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Three Secrets of Being Likable

Imagine you meet a new neighbor on the day you move in. Both you and the neighbor will likely be polite, and your first conversation will be generic — what nice weather we are having, what do you do for work, and so forth.

It is not until you know each other a bit that you begin getting to know some not-so-polite sides to your neighbor.

That is how writers introduced you to Beth Harmon, the main character in The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. You first meet Beth as an innocent 9-year-old orphan. She is quiet, seems nice, and you feel sympathy for her situation.

Then you learn that Beth has both an admirable, superhuman talent for chess – and a not-so admirable super-addiction to drugs and alcohol. Beth Harmon gets even more interesting and complex from there.

The Queen’s Gambit demonstrates three important lessons for broadcasters and podcasters about likability. The way we think of memorable characters in film, television, and books also applies to radio and podcast hosts to build a bond with an audience.

A Moment of Vulnerability. Beth Harmon entering the orphanage, frightened and sad, demonstrates the principle in screenwriting where a character is momentarily out of control and at a power disadvantage – just like us. If Superman were invulnerable, audiences would hate him. We like Superman for being stronger than a locomotive. We love Superman when we learn that he is powerless against Kryptonite and humiliated as alter-ego Clark Kent. Revealing your vulnerabilities and shortcomings draws the audience to you.

Skewed opposites. Audiences love a character like Beth Harmon, who is pulled in two directions – good and bad. James Bond is another example: loyal in service to his country, brave, honest and clever — and an arrogant, misogynist alcoholic who defies rules, destroys things, and murders people. We all have opposing forces of personality and behavior within us, and people identify with hosts who reveal that struggle authentically.

The Theory of the Third. Be cautious about revealing too much too soon. Like writers handled The Queen’s Gambit, introduce yourself with more surface-level content and slowly reveal your flaws and quirks as people get to know you better. The Theory of the Third is a writer’s term for how two characters meeting for the first time next to a statue will discuss the statue first because it is a safe starter conversation. We encourage on-air hosts to reveal as much of their true selves as possible – once you become established.

Today even respected broadcast journalists are revealing more of their human side. For example, NPR’s Scott Simon shared stories and his feelings about his mother’s final days. Most broadcasts of Weekend Edition Saturday include at least one mention of Scott’s over-the-top Chicago Cubs obsession.

For you to be likable, today’s audiences demand authenticity. Perfection and polish are viewed with suspicion. The most successful broadcasters and podcasters are beloved for their quirks and flaws, vulnerabilities, and inner conflicts with audiences.