Recently, I was asked to participate in an upcoming blog post to be published by Wistia, the video software company. (Full disclosure: Wistia is a presenting sponsor and launch partner of Marketing Showrunners, the media company I founded to cover the growing craft of brands making original podcasts and video series.)
Probably 12% of the answers I gave will make the final cut, since I’m one of a few voices appearing in the piece. But the questions I got forced me to do something I haven’t in quite some time: articulate my creative process.
Do I have one? What would it LOOK like? Is there something I could actually draw to visualize it?
Turns out yes! And so, in case it inspires anyone else to be more process-driven in their creative work (which, for me, always unleashes better work), here are my unedited answers to the questions I received. Consider this a sneak preview, before the piece actually launches…
Question 1: How did you determine the overarching theme for each season of your podcast, Unthinkable?
For context, my show has been around since March 2016, and we have loose seasons with breaks in between. Some season have been 7 episodes, some 17. All have a consistent theme, or a topic we’re exploring. This was my answer…
It’s a whole lot of me getting angry at something that I think is broken in the marketing industry, then asking lots of questions and investigating them through story and science, then trying to distill into insights, themes, frameworks, and usable ideas. Said in a far less impressive-sounding way? I wish something wasn’t so crappy, then I try to figure out how to convince the industry to change, and in between I have no idea what I’m doing so I try a lot of stuff.
I call this “the quest,” which is a term I learned from marketing author and speaker Andrew Davis, who helped me see the importance of focusing the creative process on investigation rather than pontification. Think of it as the relentless pursuit of curiosity through research and creation, which I find leads to better breakthroughs than leaning back in a chair and trying to concoct “the idea.”
The quest was previously something I just kinda … did. But since that’s not very teachable, I tried to sketch it out below…
Right now, because I’m doing both The Quest and running a media company for marketers who make shows (Marketing Showrunners), I’m mad at why so much “creativity” and “innovation” in marketing feels like random, one-off stunts. Why can’t we be more consistent? Shows require it. All of marketing needs it. Can we make creativity a habit, instead of a Hail Mary? That kicked off my quest in January 2019, and I imagine it’ll last another two years at least.
Question 2: How do you decide which lesson and story to tell in each podcast episode? Do you have the lesson in mind and then find a story to back it up? Or do you find an interesting story first and then extract a relevant lesson from it?
WOW, what a great question! To figure out what to publish, I sometimes start at a question or insight and try to fit a story that can illuminate it and make it knowable and concrete for marketers. Other times, I start with a story because it just feels right, then I try to delve into the details and figure out what insights I can rip out using voiceover on the show.
Whenever I get stuck, I absolutely have a bias: I start with a story thread that excites me and pull it, rather than get stuck thinking about the idea and trying to retrofit a good story to it. When we want to create great work, it’s tempting to gather up all the answers we think we need to justify creating. I find the opposite is almost always true and leads to even better work: create to find your answers.
Question 3: Do you rely on a specific story structure to craft each podcast episode?
Yes! I document the episode structure into a “rundown” for my episodes, which people can see in this template. That’s not a good template for ALL work — it’s a customized template to fit mine, built over years of tinkering, talking to listeners, and reflecting.
Shows are just the combination of three core pillars: the concept, the format, and the talent. A great show is the strategic combination of those three things.
The concept sits across the whole show, providing the highest-level filter. An exploration of X or an interview with Jane Doe would look different and unique on my show compared to any other show.
The format applies to the episode, and it prevents you from “hoping” you get a good final episode. Instead, you KNOW it, because you know the component blocks (larger sections with a discrete purpose for the listener) and beats (smaller moments that make up the block, informing production decisions like interview questions, sound design or B-roll, and more).
All this to say, I don’t know how to make a show any longer without starting at the strategic creation of an underlying framework, and the constant refinement of it.
Let’s put it all together now: Unthinkable is a show about work that feels unconventional … until you hear their side of the story. To create that kind of episode, we use a 6 different blocks, none of which the listener realizes are happening, but all of which helps us create consistent and ever-improving episodes. You’ll notice the blocks form what is essentially a logical argument, from why the story’s protagonist seemed to do something unconventional … through their story … and arriving at why it was logical AND why we should think more like them too.
Here’s that rundown:
Cold Open: intrigue the listener immediately and give them a reason to keep listening.
A Block: something “unthinkable” — what’s the conventional wisdom in this person’s or this team’s world? What did they do instead?
B Block: the “lead story” — what happened when they did it their way? How did they struggle against best practices, just like listeners might?
C Block: the first-principle insight — why was it actually logical and strategic to do it their way, instead of follow the best practice? What can we all learn regardless of our context?
D Block: their backstory — how did this person or team arrive at this compelling story? (Use supporting stories/moments to flesh out a fuller picture of the subject or subjects)
E Block: “exit velocity” — why is the story meaningful to them? To us? What insights do we now have on our journey together? Any questions this leads to that we might explore next? Finish on a punchy, memorable moment, followed by 1 call-to-action.
— — —
If you haven’t yet, subscribe to get a few short ideas like this via email each week. You’ll also get exclusive announcements, access, and experimental projects once every few months. Or you can support what I do by purchasing a book.