who regularly trades crude oil futures. The story now has a human voice and dimension.

The Body

In the body of the episode, the explanation and exploration begins. As Sarah Gonzalez says in this episode:

This is where we earn our paychecks. This is where we have to get creative to explain things like dramatic shifts in year-over-year parcel-specific housing prices.

Sarah Gonzalez, Planet Money

You might notice one technique right there: adding a concrete example (housing price shifts) to an abstract category (things they have to explain). Concrete details make abstract concepts come alive.

As podcasters, they cannot show you graphics or charts. They rely on your sense of hearing alone. But they find creative ways to invoke other senses.

Once they hired an opera singer to “sing” a chart. I must find that episode!

The Wrap

Each episode concludes with some kind of reflection, often circling back to the voice from the top of the show.

What to Apply in Your Writing

The Planet Money podcast structure works well for a blog post. Start with a hook, lay the groundwork, then do the heavy lifting. Remember that your audience may be distracted: don’t go on for too long.

Beyond the structure, pay attention to how the podcasters talk about their subjects. The methods that work for listeners also apply to readers.

Each of these strategies earns a chapter in Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Whythe book I wrote about effective nonfiction writing. It’s cool to find that the strategies translate from the written word to audio.

If you’re interested in writing podcast scripts, check out Jay Acunzo’s post Writing for Audio, Not Articles.

Originally published at on June 16, 2020.

Author, Writing Coach: Writing about Marketing, Technology, and Writing Itself (very meta).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store