Too Many Showrunners Don’t Have Enough Slack in the System. Do You?
We have a slack problem, and I don’t mean the app.
This American Life kills about half the stories they start to work on. That’s right: half.
(Comedian Sarah Cooper told me that to sound smart in meetings, I should repeat numbers as percentages, so here we go…)
That’s FIFTY PERCENT of the stories they start working on!
They don’t just kill ideas during planning meetings, either. Most of the stories they kill have entered some form of production, which means they spend actual, precious resources to pursue something and talk to people and even record some subjects…then they stop doing it.
They do that about half the time. (About 50%.)
I wonder: Would YOU ever do that? What if you were partway through producing something, only to realize it’s actually not worth putting out into the world? Would you kill it, or keep going?
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World-class interviewer and host Terry Gross removes between 50% and 60% of her conversations with guests. That’s half to three-fifths of each recording! (I just pulled a rare “Reverse-Cooper.”)
On her show, NPR’s Fresh Air, Gross will sit with famous authors, thinkers, celebrities, and Very Important Guests of all types, but instead of publishing all or even most of their conversation, she publishes some of it. Compare that to how WE usually operate, where 60 minutes of our interviews with guests usually end up as, well, 60 minutes of an episode (or maybe 45 if we’re feeling frisky). Not on Fresh Air! Gross talks to guests for upwards of two hours, then they cut that down into a final interview of about 35 to 40 minutes per episode.
I wonder: How much content you’ve captured do YOU remove? How much stuff makes it into the final cut that would have been better off unseen or unheard by your audience? What if you refused to publish everything you capture, because everything you capture isn’t always something? What if you only published the best somethings that you recorded?
Here’s the problem: We have no slack in our systems.
There’s no wiggle room, no time and resources built into the process capable of absorbing the harsh truth that not every story you explore, subject you vet, or moment you record is actually worth pursuing further or publishing publicly. We create rigid systems, where the very idea of not using something just because we have it feels preposterous. The thing is, the ability to explore, vet, research, and try stuff is the work that determines how worthwhile the final project is (or isn’t) for your brand and your community.
It sounds unthinkable to most marketers that they’d do a prep call with a potential podcast guest…only to never schedule them to record. Yet this happens on a daily basis with media companies and production teams everywhere. They know that regardless of how much time or money they’ve got to execute a single episode or piece, or an entire project, at least some of their resources must be earmarked for exploration, story development, and vetting stuff…knowing that much of it won’t be usable.
As my friend and documentary producer Tyler Bouchard likes to say, “Let’s try it. We can always not use it.”
When there’s no slack in the system, we fall victim to “the fallacy of sunk costs” far too often. We believe that because we spent some resources on it, we should see it through, even when we can tell it won’t be all that great or even effective for our cause. Spending a little time and money on the thing means we must need to spend the rest of the time and money we’ve allotted, otherwise that first chunk goes to waste…right?!
Wrong. Now we’ve just wasted even more resources, not to mention the audience’s precious time. Doing this consistently renders our work ineffective, too, since we burn something even more precious than our own resources: the trust of our audience.
Ask yourself: “Do we have enough slack in the system?”
Slack comes in many forms, but they all serve a purpose.
For instance, you need slack in the process of selecting subjects. You shouldn’t just put someone on camera or agree to record a podcast with them because you did a 15-minute prep call with them. If you emailed them to ask more about their story, that doesn’t automatically qualify them to appear on the show. I get why we avoid cutting anyone loose: We don’t want to hurt their feelings nor waste their time. But the best use of YOUR time — and your audience’s — is to produce the best damn final project possible. That’s not possible if the only qualification for someone appearing on your show is “they seemed okay from a distance, so we booked ’em.” You’ve skipped too much firsthand vetting to really be sure. There’s no slack in that system.
Another form of slack in the system is the time you spend with a given subject, a la Terry Gross. For instance, in episode 1 of my documentary series Against the Grain (the aforementioned Tyler Bouchard is the producer), we got about 45 minutes with the CEO of Death Wish Coffee, Mike Brown. There’s no slack in that system. Normally, I’d want much more time — to build rapport, to try out different angles and stories, to really flesh out more details by asking lots of follow-ups. The thing is, my ability to do so with confidence comes from the understanding that I should definitely try it — because we can always not use it.
Slack should also be built into your schedule. Do you have time earmarked solely to research and prep? What about THINK? I mean, my Lord, we’re supposedly in the knowledge economy, and yet how much time do you actually spend without staring at a screen or meeting others? Can you spare two hours a week? One? A half hour? Imagine the transformation in your work if you could.
On Against the Grain, we talk often about a common scheduling trick in producing documentaries: the pickup day. These are well-known by those in production, but elusive to those in marketing. Pickup days are days for you to “pick up” things like b-roll footage, or the last few minutes of interviews that got cut short. They’re also days where you have little planned ahead of time, meaning the whole point is to enable yourself to be opportunistic. Someone suggests a new subject to talk to? Book them on a pickup day. Didn’t realize how visually stunning a certain area was? Pickup day. Want to travel down the road a ways to another destination to round out your episode with some secondary characters or settings? Pick. That. Shiz. Up.
Slack feels like a luxury. It’s not. It’s a necessity — especially if we remember our goal, which is to produce something capable of being our audience’s favorite. You don’t need MORE time. It’s how you use the time that counts. If you only have 5 hours a week to work on an episode, how might you build some slack into that system? Maybe, shift some time from interviews (make them shorter, more to the point) to prep work (vet your subjects, research confirmed guests more fully). Maybe, you shift some time from blasting links on every social network, to more narrowly experimenting in one place instead to build true community.
During the shoot for ATG, we only had enough budget and time to be on-site for three, maybe four days per episode. That meant we planned out just two, maybe three days of actual shooting. The rest of the time was for pickup days. We planned out the slack in the system. We needed it. Every project does.
We all have too few resources, too few hours. We ALL feel that way. Yet the masters of a craft find ways to build slack into that system all the same.
Whatever the case, however you find it, I’m urging you to try. As you leave the friendly confines of this blog and return to work, please remember this one question:
“Do we have enough slack in the system?”
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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