There was a man who used to ride down my street in his electric wheelchair, yelling profanities at passersby. His yelling was so loud that I could hear him from inside my bedroom with the windows closed. When we passed each other outside I would involuntarily curl my shoulders into themselves, trying to shrink and disappear into the pavement like the witch in The Wizard of Oz.
He probably did yell at me multiple times, but I don’t remember. What I do remember is that somewhere along the way we miraculously bonded over my dog, and he shifted from an angry neighbour who I was actively (and sometimes literally) running away from, to someone chatting through the backyard fence about mental health issues and his love for Eckhart Tolle. As we got to know each other more, I was reminded of this: people unfold when you let them. That’s not to say that everyone you find offensive is someone you might want to know. But often, it doesn’t hurt to be curious about people.
As storytellers, so much of what we do is try to catch some shared sense of humanity and amplify it. As a podcast producer booking guests for shows, I’m looking for where I can connect with someone on their level, and how to share that moment of connection with the listener.
For me, the start of every production is a predictable mix of excitement (as I think about whose voices will be on the show) and dread (as I consider how to find them). There’s no roadmap for finding people who tell the stories that make an episode work, but there are some principles that I lean on, gleaned from fellow producers, showrunners, and working on shows at Pacific Content.
- Every episode that you put together with your team is like a dinner party that you’re hosting. Who do you want to invite to this dinner party? Who would you want to sit next to for hours?
- A great guest is a good storyteller: someone authentic, articulate, and deeply engaging. This is a clip from True North Heists, a series that we produced for Audible. It’s Susan Musgrave, a Canadian poet, speaking about her late husband, Stephen Reid. They met while he was in prison for robbing banks. I liked Susan because she spoke about how complicated Stephen was, and how complicated we all are, in a beautiful way.
3. Talk to people. Ideally, it’s good to hop on the phone with someone as soon as possible, rather than write emails. It helps you get to know someone faster and lets you talk through the story with more nuance.
4. One way to know you’ve found someone is that it feels like talking to an old friend — they’re comfortable being raw, genuine, and emotionally honest.
5. Always be transparent with a potential guest about how their story will be framed in the context of the episode. Let’s say you’re working on a story about someone who lost their job during the pandemic, and how difficult that was. You don’t want this guest thinking that this episode is about their great turnaround (unless it is). They’re sharing their story, and it’s your responsibility that they know what they’re getting into.
6. Does their story serve the episode’s narrative arc? I have made the mistake of casting someone because I enjoyed speaking to them, only to realize later (painfully, for them and our production team) that their story didn’t quite fit what we were trying to articulate with the episode. This leads to cancelling guests and going back to find someone else.
7. Represent. Something that my showrunner, Tori Allen, always asks is: Who are the people most impacted by the story that we’re telling? Speak to them. Is there a compelling viewpoint that everyone else has been overlooking? Including voices that are underrepresented can add dimension and a fresh perspective to your story, and it gives a fuller picture of the world we live in.
8. An expert is someone with lived experience. This is a clip from Now, What’s Next? a show that we produce with Morgan Stanley. We were working on a story about eldercare in America. Rather than looking for a guest with a Ph.D., or someone who had written a book about aging, we interviewed Rudy Sukna. He’s a Registered Nurse who has worked at the same eldercare facility in the Bronx for over 20 years, starting when he was a teenager.
9. Unscripted vs. polished. I once called someone up who mentioned that they’d shared their story so many times, they could do it in their sleep. A polished guest can be ideal for certain types of shows. For example, if you’re casting a show about Bigfoot, you might not want a guest who pauses to think or question themselves. But for shows that are meant to feel raw and vulnerable, you want a guest who is discovering something about themselves on tape with you. Like you’re the first person in the world being let in on this very special secret about them.
10. Trust your instincts, and be honest with yourself about how this guest makes you feel. Chances are high that they’ll make listeners feel that way too.
Even while writing this roadmap of sorts, I’m very aware that storytelling, and finding people to share stories, is a craft — one that I’m building on and learning about with every phone call, and every production. I’d love to hear about your favourite producer practices too.
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