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By: Molly Donovan on January 16th, 2020

Deconstructing Gimlet Media’s StartUp Podcast

3 Clips is the official podcast of Marketing Showrunners. Every week, it, we deconstruct episodes of shows that inspire us, one clip at a time, so we can all learn to build our audience’s favorite show…and become their favorite brand. 

In this series, MSR founder Jay Acunzo and managing editor Molly Donovan chat about the highlights of this week’s episode of 3 Clips.

What’s your tweet-long summary of the episode?

Jay Acunzo: Tension.

(End of tweet).

To expand: The most earnest storytellers on planet Podcast get sucked into big tech (but also reveal how every single one of us can create irresistible episodes without experiencing anything outlandish — and we just keep missing it!)

Molly DonovanHow the best storytellers elicit captivating material from…nothing (and you can, too).

What’s one thing someone in the episode said that marketers need written across their desks?

Jay: Minus five points for the self-quote here, but this would make just a lovely bit of etching across one’s workspace of choice:

“Find the tension. Use the tension. Craft an amazing episode.” – Jay Acunzo, founder of MSR, host of 3 Clips, and horrific self-quoter as of right now, apparently

Molly: “We rush to make sure everybody thinks that everything is great and we’re successful, or maybe our guests do the same thing when they answer our questions. And so we don’t let stuff get tense. But tension is what causes a story to rise, and that rising tension is what creates a narrative arc.” – Jay Acunzo, former English major-turned-showrunner (also founder of MSR and shameless self-quoter)

What’s something this company/show does well that most marketers don’t?

Jay: StartUp and, more broadly, everyone at Gimlet Media (including StartUp’s erstwhile host and Gimlet founder Alex Blumberg) understand story. Period. It doesn’t matter if we as marketers tell stories, talk to guests, narrate and read scripts, or, heck, create a game show out of our podcast. Format doesn’t matter. Budget doesn’t matter. The ability to use the foundational element of good storytelling can make or break a show. And that foundational element is tension. Conflict. Uncertainty. Open-endedness. 

Too many branded shows wind up flat — literally. When you add tension to the flow of something, it raises anticipation and increases that feeling of angst or excitement. Imagine a flat line now sloping upward — that’s the beginning of a narrative arc. Literally.

We can create tension by teeing up a question as interviewers. We can create tension by asking the listener open-ended questions that we pay off later, or by sharing the first few moments of a story that we leave lingering until the second half of an episode. Again, this isn’t about crafting narrative-style episodes (though it’s just as vital if you do). This is about good storytelling beats: “This happened, BUT then this. And so that, BUT then this. And so that, BUT then this.”

Tension is THE missing ingredient in our shows and, even more beautifully, it’s found all around us, in everyday moments — exactly what StartUp reveals, if we really listen hard enough (or, yanno, listen to this episode of 3 Clips…)

Molly: Upon navigating to, the first thing you read under “About Gimlet” is “Gimlet Media is the award-winning narrative podcasting company…” um, YEAH. These aren’t just podcasters. They’re narrative podcasters.

And that means, as Jay stressed above (and in this episode of 3 Clips), that they spin a story from everything. They apply every detail, no matter how small, in service of their overarching narrative. That expertise makes their content cohesive, tight, fast-moving — but it also makes it interesting and enjoyable

This company and show (and this particular episode) can craft a compelling narrative from the most mundane, everyday occurrences. It almost makes you think that, with the right approach, you could too.

What was your favorite clip? Why?

Jay: The second clip. It was arguably the most stress-relieving realization of my showrunning career to hear that clip and learn from it.

(See, if I don’t continue to say WHY that was, I’ve just created a bit of tension for you. You kinda want to listen right now, don’t you? Yeah you do. Yeah. You. Do.)

(Seriously, I will say no more. Go listen to it.)

Molly: I loved the third clip, mainly for the elements within that created a multi-sensory experience for the listener. This clip starts with a punchy background track, which creates a fast pace and encourages excitement while the guest talks about what happened during a big meeting that he expects will result in an acquisition offer for Gimlet. The music itself has already pumped up the listener, which the guest reinforces by creating a vivid picture of the meeting itself. He mentions the coffee he guzzled, the nice shirt he was wearing, how everyone around the table spent an hour and a half peppering him with questions, questions, questions. All these elements combine to create a sense of urgent anticipation, and then…the music cuts out. The guest describes the end of the meeting, with (spoiler alert) no acquisition offer. Talk about tension.

This was a clip about how literally nothing happened, but it still evoked an emotional response from me. And for that, I say hat’s off to the showrunner.

What’s something new you learned?

Jay: In Clip 1, I like how Alex Blumberg builds tension not by describing a real sequence of events but by making a few assumptions about us, the listener. He says, “You’re probably wondering right now…” and then shares a series of questions that, even if we weren’t thinking them, we can’t help but wonder, given his suggestion. (That’s the power of suggestion, isn’t it? If I tell you, “Whatever you do, don’t picture a penguin,” you’re now picturing a penguin.)

(Side note: How awesome are penguins?)

Clip 1 revealed to me as a show host that you can raise anticipation and increase tension just by asking open-ended questions. That takes NO additional budget or production technique, and almost no time at all … and yet it does all the things marketers assume additional resources and time will do: creates amazing tape.

It’s not about doing more. It’s about approaching the work you can do, given your current resources, better.

Molly: This episode reinforced something that listening to a bunch of really good shows over the past few months has sparked in my mind: that it’s ok for brands to be more human. Not just human in their tone and their vernacular, but human in the type of content they choose to share.

Brands have a tendency to share their highlight reels: their most polished, most positive, most curated content, which always casts them in a positive light. But audiences are smarter than that — and they know that these highlight reels aren’t real at all. 

It’s kind of a pickle, if you’re a brand, because you obviously don’t want to overshare hardships with prospective customers. But it is ok (in fact, it might even be a good thing) to share tough processes, tough emotions, tough situations — and establish a more authentic connection.

Could another company replicate this show? Why or why not?

Jay: That’s the beauty of this episode and why I selected it: We have moments that are this rife with gripping content all around us. We just have to know where to look. It’s often in the more uncomfortable, uncertain moments of our businesses, our niche, and our culture. Yes, Gimlet employees world-class storytellers, producers, et al, but we can get a LOT closer to their work than we assume. What really separates StartUp and most shows (especially most about business and career topics) is what they DO with everyday moments — not how sensational the events are, because so often, nothing actually happens. And yet its gripping tape? That’s magical.

Molly: Yes! That’s maybe the best thing about this show. There’s nothing overly unique or specific or gimmicky about it — it’s just a well-told story. The showrunners were able to create a vivid, engaging, tension-filled story from an event that non-storytellers would be able to describe in about two uninteresting sentences. That’s the magic of StartUp, but it’s not magic that can’t be learned.

Listen to This Episode of 3 Clips

Dig deeper by listening to the full episode on Gimlet’s StartUp on 3 Clips.


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A somewhat accidental marketer, I’m first and foremost a writer. I’ve spent a decade working with global brands to craft on-target content and streamline complex ideas into clear (and even…exciting?!) language. Now, I get to spend every day immersed in content and strategy here, as Managing Editor of Marketing Showrunners, at my company, Molly Donovan Content & Communications. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community of eager next-generation marketers and marketing showrunners.

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