A Simple System to Find Unique Stories and Guests for Your Marketing Show
“Hi Buster, I’m Jay.”
When you read that greeting, it sounds like a pretty mundane thing for me to say to someone. So, here, let me tweak how it’s written so you can really, truly hear how I spoke those words back in the spring of 2008.
HI BUSTER, I’M JAY!
I was an intern in the PR and communications department of college Jay’s dream company, ESPN, located just 30 minutes from my college, Trinity, in Hartford, Connecticut. As an intern, I did the usual bit of rote stuff, entering some information into a database here, sending out emails to a bunch of people there, occasionally sorting through inbound mail. Turns out people still use letter-writing campaigns when they’re upset at a media giant’s decisions. Do executives read those? Maybe one or two. Mostly, they get handed in crates to interns like me to LITERALLY COUNT BY HAND for hours on end. Two-thirty-five, two-thirty-six, two-thirty-OH, hey, Karen! Yeah, more postcards today, can you believe it? Cool, have a good one!
Anyway, the one project that felt awesome felt pretty damn awesome indeed: I would interview a bunch of ESPN talent to write stories about their careers for the dedicated ESPN PR website, MediaZone (now called Press Room). Sitting at the top of my wishlist was one Buster Olney, who baseball fans will know as one of the premier journalists and storytellers in the game. And, to my total shock, he agreed to a phone call.
I couldn’t help myself. I just … blurted it out. But once I settled down, Buster proved to be one of the nicest human beings you could meet. As a college sports journalist myself, I couldn’t wait to talk to one of my writing heroes. As an English literature major, I couldn’t wait to share with him that I was writing my senior thesis about the use of baseball in 20th century American literature. (I know, it sounds a lot less cool when you read it out loud like I just did…)
Buster was game to discuss it all. He told me about his favorite players. He suggested some books for my thesis. He told me about his childhood, growing up in Vermont, listening to Yankees games on the radio, and how, as baseball moved from his passion to his profession, his interest in one team gave way to an interest in stories. And then, I asked a simple question that has served me well until this very day:
“How do you find unique stories?”
The Key to Finding Unique Stories
Last week, I was chatting with a prolific marketing podcast host, John Bonini. John’s a veteran content marketer and creator who’s applied his creative skills of late to the craft of making shows. He was early among this new breed of marketer, which I’m calling marketing showrunners. His first show, Louder Than Words, profiled some of the biggest names in marketing and tech. His current show, Ground Up, for his employer Databox, profiles some of the biggest names in marketing and tech.
“How do I find unique stories?” he asked me recently. “I don’t want to keep talking to the same people as everyone else. There has to be something new and different to share with my audience.”
I thought back to my interview with Buster Olney. His advice was simple: always have multiple little threads you’re trying to pull to see where they lead. Rather than look for “stories” per se, Buster has made a career finding little moments of interestingness, little things that light him up and spark his curiosity. He pursues a few in brief, and then selects a few to really invest his time and creativity into. In this way, the most powerful thing we can do to find great stories is to actually create a long list of story leads. We should have no idea if they’ll pan out.
Buster said he never wants for material, and as any baseball fan will tell you, he always finds something original to write about. He doesn’t settle for the big storylines (or names) that everyone else has covered, simply because they’re easy to spot. Does he write about that stuff? Of course. Did that earn him a place in the pantheon of history’s greatest baseball writers? Not a chance. His claim to fame is his constant pursuit and publishing of those little threads of interestingness that he presents to us, giving us insider access to something we never knew we wanted to know … until Buster dug it up for us.
It’s all about story leads.
“Yeah, but I have a million things going on that have nothing to do with telling stories or conducting interviews,” I hear John and every marketer saying in reply. Fair enough! When I first started creating podcasts and video series, I would wait until the very last minute, until that rare calendar invite popped up that said “guest outreach,” to find my subjects. I needed each and every one that I investigated to pan out, but as Buster told me, the point is to equip ourselves with endless little threads to pull. During my early days of running a show, the stakes were simply too high with each individual or story. It had to be them, it had to be that, and it had to work. Because I had NOTHING else to pursue.
In moments like that, if my list DIDN’T pan out, I’d look to the side, at competitor shows. Who are they profiling? Who’s on the “circuit,” making the rounds? Fine way to fill time on my show. Even better way to waste my audience’s. But it turns out we can put some light process in place — a kind of “story-generation operating system” — to use what little time we have to answer that burning question: How do we as marketing showrunners create a never-ending supply of story leads?
Here’s my current approach:
How Marketers Can Find Unique Episode Ideas for Podcasts and Video Series
As with anything, there are myriad ways to execute. However, I find that there’s one key idea underpinning it all: You have to cast a wide net. Whether you deem that “searching outside the echo chamber” or “being a lifelong learner” or merely “consuming a lot of content,” the fact is, if we don’t want to simply feature the same-old ideas and guests on our shows, we can’t look in the same-old places. If it’s easy to spot, someone else has already spotted it. (In another post, I’ll talk about how to take a popular guest or story and tell it in a unique way that only YOUR show could do. For now, let’s focus on generating new ideas entirely.)
Before doing anything, be sure you have a dedicated app where you can save story leads. The app must sync on mobile and desktop, because as soon as you find a lead, you want to deposit it for safekeeping. I use Trello for my podcast’s workflow, and so I’ve just created a list called Story Ideas to add to my existing production process (which is described in detail via that link).
