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Marketing Showrunners

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By: Molly Donovan on July 29th, 2020

The Discomfort Zone: Why You Should Get on the Mic Sooner Rather than Later

A few weeks ago, I sat in my home office, my microphone angled toward my mouth as I sat in silence, conspicuously not speaking into it. 

I was nearing the close of MSR’s inaugural Showrunner Sessions: a workshop for podcasters and podcaster-hopefuls looking to launch a show with the potential to become their audience’s favorite. As part of the alpha class, I’d spent weeks devising and refining my nascent show’s concept. In weekly video meetings, MSR founder Jay Acunzo and the co-travelers on my workshop journey nudged me to unpack the deep-seated beliefs that were prompting me to launch my show in the first place, articulate and defend its premise as clearly as I could, and plan my format and episode rundown as strategically and repeatably as possible.

I’d diligently responded to weekly writing prompts. I’d filled in my Show Bible religiously. I’d written — and rewritten — my empathy statement. I’d planned and planned, and then I’d planned some more. 

And then, around week 5, instructor Jay asked us to stop planning. The time had come to get on the mic. It was time to record a full pilot of my still inchoate show.  

Suddenly, I froze. 

I had done all this planning. I had such a clear understanding of what I wanted to say and to whom I wanted to say it. I could pretty easily envision the final product: that is, I knew how I wanted a completed episode of my show to sound and flow. 

And thanks to the workshop, I’d gotten on the mic before! I’d recorded my empathy statement. I’d made a trailer. I’d listened with a critical ear to my own voice along with other students, parsing and pivoting thanks to their feedback and suggestions.

And still, I sat in front of my microphone and couldn’t get myself to speak.

I love planning. It’s part of what I like so much about writing: the ability to spend the time needed to allow ideas to marinate, then figure out the best way to architect those ideas into a cogent argument. I’m the kind of person whose most creative, out-of-the-box thinking comes only after I’ve applied the constraints of outlines and processes and revisions. Making the jump from a written creative project to an oral one felt like completely uncharted territory. It felt like the unknown. It felt unplannable, despite all the plans I’d so thoroughly made. 

The audio medium, I’ve come to find, requires an element of surrender that the written one doesn’t. You can almost always write your way out of any problem — whether logical or stylistic — you encounter. Can you do the same in conversation? If you can — can you do so without resorting to the vocal tics and troubles that make you cringe when you hear yourself recorded back? Can you do so without the risk of losing your audience’s attention? Can you do so clearly and compellingly? 

Maybe! But I’d never recorded my own show before, so I didn’t know. I had been comfortable with the writing prompts that helped me codify the beliefs and suppositions of my show. Actually getting on the mic would launch me out of that comfort zone. 

And I think that’s exactly what evil genius Jay intended. He’d spent the first five weeks helping us prepare as best he possibly could to take that step into the unknown, because he knew from experience that the unknown is the only place where real breakthroughs can happen. 

Logically, of course, I too understood that our collective best work and ideas often emerge from that very discomfort zone. But in practice, I was afraid to find out what might happen to the plans I’d laid when I began attempting to enact them.

It’s interesting how differently our brains react to and retain information when it’s presented visually vs. verbally. Have you ever read a sentence that sounds normal in your head, only to discover its syntactical weirdness when you read it aloud? Or have you found that reading your class notes out loud ahead of an exam helped you better retain the information? If the latter, you’re not alone — a 2017 University of Waterloo study found that people are more likely to remember information they’ve read aloud. 

During the workshop, I found that speaking my showrunning ideas to my classmates — not just writing them down — teased out new angles and perspectives I would not have thought of on my own. It’s part of what makes the podcast medium so exciting to me — it’s inherently a community-forward one, focused on conversation and discovery. 

Reader, I eventually did get on the mic. And in that “discomfort zone,” I discovered some elements of my show that I couldn’t control — and honestly, I wouldn’t necessarily want to. 

I found that guests could interpret my questions differently than how I’d intended, but that difference of perspective could add a layer of richness to my show’s premise. I found that I have a nervous laugh that I personally can’t stand, but which my showrunning classmates found relatable. I found that the gap between writing well for the page and writing well for the pod is a big one — and one that I’ll probably spend months and maybe even years trying to close. 

I found that a sentence written the same way can have wildly different meanings when read with different kinds of inflection and pauses. I found that when I smile while I’m recording my voice, I sound happy. No seriously, try it. 

I found something that experienced showrunners intrinsically know: that gaining comfort and skill via an audio recording is, like all creative work, about practice. Just as writers must constantly, well, write to exercise their “writing muscles,” so too must podcasters get in the reps they need to excel at their work. 

You just can’t do that without getting on the mic. You can’t anticipate how your show will sound just because you’ve written a script. You can’t anticipate what rabbit hole you might find yourself exploring with a guest just because you’ve pre-written your questions. You can’t anticipate a key aspect of your show: how the talent (i.e., you) will sound, or how you’ll make your listeners feel. 

That’s what I’m so grateful to my fellow alpha class travelers. Their enthusiasm, thoughtful feedback, and support made the unnerving and exciting creative process of podcasting a part of my regular routine. I’m so excited that other aspiring podcasters will have the opportunity to get in their reps in a safe and supportive environment via future Showrunner Session cohorts.

I think getting on the mic is a steeper challenge for people like me for some of the same reasons podcasting appeals: it’s performative, and it’s deeply dependent on a community. When you record yourself speaking, you’re doing it with the expectation that someone — hopefully, multiple people — will actually listen to what you’ve said. A one-way conversation where only your voice is heard can feel much more intimate than a written piece you hope many people will read. 

But that is also where podcasting’s beauty lies: in the moments of intimacy and vulnerability that forge a truly personal bond with the people listening to you in their most intimate places — in their cars and their kitchens, during workouts and while folding laundry. 

And that’s why I’ll say to any aspiring showrunners who are having a tough time getting on the mic, as I was — rip off the Band-Aid. Planning is oh-so important and oh-so helpful, but it can only take you so far. For those moments of intimacy that create a truly personal experience — the type of experience that makes listeners exclaim, “this is my favorite show” — we need to get on the mic. We need to explore the medium inside and out. We need to become as familiar with our voices as we are with our pens. We need to flex our podcasting muscles, not just our writing ones. 

In short, we need to start somewhere. If you’re contemplating launching a show, I hope you’ll get started on the mic.

 

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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.

Reach out! molly@mshowrunners.com

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