person listening to podcasts courtesy Hero Images/Getty Images

When the podcast wave began, I wasn’t into it at all. Because, to be honest, until recently, I never saw the point of them—a seemingly cheap version of reading. After all, they couldn’t possible compete with the rush of a literal page-turner, or so I thought.

Thanks to a middle-of-the-day plane-ride with no books and no laptop battery power, I finally relented.

I eventually settled on an episode of the Tim Ferriss show with Mark Andressen as his special guest. Two minutes in, I started warming up to it. Five minutes in, I was hooked. I listened to three more episodes on my flight, and that was just the beginning. 

The appeal wasn’t just that listening provided entertainment, it also challenged my thinking, exposed me to new ideas, and helped me deep dive on subjects I suddenly longed to know more about. 

And all of that has enabled me to take my networking conversation game to the next level. Because, let’s face it, you’ll be far more memorable if you bring up something interesting (like a fun fact you picked up from a cool podcast), than if you just give your typical industry elevator speech.

So read on for suggestions to help you up your small talk game, no matter where you are or who you're chatting with.

1. The Tim Ferriss Show

It’s hyped-up for a reason. Tim, himself, is hyped up for a reason. Whether he’s talking about the art of deconstruction, featuring world-renowned guests, or revealing insights from the community he built, Ferriss is exceptional at making seemingly impossible goals seem possible.

For instance, on an episode with Caroline Paul, author of The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure , as well as former San Francisco fire fighter and global adventurer, he broaches the topics of cultivating bravery and pushing past fear. If you’re struggling to make a change in life or seeking a better way to problem-solve, this podcast can help you get there. It’s been a tremendous resource in helping me talk my friends and colleagues through difficult career choices.

2. Another Round

MC’ed by BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, this one never disappoints. The co-hosts’ humor usually has me laughing from minute one, but also thinking thoughtfully about the problematic social norms they openly address.

Their candid discussion on getting through each day’s news cycle in this trying time has enabled me to better emphasize with and talk about social issues I may be less familiar with. As such, I’ve found it’s helped me be more thoughtful and inclusive, especially when it comes to more sensitive issues.

3. The Payoff

Finance is tough for almost everyone: The more personal the topic, the more uncomfortable people are talking about it. Hosted by Antonia Cereijido and Chris Duffy, this one does a great job of making the topic accessible and approachable for everyone.

The episode, Love & Money, Credit Sexiness, and Financial Infidelity, offers an in-depth look at the role money plays in dating and relationships, including actual recordings of “the money conversation” that took place on the co-hosts’ dates.

For me, this intentional removal of the awkward factor has me openly talking to my own friends about how learning to negotiate within the bounds of a personal relationship will help them when it comes time to negotiate on a professional level.

4. See Something Say Something

What does it mean to be Muslim in America? Ahmed Ali Akbar does a phenomenal job of exploring current political, economic, and social issues through the lens of the Muslim-American community without turning it into a political podcast. A recent episode included an analysis of the Seinfield character Babu Bhatt, specifically why he’s a problematic stereotype.

Since most people are familiar with the classic show, I’ve found it easy to engage in the heavy-handed topic of what it means to be politically correct by referencing that very episode.

5. A16Z

This is what you should be listening to if you want to stay on top of current technology trends. Whether it’s Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, or Software as a Service (SaaS), A16Z can help you figure it out. Each episode focuses on a different trend and brings in the space’s leading pioneers to share their perspective.

A recent one that aims to decipher the growing emphasis on “coding” addresses a question I’ve found useful in my own professional circle: Is it imperative to be able to write lines of code or simply be code-literate?

6. How I Built This

Ever wonder what it was like starting out for Mark Cuban, Kate Spade, Richard Branson, and other world-renowned entrepreneurs and leaders. Many of them came from humble beginnings and were frequently one misstep away from failure.

With long-time NPR host and bureau chief Guy Raz digging into how these success stories got their start, this show offers an inside look at what it takes to bring an idea to life.

Each episode homes in on the pivotal make-or-break moment for the entrepreneur, with plenty of learning to be had. Their stories make for great small talk fun facts. To wit: If Mark Cuban can make it through dodging bill collectors while on the brink of bankruptcy, you can get through this month’s fundraising.

7. Behind the Brilliance

Lisa Nicole Bell, a social entrepreneur, media company founder and owner, and podcast host drops some serious life-advice here. Her no-nonsense approach to solving problems and thinking through challenges can help you break through large personal and professional mental blocks.

Ever since I listened to the episode with multitalented artist Andrea Pippins, I’ve been reflecting on my goals and how to achieve them.

My friends and I openly discuss this million-dollar question: How do you reach your professional aspirations and achieve work-life harmony?

8. TED Radio Hour

You know about TED Talks, but did you know TED has its own series of podcasts? My favorite is TED Radio Hour because they stitch together Q&A and pieces of various TED Talks from experts on a specific topic: Think Bill Nye for adults. By the end of the podcast, you end up with a nuanced understanding of a complex subject.

A great example is the episode The Food We Eat, it brings in the perspective of scientists, psychologists, and food entrepreneurs to cover topics including the changing American diet, food for connection, and how insect protein will transform the food industry.

As I hope you can tell from this list, there is a podcast out there for everyone, and listening is about so much more than sheer entertainment. Tuning in has gotten me through long commutes and apartment cleanings, but it’s also given me an advantage when I meet new people or need to hold my own in conversation.

I’d highly encourage you to give one a listen, just don’t forget to tweet me your favorites at @samir077.

Updated 6/19/2020