5 Ways to Improve Your Show Without Spending More Money
We’ve uncovered what I think is the single most limiting belief too many marketers share, which in turn prevents us from creating better shows: the belief that creativity means big.
Maybe we want to make a show, but we conclude we don’t have the budget or time. Maybe we want to do a better show, but we believe we simply can’t afford it. We want, but we can’t, and so we don’t.
Creativity doesn’t mean big. Any “big” creative project is just the sum total of lots of little wins, all strung together — small, often hidden choices by the creator that we never see from those we admire. Because we receive a final product from others and can’t peer into their inner workings, we assume: To do something like that must require a lot of time and resources.
The thing is, when a great creator or leader is asked about their celebrated work, they often make it sound more complicated than it has to be. Maybe they don’t really know how to explain their process, or maybe the person interviewing them leads the witness, praising them and implying that, surely, they must have a magical gift and be uniquely suited to navigate this huge project. So naturally, the ego goes, “Take the bait! It’s delicious!”
Two things we can do to combat this limiting belief:
First, let’s start peering into the inner workings of podcasts we admire. Let’s shed light on the hidden process. There, we’ll see just how small each decision or component piece really is.
That’s why we launched 3 Clips, where we deconstruct great podcasts, a few little pieces at a time.
Second, let’s rethink what it means to be creative. Creativity is about resourcefulness, not resources. If you have four hours and $400 to spend, creativity is about how you spend your time and money — not how much you have to spend.
So, back to my teasery headline above: Why is this the single most limiting belief? Because we instantly shoot down our best ideas, or the ideas of those around us. We don’t find creative way (i.e., resourceful ways, scrappy ways, clever ways, ingenious ways) to do great work. We believe it’s all about spending more time and money, and since we can’t, we halt our thinking process entirely.
But opportunities to be more creative and build deeply resonant shows present themselves all over our existing process — no extra resources needed! We just have to learn to see them.
Here are a few ways to spend the same amount of time and money you always spend on your show…but in more creative ways.
1. Use a cold open to start your episodes
Instead of starting with boring housekeeping or several calls-to-action or a summary of the episode, tease the listener with a cold open, which is a type of open loop. Grip them. Start telling a story, then complete it later. State a few open-ended questions they’re burning to hear answered. Tell them or better yet show them why they should care, why this is a good time investment. If your intro normally takes you 20 minutes to write and 5 minutes to record, what if WHAT you said and HOW you said it were both better?
Creativity requires us to do something refreshing compared to the status quo — not something big.
2. Ask better questions
Many marketers host interview shows. Some of those marketers do so because they believe it’s easier than more post-production-heavy styles. But interviewing is a skill learned over decades — just look at the greats in journalism and entertainment media. (We’ve even written about how some of those greats conduct their interviews. Separately, I proposed a three-pack of questions to ask, in order, to extract the best possible content for your listeners from your interview subject.)
While I can’t tell you the exact questions to ask, you can still take the same number of minutes you currently use to prep for and execute an interview and learn to use those minutes better.
That’s where the next two ideas can help…
3. Improve your show’s concept, aka its premise
Too many shows that we’ve studied at MSR lack an actual premise. If you white-labeled the program, it could be anyone in the industry behind that series: a competitor, an influencer, a trade publication, an industry blog — anyone. But a strong concept enables a marketer to create something that is uniquely theirs. It also helps listeners or viewers self-select that this show is truly for them.
So what about our interview questions? An overt concept helps us craft the right questions to meet the needs of the show and explore what we’ve promised others we’re exploring, how we’re exploring it. For instance, my first show was for a venture capital firm investing in tech startups. Dozens of our competitors had podcasts by the time we launched. But we named ours Traction, and we pledged to only explore what companies did going from zero to one on a given problem. If we talked to a founder others had already interviewed, we wouldn’t spend time discussing how they scaled. We told our listeners we only cared about (as our tagline said) “creative and clever ways startups start.”
Thus, I knew what interview questions to ask. We could interview the same guests found elsewhere, or talk about topics others talked about, and yet we could press the interview through a distinct lens or conceit that yielded an original episode every time.
