As Toastmasters, we focus most of our energy on becoming a better speaker. However, listening also plays a vital role. The Toastmasters Podcast is one such channel that helps Toastmasters become better listeners. Hosted by Bo Bennett, Ryan Levesque and Greg Gazin, this podcast sponsored by Toastmaster International has aired more than 140 episodes till date. In this email interview with Ryan and Greg, they share with us what goes on behind the scenes and how hosting the podcast has changed their lives.
Ryan, what inspired you to start this podcast and how did this begin? What has led to its growth and made it what it is today?
Bo and I had originally met through Toastmasters. We started a business together in 2007 and began working together full time. We were also really into podcasts. We combined our interests in Toastmasters and podcasting and started a podcast called ‘Talking Toastmasters’. It was similar to the The Toastmasters Podcast, where we primarily interviewed people featured in the Toastmaster magazine. The interviews were longer and looser than the current show. Bo approached Toastmasters International several times about officially endorsing the show and having us produce the show in cooperation with, and on behalf of, Toastmasters International. But his offer was politely declined several times. In 2009, a recent hire at World Headquarters (WHQ) discovered us and caught wind of Bo’s previous requests for partnership. She believed that having a podcast for Toastmasters would help reach a new audience, including perhaps a younger and more tech savvy demographic, and demonstrate Toastmasters’ willingness to embrace new media and technology. After discussing with the staff at World Headquarters, we decided to discontinue ‘Talking Toastmasters’ and begin ‘the official podcast of Toastmasters International’, The Toastmasters Podcast. We’ve also had the opportunity to travel to a few International Conventions to provide coverage of the event, and even record a couple of live shows in front of an audience. At one of those conventions, we met fellow podcaster Greg Gazin, and eventually invited him to become a co-host.
The podcast has more than 100 episodes. How do you decide the topics and guests who will be featured in it?
Ryan: Generally, Toastmasters International will provide us a list of ‘leads’ based on a recent or upcoming issue of the Toastmaster magazine. We’ll read through the articles they provide, and choose the one(s) that we think would make the best episode. Of course, for upcoming Conventions, we typically speak with the educational session presenters, keynote speakers, and Golden Gavel recipient. After the Convention, we generally speak with the new International President, the World Champion of Public Speaking, and any new Accredited Speakers. Occasionally, we will come across an episode idea that is ‘out of the box’, and we’ll present it to WHQ for consideration, and determine if it’s worth pursuing.
How do you plan every episode? What is the overall process that goes into creating it?
Ryan: On most episodes, two of the hosts are present. We’ll typically do our own research and formulate questions independently, and then come together to compare notes before the actual interview. We attempt to leave some space for spontaneity and for the possibility of the conversation taking a different twist than anticipated. We usually are speaking voice-to-voice to the guest for the first time when we are meeting to record the interview. We take a few minutes to meet, set the guests (and ourselves!) at ease, and make sure everyone is ready to go. Once the interview is complete, we’ll usually have to do some minor post-production editing, and then we’ll send the episode to WHQ for review and approval, after which we release the episode.
Greg, you host two podcast shows on Toastmasters. How different is hosting Toastmasters podcast and Toastcaster?
Greg: ‘Toastcaster-Podcast for Toastmasters’, is my own creation, conceived in 2006 as a High Performance Leadership Project. Rather than compete, it complements the Toastmasters Podcast because it is not host/guest interview focused. Toastcaster is designed to cover a wide variety of topics that might be of interest both to Toastmasters and future Toastmasters, and in some cases offer an extension of those interviews. While most episodes center on communication and leadership related themes, others might cover other things like microphones or apps, effective use of technology, humorous episodes and even personal speeches.
What are some of your personal favourite podcasts and what do you think makes a great podcast?
Greg: Each episode has a special meaning, but episode #104 was probably the most memorable. It was an interview with Sara Safari who was hanging off the side of Mount Everest when the Nepali earthquake struck. Her story – the struggle, the emotion and her survival is permanently engraved in my mind.
A great podcast is one where you and your guests can have an enjoyable and honest conversation, enlighten the listener with knowledge, or encourage them to do something different. So I try hard to ensure that I ask the right questions to capture the essence of who the speaker is and what they are about to help bring the story out. Another aspect of a great podcast is having great co-hosts like Ryan and Bo whom you work with before, during and after the interviews. It’s great to be able to bounce things off each other and help fill in gaps you might have.
Ryan: My favourite podcasts tend to fall into two different classes. One includes podcasts where the hosts are personal and authentic, and I feel like I relate to them so well that I’d enjoy hanging out with them. We’ve had listeners say things like that to us. One reviewer has said, “I’d like the opportunity to buy these guys a beer”. Hopefully that means what we’re doing is resonating with the listeners.
The other class are podcasts that focus on in-depth storytelling with high production value. A great example is NPR’s This American Life. The stories are endlessly fascinating, and the production often includes specially selected music and field reporting that includes the ambient noise of the environment where the action is taking place.
Can you share with us your favourite experience, episode or interview of the podcast and tell us why is it your favourite?
Ryan: I really enjoyed putting together episode #062 from the 2012 International Convention in Orlando. On that episode, I had fun with production and field recording, including recording from within the ballroom at the World Championship, interviewing World Champion Ryan Avery and his wife Chelsea while they were surrounded by fans and media, and even recording from within the parks at Disney World. The episode begins with the music of ‘It’s A Small World’, which was recorded on the actual ride with my family!
Greg: One of my favourite experiences was doing a series of short live interviews at the 2017 International Convention in Vancouver. It was phenomenal hearing stories of members from all over the world. I had over 3 hours of material and most of it was exciting and relevant. The challenge was to select what to include and to edit down some of the dialogues. Speaking to so many Toastmasters from around the world all in the International Convention put all my Toastmasters skills, particularly impromptu speaking to the test.
Another interesting experience was when Ryan and I were speaking with Dana Lamon during a pre-convention interview. Ryan and I had a plan for the interview, including a series of questions. When Dana answered all of them in his first response, we said, “Now what?” and proceeded to do the rest of the interview completely on the fly.
How has hosting this podcast changed you as an individual?
Ryan: Co-hosting The Toastmasters Podcast has helped me stretch and grow my communication skills in new ways. I’ve learned to better manage performance anxiety by focusing my interest on the guest and topic, and on bringing value to the listeners. My listening skills have also improved. I’ve learned to carefully balance interview preparation with listening in the moment, as sometimes the unplanned, spontaneous questions can lead to the most profound and interesting answers.
Ryan, you have been hosting this podcast for nearly 10 years now. What’s the future of this podcast?
Ryan: For the past 10 years, we’ve truly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with many amazing guests from around the world. We intend to continue sharing our discussions with incredible leaders and communicators with our audience.
This article was first published on Sep-Oct issue of the District 98’s bi-monthly newsletter ‘Communicate 98’. To read other articles, click here.