Flipping the Script

The Art of Making a [Good] Unscripted Podcast

. 4 min read

The Art of Making a [Good] Unscripted Podcast

Most of the shows we make at Pacific Content are scripted. We write (and rewrite and rewrite) the text, and the hosts bring it to life. A good script can bring the audience along on a journey that’s clear, accurate and well thought out.

But with Work Check, a show from Atlassian, we decided to move away from this model. And today, I think the superpower of the show is the fact that we record without a script.

The idea of an “unscripted” podcast might make you think of an interview show, a comedy podcast, or (god forbid) a few friends in a basement hitting record. Work Check is actually a highly-produced debate-style podcast about workplace topics, backed by research and guest interviews.

By tapping into the spontaneity of going script-free, we’re able to make these topics more lively and more accessible than if we had it all down on the page.

In earlier seasons, the debaters’ arguments were drafted in advance, but we received feedback that it felt too scripted. It didn’t have that natural rapport. So we went back to the drawing board, and here’s what we learned:

1. Preparation is key: Unscripted is not the same as off the cuff.

Trust me, if your plan is to turn on the mic and start rolling, you’re not going to get great tape.

No one is all that charming off the cuff, especially when they feel unprepared.

Before we record, we have a kickoff meeting with the team to talk through the topic. Here we gather ideas, anecdotes, opinions, and maybe most importantly: create chemistry.

Our debaters don’t always know each other before coming on Work Check, so this meeting serves to give them some face time before the actual debate. They can get a feel for the other person’s sense of humour, their debate style, their strengths and weaknesses, so they can come to the debate ready to have fun.

After this meeting, we prepare each debater individually — gathering research, interviewing guests, rehearsing and revising their prep notes (picture the Rocky montage). So by the time the recording date comes around, they’re ready for the ring.

*Even if your show isn’t a debate podcast, which it’s likely not, meeting face-to-face to prepare for the recording will put everyone at ease. And coming to the recording with some notes handy means you’re still hitting all your points, rather than going completely off the cuff.

2. Recording: Mics on, notes down, can’t lose.

For an unscripted show, I recommend a long recording session. I know, I know, this means more work in the post-production stage, where we often find we’re doing a great deal of restructuring or choosing whole arguments to leave on the cutting room floor. But it’s worth it.

Work Check episodes are usually 25–30 minutes long, but we record for 90 minutes. That might sound like a lot, but having a long window to record in means you have time for people to get into a conversational flow. They stop performing and start really talking and joking — and that’s often where the gold is.

Having no script means the people on the show are really thinking on their feet, finding segues, linking thoughts they didn’t expect to link. There’s an element of surprise, even after all that preparation.

This also means there are some stumbles — while our team of debaters are total pros, most of us are not fully polished when we’re in a natural conversation. So sometimes we have to do pickups.

3. Post-production: Even unscripted podcasts need fixes

So far, I’ve outlined the truly authentic parts of the process, but even without a script, there’s a bit of performing behind the scenes.

So, imagine we’ve had the recording session, and we’ve got a really fun, lively first draft of the episode in the can. But maybe we need a cleaner segue between topics, someone stumbled over a word, or someone’s upstairs neighbour decided that was the day to renovate… the list goes on. You’re going to need to get some pickups.

[Jargon alert: “Pickups” refer to the bits of dialogue that need to be re-recorded]

Pickups for unscripted podcasts are particularly difficult because you need to match the casual, spontaneous tone of the first conversation. So as the director, sometimes I have to do some awkward asks.

Here’s our debater Deb, doing a valiant job after I told her “Last time you said this line you were laughing, so laugh into it”:

It might feel forced in the moment, but it works.

Take it from Christine Dela Rosa, our Atlassian collaborator, who also plays the role of unscripted host on Work Check:

“I surprised even myself! When Pippa suggested going even less scripted than last season, I thought it would be chaos. But taking away something as simple as a script or outline helped me be more present with the team and I got more lost in the conversation. I’m more curious with follow-up questions; I’m more delighted by and connect more deeply with points that feel like they came out of nowhere.”

So there you have it — taking away the script might not mean less work, but it might mean more authentic conversations and more fun, for those on mic, and your listeners.

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