My Five Rules as a Producer, for Many Voices

Tonight at our company’s annual summer party, I got a chance to have my first conversation with one of our new employees. We began by asking each other what we did for the company. Once I understood what he was up to, he wanted to know more about how we produced our programs. He’d heard that we created our programs in the studio, in collaboration with the author, without scripts. Pretty much, I told him. But how do you actually do that? Do you work with the authors on their outlines, do you tell them in the studio to say something differently? I told him that we did both of those things and more. Sometimes we did nothing at all. We do whatever’s necessary. It’s always different. But, he persisted, how do you actually do it live in the studio? What skills do you use?

Well, I said, when I started I had a lot of rules, and they were all about the authors and what they could and couldn’t do. I was tough. I wouldn’t let them read from a script. I wouldn’t allow them to drink caffeine if I could hear it in their voices. I worried over their lunch choices. I insisted on things that I’m embarrassed to admit now. But I’ve worked with some exceptional people and I’ve learned that just because I’ve never seen something work in the studio before, it doesn’t mean that this person isn’t the one person who can make it work. That’s one of the first things I learned, to listen to my authors.

Over the last fifteen years I’ve broken almost every one of my original rules, except for my worries about their dietary choices, and my insistence on proper hydration and thorough preparation. And the times someone’s successfully broken one of my rules are the recordings that have become my favorites. The authors I’ve fought with the most have become some of my dearest friends.

But there are some things I can’t compromise. We’re a professional company and some of my authors have never been in a studio before, so a lot of my time is spent teaching a new author how to use the studio and simultaneously recording their program.

Pretty soon it became clear to me that my job was more as a teacher than as a producer per se, so my rules for working with the authors changed. Now I only have five rules, and they’re all about me.

First, I show up on time. This means that I arrive early enough to be certain the studio is ready. This is also when I establish rapport with the engineer who’ll be very much a part of the recording. When the author walks in, I want them to feel like they’re walking into a living room and meeting with a team of professionals. That’s the most important thing, to convince the author that I know what I’m doing. If I can do that, everything will be easier, because I really do know better than they do what works in the studio. This is what I do for a living. By now I’ve produced well over 200 titles.

Second, I show up prepared. This means that I know what I’m about to record well enough that I can concentrate on how the material is being presented. I can’t do that if most of my attention is trying to figure out what is being said, with no idea of where it’s going.

Third, most of my work should be done before the author arrives. I’m convinced that ninety percent of a successful recording is ensuring that an author arrives properly prepared. I always call an author the day the contract is signed. I want to start them out right by talking to them about how to prepare for their recording. Mostly what I want to do is correct any false ideas they have about how to prepare, so I walk them through the process from start to finish in minute detail.

Part of this preparation is to teach them how to use their mind as their ally rather than their enemy. I tell them that nervousness and excitement are almost indistinguishable in the body, so whichever you call it is pretty much up to you. I tell them that if they’re not a little bit nervous, they’re not working hard enough.

I tell them that in the days leading up to the recording, whenever they become aware of a voice in their head narrating their set, they should continue their thinking at a keyboard or with a pen in their hand. I tell them to carry a notebook with them at all times, and to get in the habit of catching themselves thinking before they even know where their thoughts are headed. If they can harvest as much of that as possible, they’ll have almost the entire thing worked out in their heads by the time they arrive.

And if they’re teaching or lecturing any time between now and the recording, I encourage them to find a way to present something they intend to include in the set. I’ve seen over and over again the importance of an author rehearsing for their recording before they arrive, and the signs of someone who hasn’t. The more practiced they are before they arrive, the less thinking they have to do in the studio, and the more present they’ll be for the recording. Professional musicians show up rehearsed, and the most successful authors do too. If we have the time and I believe they can do better, I’m not above using the studio as a rehearsal space, practicing until we’re ready to record.

Fourth, I listen first and I talk second. The more I know about an author and their work, the better chance I have of saying something useful. So I ask a lot of questions. In the studio, I keep the focus of all conversation on the author and the recording.

Fifth, my main job is to find what my authors are excellent at. It’s like dancing. If I was going to dance with everyone in this room, I could make them all dance the way that makes me the most comfortable or I could find a way to dance with them where they’re most comfortable. I’ve sometimes completely redesigned a program on the fly in the studio or started over again and re-recorded the entire program if it didn’t work the first time.

Some authors are great at doing guided meditations, but not so good at explaining things. Some people are better in front of an audience. Some people really are better reading from a script. My job is to be open to spending the time necessary to get to know them a bit before I try to steer them.

If I’ve done my job correctly, all I have to do in the studio is stay out of their way and not step on their toes. That’s why I say that the best producers don’t look like they’re working at all. They’ve anticipated and defused most of the things that could have gone wrong so the author, engineer, and producer can have as much mental space as possible concentrated on the recording itself, and handle anything unplanned for that does come up.

My one job, really, is to come home with a successful recording. That means making the right decisions, no matter what’s happening inside or outside the studio. One day I told Tami and our editorial director and a big-wig visiting from Australia that, no, they could not interrupt the session for their only chance to meet and greet the author because I thought they would disturb the recording.

The essence of successful producing is to be able to continue to function even when you’re responsible for things you have absolutely no control over, and that nothing ever goes wrong the same way twice. This is a skill you can only learn by being behind the board when things go horribly, horribly wrong. A lot of the whole calmness-under-pressure thing is just having survived numerous disasters in the past.

That sounds like a very specialized skill, he said. It must be hard to learn.

Yeah, I agreed, it’s a long road.

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