Years ago, I sat in a cracked parking lot in Toronto and called a stranger who was living a very different life than me.
He was a Nova Scotia fisherman named Art Gautan, a bit of a roving dentist for sharks.
Over the next thirty minutes he told me about how, every year, he would pull sharks out of the ocean, remove one to five dangling fish hooks from their mouths, and then toss the sharks back to sea. His hope was that the creatures would swim away with a sense of relief, with less fishing debris complicating their lives.
I’d never heard anything like this. As he spoke, I imagined his life against the elements—sturdy fishing boats and weathered sailor’s ropes. Speaking to him over the phone felt like slipping through a keyhole into some faraway place.
There’s something magical about finding someone who can wrap you up in their story and invite you into it.
That’s the strength of a good storyteller, and a great guest.
But one of the things that I struggled with most back then — and sometimes still do — is this: where do you find people like Art? How do you even begin to look for them?
There are many ways to find a compelling character. Here are a few ideas from our team at Pacific Content.
- Picture your ideal guest. Robyn Simon is a producer who came from the daily news world, where they chased 2–3 stories a day. “The first thing I do is think of types of guests that might sound good in an episode. If I’m looking for a student, I call student groups or university reps or government. If it’s something happening in the queer community, I reach out to pride organizations or my own contacts.”
- Figure out what stories and speakers are already out there. One way to do this is to Google the subject matter plus a magazine/newspaper that covers that genre. For example, “deforestation” + “National Geographic”.
- Try Foogling. Stephanie Foo, a producer for This American Life and the host of Home. Made., conducted a workshop with our team where she explained her technique of “foogling.” Imagine the wildest story for your episode, then type those keywords into a search engine. For example, “crazy story” + “abduction”. That’s how she found this story.
- Figure out who the locals are and call them. Producer Jenn Leask says this is her secret weapon. “When I am looking for people who are tied to a certain location, I take a look at google maps. You can see what’s around: a coffee shop, a community centre, a library. The people who are in those places know what is going on, and they can connect you to others in the community.”
- Need a personal story? Try places like Medium, Twitter, Facebook groups. That’s where you might find someone who is grappling with a career change, or who just traded big city life for a cabin in the woods. This is how producer Annie Rueter finds many of the personal stories featured in Choiceology.
- Be flexible about how you reach out. Producer Wanyee Li suggests catering your chase to the person you’re looking for. “I put myself in that person’s shoes and think about what is the best way to reach them. You might find a busy parent in a Facebook group for the local daycare and get a quick response through Facebook messenger. Restaurant managers are more likely to take a phone call between the lunch and dinner rush. Many professors rarely answer the office phone listed in their profile, but are good about checking their email.”
- Radio Groups (i.e. NYC Radio Group, Ladio, Toronto Radio Club, UKAN). Producer Roslyn Kufuor says that radio groups can help with more than just finding tape syncs. “I once had a difficult chase where I went onto the said person’s Twitter and LinkedIn to no response. I had this lightbulb moment (cue angels surrounding me!) I decided to ask one of the many list servs I am part of. I messaged the group and within minutes got details of the guest I was chasing and voila, they got back to me promptly. That chase taught me to use all my resources, even the ones that I thought could possibly lead to a dead end.”
- Look for organizations involved with your subject matter. I remember walking into the office for my first day on a new job, and being told that the task was to find stories about ocean mysteries. “Where?” I asked. “Anywhere in the world,” was the reply. I started by contacting dive organizations, introducing myself and saying, I’d love to learn about what your community is excited about right now, and what you would be interested in sharing. That led to developing relationships with divers in places like Bermuda, Greece and Croatia, who shared fascinating stories, some of which became episodes in the series.
There are lots of ways to find great storytellers—guests like Art, who you never forget.
What are your favourite tips and tricks for finding guests? We’d love to hear them.
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