Make Ideas Your Greatest Currency
Where do you get your stories from? It's a question I'm asked time and time again. Because in the world of production, you're only as good as your last great idea - not the story you once won an award for 10 years ago.
But keeping the ideas flowing, especially when you're under pressure, is a skill that takes time to hone.
The act of being curious isn't something that requires years of experience. Either you have a knack for it, or you don't.
Albert Einstein once said "I have no special
talents. I am only passionately curious."
And that's why in a newsroom, any one can come up with the best story idea - from the cleaner, to the intern, to the editor.
In a moment, I'll offer ten quick fixes if you're feeling at a loss for story ideas. But let me just be clear, if you're not someone who enjoys talking to people - then working as a journalist or podcast host isn't going to be for you.
To get the best and most original ideas you need to be nosey, open-minded and engaged. Inspiration will come at times and in places you least expect it. Once you open your ears and pay attention 24/7, you'll realise ideas and potential contributors really are everywhere - if you're willing to look for them.
I will add a disclaimer here though: Creativity requires time and patience. Give yourself room to breathe, to think, to dip in and dip out of looking for ideas. Sometimes they don't come straight away. Like I said before, this is a skill - just like playing a musical instrument - that you'll need to practice.
Practice makes perfect
Working as a journalist in a busy newsroom, producing live radio for daily programmes was a great opportunity for honing my craft of magicking up stories. It wasn't just about thinking up one or two ideas per week - it was more like 5 or 6 stories per day! But to get these kind of numbers, there were of course plenty of ideas we'd have which would be poo-pooed. So times the amount of stories you actually need by two - and that's more representative of how often and how hungry the daily news cycle is.
Hopefully with your own podcast you'll have worked out your why, your mission statement and know who your target audience is by now. The next trick is measuring every idea or story you have against these parameters before it's even put in the pot for consideration.
Places to start
1. Newpapers/The News/Topical Magazines
If a contributor is already doing interviews on the subject you're talking about, they're likely to say yes to you because they're already prepped and briefed. Doing another interview won't make much difference to them. Plus you'll know for quality reasons what you're getting, what they're going to say and that they've some clout and authority on the topic.
I've sat in many a Funsizing, TedX or PechaKucha audience and been wowed by amazing speakers. I attend these type of events most months just for pleasure but often find myself being inspired by a presenter or even someone sat beside me in the audience.
You have to be there in the first place to get a chance at these conversations.
I've never had anyone say no to me when I've approached them after a talk for an interview in my own work. Like this guy, Shaun Atwood - a former ecstasy drug dealer and stockbroker millionaire who spent 6 years in one of America's deadliest jails. I saw him touring one of his talks in Manchester, asked him afterwards for an interview. 10 days later we sat in Oscillate Studios and recorded this.
3. Social Media
Hashtags, lists, credibility... Don't end up being one of those journalists whose at-a-glance twitter timeline is full of "hi i'm such and such from bbc radio x wondering whether you can call me for an interview..."
Social media is a two-way street - you need to contribute with useful information, take time to build up your network and have conversations with people - not just "hey look at me I'm amazing" posts.
Hashtags are great for seeing who the key spokespeople with some clout are. As are lists for your specific niche - which yes take time to craft but so worthwhile the time in the long run. Check out my twitter list full of podcast geniuses for example!
Invest in developing your twitter profile and understanding the platform, and it will become a hot bed of inspiration and relevant contacts at your fingertips in the future. It'll also build your credibility so that when you do ask someone to DM you their email, they're more likely to do so.
4. Authors of books
If it's a new one, then like in step 1 the author will most likely be prepped and ready to do publicity anyway. But even if it's been out for a while, what writer wouldn't want some free publicity and recognition for a piece of work that probably took them ages to make and earns them little money? Plus from your point of view, them being an author means they probably have some authority on their specialised subject. Not everyone can write a book, or get it published. Quality guest wise, it's likely to be a winner every time.
5. Listen to other podcasts!
They say to become a great writer first you must read lots of books. And my advice to all my podcast coaching clients, is the same - to be a great podcaster you must listen to lots of podcasts!
The added benefit here is that by listening to more you'll tap into a ton of experienced hosts and contributors who already get the podcast lingo, likely have the tech know-how of how to do an interview and are probably cool to say yes if you cross promote their podcast too.
By the way - note here you don't have to listen to podcasts on the same subject as yours. Get curious - listen to all kinds of different series. This'll help generate ideas in the most unexpected places. Small nuggets from production techniques, to scripting to how to use listener interaction...
Nothing is ever original, everything is begged borrowed or stolen from somewhere, right?
