Conflict, Content and Storytelling: What I Learned Creating A Podcast
August, 2018. New York City.
In less than a week, I’d move country (and continent). On a crowded subway, I got a text from my friend Tom Worcester:
“I have an idea.”
Almost exactly 6 months later we’ve published episode 15, the final episode from season 1 of our new podcast: Subject Matter.
This experience threw me into the steep learning curve that comes with creating media products, writing compelling content, and telling strong stories. While I know we have a long way to go, the steep curve is paying off.
What follows is a deep-dive into what I learned over 6 months creating a new show in a new medium.
Whether you’re a creative, content creator or just want more people to know about you, I’ve pulled out the key takeaways throughout so you can easily implement my learnings. You will discover:
- How to ensure your content delivers its’ message
- Why having the same opinion as someone is rarely a good idea
- How to make more people read/listen/watch your stories
Different Is Better Than Better
In 1933, the great Japanese Writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki furiously described the atrocity that was the Western toilet.
While he admitted covering a toilet with white, tiled walls was infinitely more practical and economical, Tanizaki’s review was nothing short of scathing:
“The beauty of the room is destroyed when the rest is done in sparkling tile,” [and comes] “at the price of destroying all affinity with ‘good taste’.”
The Japanese toilet couldn’t be more different. Attending it wasn’t just an experience, it was a wonder-provoking ritual. Tanizaki writes:
“The Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the Shoji (paper door), lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden.”
Can you imagine a Western toilet being described like that? Our toilet breaks are a necessary burden (as our countless dirty public bathrooms can attest to). But in Japan, gazing out on blue skies and green leaves, the very same act is one people actively look forward to. Same subject, different solution.
Whether this makes you want to travel to Japan and experience a bathroom break like no other is besides the point. Tanizaki’s perspective is not necessarily better, but it is unquestionably different. Where Western toilets prioritise efficiency and cleanliness, the Japanese decide to hone in on detachment and ritual.
There’s no right answer here, no “best” way to achieve things. The important part is recognising there are two equally valid ways to approach something. It is with that same respectful foundation that we approached Subject Matter: Different is better than better.
We created Subject Matter to help solve a big problem. In today’s society, there’s too many loud voices forcing their opinions down your throat. Cue something like: “My view is right, and yours is wrong!!” Breitbart, FOX, Facebook, Fake News: you name it. And there’s more rearing its’ ugly head every day.
This practice of saying my opinion is more “right” than yours is downright dangerous. It encourages us to forget the other person’s point of view, while stubbornly sticking to our own even in spite of better evidence. Sadly, the facts don’t seem to matter any more.
This is the situation most of us reading this find ourselves in every day. Just logging in online has become an assault on our (common) senses. This creates a burning need to question: What is actually true? And what’s MY viewpoint on this issue?
This is why we created Subject Matter.
Now more than ever, our society is in need of people who challenge the frauds, and think for themselves.
If opinions are being forced on us, then the antidote is to create our own in return, and have the conviction to stand by them. It is this habit of independent thought that I try to engineer with each weekly episode.
Subject Matter actively seeks out conflicting thought patterns. Unlike most podcasts, we decided not to interview any guests for the first season. Each week had the same two Co-Hosts: Tom and myself.
Every week is a debate on a subject that matters that isn’t black and white. For example, is it better to make decisions with data, or your gut? Is it better to find a mentor, or become one and build up an apprentice? Once the stage is set, Tom and I relentlessly pick apart each others’ arguments, and always end with two totally diverging opinions. Our final question invites you, the listener, to make up your own mind on the subject that matters.
It would be naive to think that we can consistently create radical paradigm shifts after you listen to one 20 minute episode. But what we can do is help you consider the other perspective that might have been dismissed. To open your eyes to the fact that this could be done differently.
Because after all, we can only become the best version of ourselves if we’re willing to change everything.
Key Takeaways From Defining The Subject Matter Concept:
1. Straightforward answers often have an agenda.
2. Different opinions are equally valid. Conflicting thought matters.
3. Don’t just appreciate conflict, actively seek it.
We learned that conflict isn’t just necessary, it makes for compelling listening too. The episodes where we’ve had the best feedback are the ones where we’re at each other’s throats, fiercely arguing our points of view. Armed with that insight, we then had to answer: “How can we make our audio content engaging?” Or in other words: What makes a podcast good?
