Choosing guests is world building

Canon and long-term planning

This is a short article about Sleep With Me.

Now for the better part of five years he has been telling bespoke “episodically-modular” longform stories, building a pseudo-canon across various worlds all built on foundations of dream logic and improvisation.

~ Caitlin Van Horn

Ackerman, the host of Sleep With Me, is creating an apparently—I’ve not listened at all—huge universe of interconnected stories. I suppose that’s much like creating a series of Fiction books. I’ve always thought of long-term planning [in podcasting context] as story arc. I’ve thought about shows with season-long story arcs, and shows that are sort of creating a story by sequentially covering related topics. With my podcasts, I’ve never gotten into this sort of story arc. Perhaps that’s because I’m not into creating Fiction, podcasts or otherwise.

World building

My thinking about long-term creation of canon, or a “show universe,” reminded me that I do put a lot of effort into selecting guests. Suddenly, “guest selection” feels exactly like creating a show’s canon; I’m literally creating the universe—World Building—for Movers Mindset by adding “stars” into that universe, one guest at a time.

So how exactly do I choose guests?

Choosing guests

Get help

The most important thing is that I don’t do it alone. I’ve found someone who is passionate about giving people a platform to be heard. Her role within Movers Mindset is to be the guests’ advocate. It is invaluable to be able to have a conversation about potential guests. We often play this out as antagonists; I feign active disinterest in the potential guest and she tries to change my mind. (All in good fun of course.) The “advocate” portion of her role reflects all of her efforts on the guests behalf, not just advocating to get them on the show. She’s responsible for all of our interactions with the guests, before, during and after recording.

If someone who listens to your show, ever asks you how you pick guests, you should engage with that person. They may be just who you need.

Always-on radar

Our ideas for guests come from many places. Stumbling over them is one obvious source. People I meet, wherever I interact with others, are a constant source of new perspectives. Simply asking myself, “How does this person fit into the universe of my show?” reveals endless vistas. But, note that leading “how” is critical: If I only ask, “Does this person fit?” it’s too easy to answer, “They do not.” When I ask myself, “How do they fit?” that’s where the magic lies.

The right question

Immediately after recording, we do a debrief of the guest. (We don’t say “debrief,” we just engage them in further conversation.) We ask them, among other things, a very specially crafted question:

Who would you like to hear go through the experience you just had?

Now compare that to the more commonly asked question:

Who do you recommend we talk with?

The common form is prone to failure because my guest—all but the most empathic people will do this—will try to imagine who I, the host, would want to talk to. It fails because the guest doesn’t know me. They try to figure out who, among the many people they know, would be a good fit for my show. How would they have any idea about that?

Instead, the experience form of the question leaves them in their own perspective. It asks them to reveal their curiosity. You get answers like, “oh! my Anthropology professor from 20 years ago!” (To which I reply, “that’s interesting… tell me more…”) The power of the question comes from the guest’s super-fresh experience of having had a great conversation, and from their instinctive curiosity. They immediately imagine someone they know having the same experience they just had.

Notice also that the experience form of the question does not imply that I want them to name someone they can hook me up with. (I record conversations, the question doesn’t need to carry that, it’s a given that I’d probably want to talk with whomever they name.) Guests often aim crazy-high with their first answer. They often name completely impossible-to-reach people. But even those crazy-ambitious answers tell me something about the guest, and about what they want to hear. Right there, I just learned something about the people I should be seeking for the show. (Who among us isn’t craving that information?)

Next, after giving us an insanely hard guest idea, they will always give it another think. They make that face that all people make when you ask them a really good question. Not everyone comes up with a good, gettable, guest suggestion at this point. But many of them do. Some guests even give us two. We’ve ended up with an embarrassment of riches.

Above, I mentioned, “all but the most empathic,” because very empathic people will do something very special. If they were to hear the, “who do you recommend?” common form of the question, they would make the truly empathic leap to my actual mindset. There, they realize what it is that I actually want to know. That is to say, they can sense the better question, despite being asked the weaker form. They’ll answer the better question no matter what I say.

Pro-tip: When people ask you the weak-form, give them a precious gift by answering the better question.

Unknown unknowns

A final source for guest ideas comes from being circumspect about all of the guests and topics in the show. Imagine each guest and their topics discussed as a dot added to a canvas. At first the dots will be scattered all over. Over time, you’ll have more dense areas and some dots will form peninsulas or starfish arms reaching out in some direction. (Lots of guests and conversation on topic A. Some more on topic B.) Consider the viewpoint (the specific guests, the type of persons, the topic, etc.) at the tip of two of those tentative arms. Now assume they must be connected directly. Assume there must be some number of people who, if we talked with them, would add some dots directly between the tips of those two arms.



“How does this person fit…?”
@craig Thanks for the mind-shifting question!

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