How TALKING ABOUT Your Work In Progress
Can Help Your Work in Public Media
by Melody Kramer
Audre Lorde once said that there “are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”
As you might suspect, her sentiment about originality wasn’t original. Lots of people have said similar things, including Mark Twain, Lincoln, Emerson, Frank Zappa — and even more recently, Kirby Ferguson and NaS.
I’m also a big fan of not reinventing the wheel, as well as liberally borrowing other people’s axles. Over the past eight years, I’ve spent the majority of my workday tinkering on audio, digital, and social experiments at NPR — where I’ve learned (and cobbled together) a variety of valuable lessons that are also applicable to independent producers and others working with audio.
Most of these ideas originate with other people — some working in audio but the majority not. I found many of the people who don’t work in audio through making much of my workflow public.
Which brings me to perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the past eight years: Share your work as you work.
It may seem counterintuitive to share your thoughts or your material as you work on a project, particularly if you work by yourself. But if you are able to share how you’re working and what you’re working on with a wider audience — through a mailing list or through social media — your audience will become invested not only in your process, but also in your final product.
It doesn’t take me more than a few seconds to throw up a tweet or Facebook post whenever I want to share something or bounce an idea off of a larger group. (Facebook groups are really good for this. Here’s a list to get you started.) And sharing as you go along does a few things:
It helps create an organic community around your work and your ideas. If you’re working on multiple projects, the common link between all of them is you. And you want people to follow your work, no matter where it happens to be.
By sharing what you’re up to, you’re revealing why it’s important to connect with you and not just your finished projects.
By sharing, you’re also learning more about what other people have done. Every day, I share half-finished ideas and thoughts that I have on Twitter. People correct me, point me to other people working on similar projects, and offer advice.
By revealing my process, I’m learning about better ideas that others have already discovered and connecting with people working on similar projects, across lots of different fields. These are not people I would normally encounter while working, but they open up my mind to new ways of thinking and learning.
Sharing has the added bonus of establishing you as a thought leader within your field.
By making your process public, you’re creating templates that can be used for conference presentations, consulting gigs, or other jobs in the future. You’re showing potential employers what you can do. And you’re connecting with people whom you wouldn’t find simply by working solo or with people only in your industry.
I should say, I didn’t go onto Twitter with this plan in mind. And I still don’t think of my public experimentation as a calculated strategy.
I share because I like sharing what I’ve learned, and as an introvert, it’s a way for me to connect with people without being overwhelmed in a group gathering. I prefer Twitter to conferences, I’ve realized. I also like sharing because it helps me alleviate stress. In doing so, I’ve found that sharing my work as I work has in and of itself become an invaluable part of my workflow. It’s consistently helped me come up with better, stronger, and more community-driven ideas.
This takes us to lesson two: When you borrow or learn something, attribute it publicly.
When I first started at NPR, I often emailed my coworkers story ideas or digital tips that I came across. This eventually morphed into an internal newsletter called the Social Sandbox, which eventually became a public blog detailing everything my colleague Wright Bryan and I learned about digital and social strategy.
The Sandbox initially started out as a way for us to publicly cheer our coworkers for doing really great work in the digital space — things like holding live Twitter chats or using Google forms to acquire sources for a story. But after a while, it turned into our colleagues sharing things they came across from other news organizations or things they had tried themselves.
We always touted those who shared the information and made clear where it came from, which made others more likely to share what they had learned. (Everyone likes getting credit.) It also helped us spread the word that the Sandbox existed; when we publicly announced that we learned something from a member station, reporter, or other news organization, they often shared it too.
Sharing our work in this way also helped us extend our work and our reach beyond our colleagues in public media. We often shared things we had learned from outside of media — as well as takeaways we could learn from other industries.
This, in turn, widened our audience and the community of people sharing tips with us. I received letters from folks working in museums, libraries, and universities explaining that they found the Sandbox helpful. They also let me know about resources they were using that we hadn’t known about — and probably wouldn’t have learned about if we had only bounced off of people in media.
You don’t need a huge listserv to start sharing your process. You could start with the AIR listserv or by posting one thing you learn each day on a blog. You could make it an audio extra on a podcast, or a stand-alone audio tidbit. If you share what you learn and from whom you learn it, you will grow and strengthen your audience because they’ll be learning along with it — and credit you for their newfound knowledge.