6. Just ask
Lean in to your social media networks, your friends, your family, your social clubs... Does anybody know anybody? Or even asking your contributors whether they know anybody else you should be talking to?
I'm a massive fan of this. It's given me some of the biggest wins that have led to stories I've recorded winning awards.
When I was out in the field a few years ago recording stories about male domestic abuse I asked the social worker I was speaking with who else should I connect with in this area. She wrote the first name and mobile number of a local poet on a post it note in biro. He was a survivor now passionate writer on the topic based 20 minutes drive away.
I called him, and was sat in his living room an hour later. We won an award from The Guardian for our interview - it is still one of the most magical moments of my career to date. Listen to it here...
Then there was the time my bank manager (hey Janine!) put me in touch with someone who knew a former body guard to Nelson Mandela. I'd said I was looking for contributors for a new series. It turned out to be another pinch-myself-moment. Listen here:
So yeah, just ask. Tell everyone you know what you're up to and you may just be surprised.
That curiosity thing really works - don't rule out the fact that the best most connected people in the world are actually those you probably ignore more days. The security guards, the cleaners, the floor managers and the receptionists...
The other day in the office where I've worked for nearly 8 years I took time to talk to one of our security guards. It turned out he used to be a prison officer for years, and one of his former inmates was Harold Shipman....
When I said talk to everyone - I mean everyone.
7. Read noticeboards
Supermarkets, shop windows...as well as those online.
Why is that family heirloom being sold? What's the story behind that piano they need help moving? Talks, workshops, open days happening.... It's all right there but most times you probably didn't even know the noticeboard existed and have been walking past it for years.
I spotted a leaflet in my local Tescos five years ago for a free six week course for women wanting to start their own business held at a local fire station. Finding that leaflet and signing up to that course changed the direction of my life. Just because I stopped and noticed.
Then there's websites such as Streetlife (now closed) or Next Door which are fascinating places to see what and who is really living in your neighbourhood.
Four years ago I connected with an 81 year old widower living two streets away who told me how he felt 'left behind' and 'lost in society'.
Chris posted an advert on the social network Streetlife offering his 'wisdom and skills' to a young local family, wanting to be adopted as a grandad figure.
With no family of his own, he hoped to offer support with reading, homework or even sharing adventures and stories of his life's travels.
I shared his story on BBC Radio Manchester, and we were able to connect him with a family to share his birthday and Christmas within a few months.
Have a listen to the recording of our conversation. It was one of those conversations that shaped the course of my direction as a journalist, later inspiring my work on loneliness with Age UK Cheshire on our podcast series, Discover Brightlife.
8. Follow ups/anniversaries
Who were you talking to this time last year? Any guests you interviewed at the start of their journey but haven't spoken to in awhile? What happened next when that person went and did that amazing thing they told you they were going to do?
Take ownership of your contacts and your stories - keep in touch with these people often.
Anniversaries are a great peg for a starting place. What interesting things happened on this day X number of years ago? Nice big round numbers are brill - 50 years since the moon landing, 100 years since women got the vote in the UK etc
For instance on the same day I publish this article, Stephen Fry celebrates his birthday, sharing the same date that Henry VII died and (13 years ago) it was decided Pluto was no longer a planet...
9. Your listeners!
What are they posting about your podcast on social media? Can they email you? Are they writing reviews on Apple Podcasts? Can you ask them for future stories or guests they think you should be covering?
Podcast listeners are fiercely loyal. If they've subscribed then they're invested in your series succeeding.
On our Slimming World Food For Thought series we began to be so overrun with listeners' comments that we created space for their own episode every month. It's all about them - they direct the agenda of what we talk about for the whole recording. These episodes are still our most listened to of all our podcasts.
People love hearing their name read out - honestly! So make a fuss, and get to know your listeners. In return - they will feed you with inspiration, motivation and general love. I wrote a piece about loyalty you can also read here.
10. If all else fails, go for a walk
There's something about nature. The smell of grass, touching trees, kicking leaves and the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other that does it for me.
It feeds my mind as much as my soul.
I know when I'm stuck and I've hit a wall that the best medicine is a walk up a hill, round the park or to the shops.
We can't force creativity, we can't make ideas come to us - they just happen - eventually.
Having a break, some exercise and a bit of downtime is just as important as slogging away behind the screen. So factor this in to your planning.
Listen, earwig EVERYWHERE
Give it time
Have plan a, b, c, d, e...
Clare Freeman works as a podcast coach and consultant. If your current podcast series needs a vavavoom and shake up, or if you're stuck at the first hurdle of getting started - reach out to Clare from some one-to-one coaching. Prices start from just £99 for 90 minutes. More information here.