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    What John Cleese Taught Me About Podcasting

    Podcasting is an endlessly creative endeavor. From booking guests to polishing episodes, each step requires our left brains (logical, analytical, and objective) and our right brains (intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective) to sync their efforts in harmony. It’s a creative practice John Cleese has all but perfected. 

    Cleese's philosophy — that creativity is a learnable, improvable skill — has given me three game-changing ideas about podcasting.

    You may know the legendary English actor from the Monty Python canon, A Fish Called Wanda, or as Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter films. But behind the scenes, Cleese is an avid pontificator on the creative process. His philosophy — that creativity is a learnable, improvable skill — has given me three game-changing ideas about podcasting.

    Cleese (center) on the set of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

    #1 – Four Questions to Ask for Honest Feedback

    When asking for feedback, you’re asking for someone’s time. Make the most of it by specifying exactly what you’re looking for. For example, when you send your podcast to someone who’s offered to provide feedback, their first question will likely be, “Is there anything in particular you’d like me to focus on?”

    I prefer those critiquing my podcast to approach each episode as a listener, rather than someone giving feedback. (Listening with the intent of finding problem areas often stifles the listening experience.) I ask to simply soak it all in, and that I’ll have a few questions for them when they’re finished.

    When receiving others’ opinions, it’s important to place ideas over ego. Don’t ask yourself who is right — ask which idea is better.

    Here are the four questions Cleese offers to get the most honest (and therefore useful) feedback:

    1. Where were you bored?
    2. Where could you not understand what was going on?
    3. Where did you find things not credible?
    4. Was there anything you found emotionally confusing?

    Not all feedback is created equal. However, when receiving others’ opinions, it’s important to place ideas over ego. Don’t ask yourself who is right — ask which idea is better. Then grab the better idea, and run with it.

    #2 – The Greatest Creativity Killer is Interruption

    Email. Texts. A co-worker with juicy gossip. Research suggests it can take eight minutes to get back into your previous headspace, and up to twenty minutes to sink back into deep focus. Every interruption, however minor, hacks away at your focus. In turn, your podcasting creativity ends up disjointed.

    How do you reclaim it? Create boundaries around your time and space. Boundaries of space keep others from interrupting you, and boundaries of time give your brain the constraint it needs to focus and play. Cleese operates in 90-minute increments of uninterrupted deep work.

    Cleese in the Ministry of Silly Walks, 1970

    As Cleese writes in his acclaimed book Creativity, “Knowing that this chunk of time is sacred, you can then start to play.”

    Play? But you’re making a serious podcast. There’s no room for play. 

    Or is there?

    “Most adults find it hard to be playful — no doubt because they have to take care of all the responsibilities that come with an adult’s life,” Cleese says. “Creative adults, however, have not forgotten how to play.”

    You’re making a serious podcast. There’s no room for play. Or is there?

    Play gives us the freedom to mash the dough of problems we’re facing into new forms. We see challenges from new angles. We solder new connections between old experiences and experiment with potential solutions. Play is a gateway to a better version of our work.

    Podcasting is an iterative, i.e., repetitive, process. Don’t expect to nail a ‘play’ attempt on the first try — experimenting is part of the fun. Podcasting is a practice, and the more uninterrupted time we spend with it, the better we’ll get. And the higher quality our episodes will become.

    #3 – Embrace Your Tortoise Mind and Hare Brain

    There’s a mental shift we experience when we move from creating to executing. Understanding this transition has helped me dig deeper into my podcast interviews, edits, and new show pitches.

    In his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, cognitive scientist Guy Claxton explains why we need to use our tortoise (methodical) mind when we’re pondering a problem. Once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to our hare (action-oriented) brain to implement it.

    Understanding this transition has helped me dig deeper into my podcast interviews, edits, and new show pitches.

    According to Cleese, Claxton’s book is “the essential guide to creative thinking.” Here’s why: Say you find yourself hitting a wall on what music to use or how to open an episode. Claxton suggests we switch to our tortoise mind, which lets our curiosity slowly poke its snout around. 

    Tortoise mind = pondering the problem (a.k.a. exploratory play)

    Hare brain = executing solutions

    This frame of mind gives us better access to ideas, which we can then execute by switching to our hare brain. Iteration — a key component of podcasting — is simply the jumping back and forth between them.

    Final Thoughts

    Taking a page from John Cleese’s creative handbook, let’s inject play back into our podcasting process, seek honest feedback through the four big questions, and embrace our inner tortoise mind and hare brain. After nearly 60 years of enchanting audiences, it’s safe to say that he knows a thing or two.

    Key Takeaways

    • Seek honest feedback.
    • When receiving feedback, always place ideas over ego: Don’t ask yourself who is right, ask which idea is better.
    • Interruption kills creativity.
    • Inject more play into your process.
    • Your tortoise mind and hare brain work together in creativity.
    Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1976. From left: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Photo courtesy of AP.
    Doug Fraser
    Doug Fraserhttps://www.dougfraserdigital.com
    If it's peculiar, you can count Doug Fraser in. From the voice of Porky Pig to bestselling author Lemony Snicket, his What We Do podcast explores the people behind the world’s most intriguing passions, hobbies, and jobs. He’s also the co-host of Curious State University, an upcoming podcast with crash courses on offbeat topics. Doug works as a freelance copywriter and filmmaker.
    Podcast Movement 2021

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