1. Subscribe to tons of newsletters.
This can be a strain on the ol’ inbox and your time, so try two things to avoid overloading your brain and calendar: First, set up a filter that deposits newsletters into their own dedicated folder in your email client, skipping the inbox. (This is my approach for newsletters about trivia, sports/pop culture, and other areas that aren’t directly applicable to my daily work. If something is more relevant, I usually let it hit my inbox regularly.)
Secondly, to manage the time commitment, try to block dedicated time on a recurring basis specifically to scroll through these newsletters. Do it as fast as you can, scanning for anything that hits you. You’re simply on the hunt for what MIGHT be worth a greater time investment.
Save the link or snippet of copy into your app of choice (as I do with Trello). Again, the goal isn’t to exhaustively read all the newsletters all the way, but to take what time you can allot to this process and grow your list of leads.
2. Set up Google Alerts for key phrases.
For instance, because Unthinkable is a show about unconventional and creative work, and because I’m exploring the art of reinvention all year long in 2019, I’ve set up alerts like “unconventional path” and “unconventional brand” and “reinvented the company” and similar phrases. I believe right now I have 6 total alerts, which hit my inbox daily (so I filter them out, just like with newsletters, and dedicate time to scrolling through these on a recurring basis as well).
Fair warning: You get some weird results sometimes, so this is a profoundly trial-and-error process to set up the right alerts.
3. Go for a walk. Get bored. Talk to friends. Listen.
Honestly, this sounds so simple, but we very rarely just … let our minds wander. We shove so many alerts and feeds and screens into those moments where our brains should be meandering and uncovering new pathways forward, sparking new ideas. Other times, we’re talking to people outside our department or niche and don’t think to dig into those conversations for good material. (When you’re creative, you don’t turn it off. You’re always working, just not always “producing.”)
Whenever I have a conversation about a friend’s job in architecture, or medicine, or education, or finance, or landscaping, I come away full of ideas, metaphors, and companies or trends to look into — which always lead to story and guest leads. Ditto for when I go for a walk to the park and take my earbuds out, or sit for five minutes and stare at my lawn, watching the birds, and my dog’s fruitless chase of them. (He still doesn’t realize his line has a finite number of feet to it…)
Above all, this section and really this entire post is a plea to remain open and sensitive to the world around us. I call this being “sensitive skeptics.” We need to be sensitive to the details of the world, i.e. sense things … while putting a critical, skeptical eye on them later. That cup of coffee — where did it come from? That beer — who makes it? That random sign or brand you see or which comes scrolling your way on social media — what’s their deal? Why is your mug shaped that way, and who decided these notebooks would have that pattern on the cover? When you’re sensitive to the details around you, whether by getting bored or actively listening and asking questions, you’ll find the world is positively overflowing with inspiration.
4. Create social media lists.
I get it: You don’t want to clutter your feed by following a bunch of randos. You’ve worked hard (can we say that about social media, the land of hacks and hucksters?) to create a feed full of marketing wisdom, creative inspiration, and sure, those five Game of Thrones podcasters and fan theorists you think REALLY nailed the whole R + L = J thing long before anyone really believed in it. (Don’t get me started on Bran-as-Night King, okay? Okay.)
So, the workaround is to create dedicated lists. For instance, I have a private list on Twitter called People I Learn From. It’s slowly evolved lately to include far more marketers making shows, because, well … (glances up at the URL). By creating dedicated lists, we can find little pockets throughout the week to scroll productively, rather than waste time.
Fine, I’ll just come out and say it: I’m telling you how to spend your time in the bathroom, okay? Okay.
5. Ask every guest, every time.
This somewhat ties back to #3, but I’m guessing you’d really weird out your friends if you kept proactively pestering them for episode ideas. However, guess who you’re talking to on a recurring basis on your actual show? Guests! (If that’s your show’s style, of course.) At the end, once you switch off the recording, why not ask what they’re reading, who they admire, what kind of stories light them up, and so on? You admired them enough to feature them on your show, so clearly you think highly of their thinking. Why not get those smarties to assist on finding you a story lead or two? Sixty seconds of discussion should do the trick.
6. Talk. To. Your. Audience. (For the love of cheese, please.)
I can’t stress this enough. Like a product manager who regularly interviews users and potential users, we should routinely talk to our listeners or viewers. We’re building a dedicated content product, after all. The most transformative thing I started doing two years ago was scheduling 5-6 listener 1:1s per month. I conduct video calls and spend 15 minutes asking questions about their work and their struggles, then offer the next 15 minutes to add value back, however I can, on the call. The act of holding these calls “doesn’t scale,” but the insights I learn absolutely do. I’ve gotten story leads by the dozen from these chats, in addition to learning more about some of my listeners and eventually telling their stories too.
Again, I can’t stress the importance of this. It’s bananas that we don’t talk to our audience in recurring fashion. Want story ideas and about 6 million other ways to improve your show? Talk to your audience. Do it. Talk to your audience. Please. Talk to your audience. Talk. To. Your. Audience.
In the end, we can only find stories and guests others aren’t telling if we’re willing to look where others aren’t looking. That means we have to dedicate at least some time to actually do the looking. It won’t feel productive at all times, since we’re not creating anything, and we’re not saying “yes” to every thread we pull.
Want better episodes? Put a system in place to uncover lots of threads more efficiently, then pull your favorites.
“Any advice to an aspiring journalist?” I asked Buster Olney on that fateful call all those years ago.
“Just one,” he told me. “Figure out what makes you curious, and relentlessly pursue that curiosity.”
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. I’m a believer that exceptional work happens when you find and follow what makes you an exception. 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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