From Concept To Content Strategy
The reason we created Subject Matter has stayed the same. But episode 15 was seriously different to episode 1. Why? A better understanding of what makes people hooked on listening, and what makes them switch off.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about creating compelling audio content:
1. Start with the end in mind.
Before putting pen to paper and deciding what each episode looks like, I need to know exactly what point I’m making. What’s the big idea? And what will the audience get from this debate?
In the past, I was prone to writing for the sake of writing. Telling the story felt good, but I didn’t know where it would end up. I learned how dangerous this approach is, because not knowing where you’re going risks sacrificing the all-important narrative that you’ve painstakingly created.
Now, it’s the complete opposite. I use a similar mindset to the work I do with Project 33: work out what points I’m trying to make, and then find stories that complement that journey.
Reverse-engineering outcomes is a central part of any solid content strategy, and Subject Matter is no different.
2. Create for the third person in the room.
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos has a policy where every meeting has an empty chair reserved for one person: The customer.
While we don’t exactly go to those lengths (creating a fake profile in our Zoom recordings?), I’m always aware of the third person in each and every recording we do: our listener. Totally invisible, yet right next to us.
Without our audience’s approval, we would really have nothing. That means putting our personal preferences aside when recording in favour of what actually makes a good listen. For example, asking how we can be controversial greatly improved the narrative of each episode. If conflict makes good content, then that’s what we’ll provide.
Similarly, Tom and I could chat for hours as any good friends can. But when the mics are on it’s a different story. All idle chatter must be culled mercilessly. Attention is a fickle thing, and any unnecessary droning might risk losing a listener.
3. Seek discomfort.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t fully supported every point I’ve argued in season 1. The listener comes first, remember? But that uncomfortable feeling of arguing for something I don’t believe in has supported the central thesis of Subject Matter to a tee. The effect? I’m noticeably more accepting of other points of view, and appreciative of perspectives that I might not agree with.
This learning has been a wider thread throughout the season: There were LOTS of things we didn’t know how to do when we got started! But that discomfort, as always, led to greater growth.
It’s been fulfilling to see the big idea behind Subject Matter influence my thinking for the better. It tells me we’re probably onto something :)
Key Takeaways From Our Content Strategy:
1. Know what point you’re making before writing, recording or filming any piece of content.
2. The most important person in your process is always the audience.
3. Even with content, the fun begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Any absorbing piece of content has one thing at its heart: A story. So how do we make them great?
Stories That Matter
While I’d known the power of stories for a while, telling them orally isn’t something I had done before (beyond my friend circle). Audio provides a unique intimacy: you can have a prolonged conversation with your listener, quite literally in their ear. I had to reward the listener for choosing to invest their time with me by telling them something truly captivating.
Here’s what I’ve learned about telling stories with Subject Matter.
(Note: Some of these takeaways apply to other mediums too).
1. Never give the game up.
Imagine you’re watching a two-hour movie about a ship that’s going at top speed towards a small town: it’s locked on course for disaster. Except in the first 30 minutes you find out the ship WILL eventually change its course and the town is safe: the rest of the movie is the crew bickering. Wouldn’t be a particularly compelling watch, right?
I learned this with Subject Matter: You never want to give the whole story away. If you do, why would people listen?
Instead, start by setting the stage. Who are the main characters? What journey are they going to embark on? And what burning problem are they facing?
Then, the secret ingredient, is surprise.
Once you start telling your story, never reveal the true outcome until the very end. Always have an ace up your sleeve to play in your final hand. For example, the opening story of Episode 11 is the daring escape of Napoleon from his exile. At first, it seems like a lucky escape… but is there more to it? If you haven’t listened to that episode, tune in to find out what I’m talking about.
2. Look for the less known.
I want to tell stories that make the listener stop and think. But if I’m discussing something that has been done to death, (i.e. Trump), everybody will already have an opinion made up, making it less likely that I can influence thinking.
I’ve told stories about names History has remembered. Take Winston Churchill (episode 14) for instance. His role as British Prime Minister in World War 2 is known by many, so I stayed well away from it. Instead, I hunted stories that time was forgetting. What about Churchill’s years before he became Prime Minister, as he found himself exiled from government? When he was forced to stay relevant through writing from his home in Kent, in his so-called “Wilderness Years”? That’s the story less told. And that’s what I’m interested in.