Lesson three: Fail publicly. Fail fast. Fail often.
When you’re transparent about your process, you can fail without falling down, particularly if you don’t think in absolutes like failing or winning. Scientists routinely do this, and we should follow their lead.
What do I mean by this? Let’s say you have a hypothesis about a new way to connect with your audience. And you try it, and it doesn’t work. OK. Well, now you know that doesn’t work, so you can now revise your hypothesis and try something different.
The key to being able to fail and fail well is being transparent about your process and being able to measure your data as you go along. I use Twitter analytics and the free version of Buffer to measure things like the best time of day to post to social media, and the best type of messages to push out on social media, so I’m not just throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.
(A/B testing might sound scary but it literally just means this: trying one method (A) and then trying another method (B) and then measuring to see which one works better. If A works better, do more of A. If B works better, do more of B. This can be applied to almost anything, whether it’s writing a headline or picking a time of day to tweet. If you try out two different approaches and then look at your analytics, it’s usually pretty easy to see which one works better. You can read more about this, if you’d like, at the Knight Lab website.)
Iterative experimentation in the way I just described is a method that works: I watch successful startups do it all the time. They pivot gracefully and are constantly changing based on data. When they fail, they fail fast and move on. And they’re constantly figuring out what worked and what didn’t work.
As independents or as people part of small shops, we sometimes find it difficult to connect with other people. Use the AIRdaily listserv, use social media, use a mailing list or a blog you create. By simply keeping track of and revealing your process — and how you’ve changed your process as you go — you can find people who have tried similar routes and open yourself up to new ideas along the way.
Failing publicly is something that allows you to ask for help. I once left a job to attempt to go to medical school and then very quickly discovered that it might not be the right path for me. Instead of keeping it to myself, I made a pro/con list, repeatedly wrote out my thoughts and asked for feedback, and then decided to go back to journalism.
By the time I felt ready to leave, I had a community of people I knew I could turn to, who would help me navigate what the outside world might consider to be a failure. To me, it wasn’t a failure. It was iterative experimentation.
Which brings me to this: Ask for help. There are Facebook groups and newsletters to follow and share ideas with fellow radio makers — and Twitter searches you can routinely use to see what others are up to. (I recommend following #pubmedia to see what people are talking about in public media and using this search to see people who are talking about your stuff without using links.)
I ask for help all the time. I often work alone or as part of a small team, and I don’t have the manpower or time to be able to do as much research as I’d like, so I involve as many people as possible in the process. Then, I often round up everything I learn into a blog post, which then makes the process more community-oriented and helpful for people who may have the same questions in the future.
In the past few years, I have also gotten much more comfortable with saying no and walking away. This is hard for me because I have a natural inclination to please people and I don’t want people to not like me. But I know my limits and I know when people are trying to take advantage of me.
Sometimes walking away is a good thing. It’s OK to say no. (I recently put a disclaimer on my website explaining how I structure my consulting work. I recommend thinking about this and then writing something similar if you’re someone who is constantly getting your brain picked.)
It’s also OK to pivot. If you’re overwhelmed, it’s fair to take a step back. And it’s acceptable to go offline. In fact, I recommend it — and often.
Our audience is everywhere. Talk to people at the movie theater or at the park or on the street. Ask them questions. Listen to them. We are out of the time when it’s a benefit to be the solitary genius, tinkering away on your project in a studio by yourself. In public media, I believe that it’s important to bring the public into the process as soon as possible — and that means sharing as you go through the process.
And by doing so, I think you’ll find what I’ve found: that maybe Audre Lorde’s quote about “no new ideas” isn’t exactly true. There are new ideas out there. But often times they require listening to someone outside of your world in order to spark something really new, creative, and brilliant.
• Melody Joy Kramer spent the majority of her career in public media, where she directed, produced, edited, and wrote stuff for several shows, including “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” and “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.” Most recently, she worked as a digital strategist at NPR, where she launched and then directed projects that helped NPR make better decisions and build audiences online and on-air. She is a 2014-2015 visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where she is working on new ways to think about membership. Mel blogs at www.melodyjk.com, codes in Python, and tweets @mkramer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org