- Science Vs: a show from Gimlet Media about science, where they pit facts against popular conceptions. Sure, others explore organic foods…but not like this.
- Recur Now: a daily show from software startup ProfitWell that talks about the SaaS industry in short, punchy, newsy form. Sure, others talk about the SaaS industry…but not like this.
- Camp Monsters: a single-voice, fully scripted show from REI talking about camping and outdoor legends and lore. Sure, others talk about these myths or camping more broadly…but not like this.
Your concept should inform WHAT you ask your guests, but what about WHEN you ask it? That’s where this next approach can help…
4. Segment your episode
Maybe you announce each segment as you move through it (“This next section is called X, where we explore Y”), or maybe it’s only in your head or written on an internal doc. Regardless, when you have a plan heading into your episode, not just leave things to chance or gut feel, the listener experience becomes 10x better…without your having to spend even 2x the resources.
On 3 Clips, for instance, we chose to segment some of our episodes as follows:
- Cold Open (tease the episode, ensuring you care and know why you should care)
- Intro (host greetings, show concept explained, reminder to subscribe to our newsletter)
- Facts of the Show (we profile 1 podcast per episode, so here are the basics you need to know)
- Studio Pitch (how might we explain the feel of this show if asked to pitch it to a Hollywood executive?)
- Snap Judgments (what do listeners experience? Let’s have some empathy and play back the first 10-30 seconds and draw conclusions/teach)
- 3 Clips (play back one clip at a time and make sense of it)
- Wrinkles (propose one small change they could make that could greatly improve the show)
- Final Score (how does this show rate?)
- Outro (final CTAs)
- Suggested Read (one article we believe you should read from our blog)
Put aside the need to do any editing (which we do on our show). If you create a segmented episode, your listeners will be astounded at how high quality the program feels…all without you spending more resources. You’ll get that same reaction as a highly produced show, but you didn’t “go big.” You just used your resourcefulness to shape the episode, with the same time you’d always allotted to your show.
You just used that time better.
5. Reinvent the show in small but refreshing ways
A while ago, I published a piece about the 5 ways to reinvent a show. In it, I proposed changes we can make that require no budget and almost no time. One such change was to “remix” the show (and yes, all 5 things start with “re-“).
One way to remix the show is to create a miniseries. Use some or all of the next few episodes, or earmark a recurring date each month or quarter, and go deeper into one specific topic, or talk to one specific type of guest, or tell one specific type of story, or experiment with one specific type of episode format or production style.
For example, a show about marketing can explore the rise of podcasting for the next four episodes. A show about leadership can dive deeper into how new managers can make the switch from practitioner to leader, or interview executives who have been in their same job for 20+ years despite how rare that is today. Or maybe a show that normally features guest interviews can try a few short monologues, with one host riffing or reading about one topic.
A miniseries can also turn into a recurring feature of the show once proven successful, i.e. an episode type that you use every so often. It’s like a creative well you can dip into whenever needed.
My favorite example is from the podcast Reply All, which normally does resource-intensive reporting and narrative-style episodes. However, every so often, they do something called “Yes Yes No” episodes. That’s where their rather social media-illiterate CEO finds a tweet full of pop culture references that he doesn’t understand, and the show’s co-hosts try to help him get it. (Their goal is to end by reaching “Yes Yes Yes,” with the co-hosts and, now, their boss all understanding the tweet.)
What a brilliant idea! It’s a great episode, an inside joke for old listeners and a refreshing change of pace for new ones, and yet they ultimately save resources by producing that type of episode — all without ever hurting quality. And how?
Because they know that creativity doesn’t mean big.
Regardless of how we approach our shows, or whether you use any of the above suggestions, the fact remains: It’s easy to disassociate ourselves from our creative heroes or our own ideas of what “better” feels like. The reason we can’t? Resources. We don’t have the time or the budget.
But creativity is not about resources. It’s about resourcefulness. It’s about how you spend the time and money you already have, not how much you’re able to spend.
Ask yourself: If you and your team embraced this philosophy, how might things get better? In the end, it may be the difference between a commodity show and something truly valuable that others love.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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