Or Amelia Earhart (episode 4) who famously disappeared during her round-the-world flight. But History seems to forget what led to her getting that opportunity: becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic despite being heavily marginalised.
Try and excavate the stories that are preserved away from prying eyes. Because stories everyone knows can’t compete with something fresh and strange. And no one likes hearing the same story twice.
3. Punch over prose.
If each Subject Matter episode can plant one big idea in my audience’s minds that changes their behaviour, then I’ve done my job.
The best way to do that is by creating punchy sound bites which stick out in the listener’s mind, increasing their odds of internalising the point you’re making.
To see what I’m talking about, here’s a transcription from episode 13, where we’re discussing the framework you can use to understand what you really want, and how to act to make those goals happen:
“The things that put you on fire are the things you wouldn’t just do for free, but that you’d actually pay to do because you love them so much. Those beliefs and activities become your character’s compass. That’s your source code.”
“Using your core beliefs and things that set you on fire, understand the difference between what you need to survive, and what you want to flourish. That margin is your ambition.”
When I’m in doubt, I simplify. Short, sharp phrases will always stick over a waffling paragraph of prose.
And of course, stories that disagree are always better than an ideological echo chamber.
Key Takeaways From Storytelling
1. Stockpile surprise right up until the last sentence.
2. The more obscure the story, the better.
3. Punchy copy beats paragraphs. Say something that sticks.
Stepping Into Vulnerability
Let’s be clear: I don’t think for a second that Tom and I have all the answers. We’re figuring this crazy game out, just like you. But remember earlier how we spoke about the need to seek discomfort? Within that lies another, more important question: We need to be vulnerable. And in fact, the same debates we’re bringing to bear with each episode of Subject Matter have caused us to confront several hard truths about ourselves.
Take episode 8, where we discussed knowledge’s power vs. its dangers (turning into ego). After recording the episode we couldn’t help but ask ourselves: Where were our own discussions being egotistical? Were we actually delivering something meaningful, or just indulging in academic debate? The themes we brought up on Subject Matter forced us to question our own core assumptions.
In fact, our core beliefs were often laid bare. Both Tom and I shared personal stories throughout the season. Not for ego, but to personify the ideas we’re sharing. To show we practice what we’re preaching.
Most people prefer to show their best side off to the world, keeping the struggles under lock and key. But by being more vulnerable with the other side of myself, I found myself able to see other perspectives more clearly.
Being vulnerable and putting myself out there wasn’t all uncomfortable either. In fact, I had one unexpectedly pleasant discovery.
I’d recorded my fair share of video content before, and featured on several podcasts. But within a few weeks of starting Subject Matter, I realised I had an asset that I’d totally overlooked before: my voice. (Side note: If you disagree with me after listening to an episode, please call me out.)
I don’t endorse bragging, but I do believe in knowing what your strengths are. From the feedback we were getting a few episodes in, I saw that I had a knack for speaking into the mic, and delivering a story! With more people listening to podcasts than ever and knowing it’s now a strength, I’d be silly not to use it.
“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.” - Steven Pressfield
Subject Matter wasn’t borne from brilliance. The episodes aren’t conjured up in a flash of inspiration. They happen because I sit down every week with Tom, work out what topic will create a compelling episode, and figure out what narrative could open our audience’s eyes (and ears) to paths not yet seen. Rinse and repeat.
Going into my first full year working for myself, I’ve learned that with creative work, there are rarely any shortcuts. One must put in a certain amount of hours in order to see results.
But that knowledge is powerful. Because that gives us an inherent understanding that with practice, comes success. Put in enough reps, trust the process, and you will prosper.
And now you know that too, what’s stopping you?
“We can all only become the best version of ourselves if we’re willing to change everything.”
This simple sentence was the foundation for this past season. What exactly would be possible if you stopped being the person you thought you had to be and stepped into the person you truly could become?
Thousands of listens, 15 episodes, and 1 big idea. Creating the first season of Subject Matter has been a hell of a ride. Late nights, learning curves and everything in between.
We’ll be back for Season 2 later this year, with more content, more conflict and plenty of nuance in between.
And we’re just getting started.