How to start a creative meeting

Photo by Davis Sanchez on

Regular creative meetings can be a bit of a challenge.

Who says I can pull an idea out of my ass at 2pm on a Tuesday, just because we agreed to talk then?

I may have just had a stressful morning trying to link up a wireless printer.

Or be in the middle of a complex situation with a friend/SO.

Or have been trying to engage my kids in homeschool for the last three hours.

We ask each other, ‘How are you?’ at the beginning of meetings and respond politely rather than give an answer which indicates how fit we are to do creative work at this moment.

Here’s an idea from Nathan and Barrett at The Future Belongs to Creators.

Start your meeting with a simple traffic light guide.

Each person reports whether they are ‘red’, ‘yellow’ or ‘green.’ Find colours which represent a mix if three options are not enough.

‘Green’ is in a good, open and creative mood. We’re not stressed, the creative juices are flowing, good things are going to happen today.

‘Yellow’ is somewhat stressed, perhaps there’s a lot going on at work or personally, we might be a little distracted.

And ‘Red’, presumably is the day when it might be best to sack the whole thing off until tomorrow. Not in a creative mood, distracted, stressed beyond the point where anything useful is going to get done.

Now you know how everyone’s feeling, adjust the approach of your meeting accordingly. Today might not be the best day to push hard for a huge brainstorming session. Or to deliver some difficult feedback to a colleague.

Are you red, yellow or green today?


Why is the ‘Rule of Three’ funny?

This article was written with the very kind help of Clare Jonas:

Clare Jonas

Clare Jonas is a science communicator with a PhD in the psychology of perception.

When she’s not talking about merkins in the name of explaining science, she enjoys attempting to guess the names of other people’s dogs and listening to the music of Four Tet.

You can read more of her work at

Why is the ‘Rule of Three’ funny?

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

– E.B. White and his wife, Katharine S. White

Rach: My driving instructor was a lovely Chinese man who grew increasingly frustrated with my questions about how exactly a clutch worked.

I couldn’t get my head around the biting point if I couldn’t see what I was biting.

How does the engine work, how does the clutch work, what are we doing here in a car park in Mitcham at 10 o’clock in the morning?

Mr. Yeo placed his head in his hands and sighed quietly.

Since learning how to perform stand up comedy, I’ve been struck with similar confusion about how jokes work. I need to know why something is funny to be able to write and perform it with confidence. 

The frog is dying, but I can’t help myself.

Take the rule of three for example. Every comedy course in the world will tell you that the rule of three is funny.

And it is. There’s no question about that. The age-old mechanism of establish, reinforce, subvert is as tried and tested as ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ isn’t.

But why are three things funnier than two? Why don’t four things work so well? And above all, why do some third-thing punchlines work better than others?

To help me with this, I consulted Clare Jonas from That Thinking Feeling.

Clare, why is a comedic triple funnier than a double or quadruple?

Clare: Good question! I don’t think anyone’s actually tried to figure out this exact thing with an experiment… so I cobbled together an answer from my psychology knowledge. 

First, let’s tackle the number element. In order to make this kind of joke work, you need to establish a category and then flout or subvert it in some way.

It should be obvious why one item in the list won’t work: you usually can’t establish a clear category from just one thing, and you certainly can’t subvert the category. Because a lot of words have multiple meanings, you need the second item in the list to solidify the category, which means it also shouldn’t be the funny thing.

Here’s an example first item: boxers. This could belong to a number of categories…

Underwear: Boxers, Y-fronts

Sportspeople: Boxers, rowers

Dog breeds: Boxers, spaniels

Words that end in -oxers: Boxers, foxers

So, why not establish the category even more solidly with a third or fourth or fifth item before subverting? Because humans have limited attention spans. We usually use working memory (a sort of temporary store for information) to keep track of things that we need to keep in mind right now. When you’re reading or listening to someone tell a story, a lot of your working memory is taken up with what’s going on in the story – events, characters, how things relate to each other. If I ask you to remember a long list while you’re listening to a story, either you’ll forget the list or you’ll lose track of the story. A two-item list is a balance between the need to establish the category and the need to keep your audience’s attention.

A different use of this kind of three-part list is an age-old rhetorical device called hendiatris, which gave us such classics as friends, Romans, countrymen and reduce, reuse, recycle. We have a powerful cultural expectation that the third item in a list will complete it in an emotionally or aesthetically pleasing way. The subversion of that expectation is funny – but why?

I’ve written before about how humour works, and the honest answer is that there’s no one theory which can explain all of it. In many cases, it’s probably about mild tension being resolved. In something like stand-up comedy, this tension might come from a variety of sources, say the topic is mildly taboo or emotionally difficult, or the narrative is gripping and you don’t know what to expect, or even that you’re worried whether the comedian is going to land the joke. If the tension is resolved, you’re relieved – but add a silly or incongruous subversion to that and you are likely to express relief by laughing.

Let’s talk a bit more about incongruity, because you can’t just whack any old incongruous thing on the end of a list to make a funny. Returning to one of the earlier examples…

Boxers, Y-fronts, briefs -> Congruous, not funny

Boxers, Y-fronts, cathedrals -> Incongruous, not funny

Boxers, Y-fronts, merkin -> Incongruous, funny, BINGO!

I like to think of this as a series of concentric circles. The trick is to find something that’s slightly outside the category you’ve established, but not so far that you can’t see any connection between the first two items and the final one (Only Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard can make this funny – Rach.) Underwear and pubic wigs are reasonably closely related, underwear and large buildings not so much. 

In this case, merkin is also good because it’s slightly rude (another type of subversion, this time about social norms of what we ‘should’ talk about in public) and it’s one of those words that sounds funny even if you don’t know what it means, like spatula.

Clare Jonas concentric cirles 1

Not every minor subversion is funny, of course. Some minor subversions might be offensive or confusing, in the general sense or in the specific context of what you are saying and who you are saying it to. 

As with all comedy, the key is keeping in mind who you’re talking to. 

Perhaps your audience is entirely comprised of Conservative women over the age of 80. Will they know what a merkin is? If they do know, will they think it’s too rude? 

Perhaps your audience is made up of curators at the Amsterdam Sex Museum. Will they be so used to merkins that they find them boring? Is it not rude enough?

Clare Jonas concentric cirles 2

Rach: So, the category circles might change size, depending on your audience. If your ‘third thing’ is in the central established category circle, it won’t be a surprise, so it won’t be funny – though if you’re lucky you might have made a hendiatris. If it’s in the ‘TOO FAR’ circle, it doesn’t make any sense.

If it’s in the offensive section, it could be funny, but a stand-up audience might be nervous to laugh out loud. It’s certainly not going to get you booked for the Royal Variety Performance.

In conclusion, establish, reinforce, subvert by the correct amount and you have yourself a punchline.

Postscript: Rach eventually overcame her clutch based confusion, and nailed her driving test on the fourth attempt.

Douglas Adams and Artificial Intelligence


In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is revealed that the Earth is a supercomputer designed by Deep Thought, the supercomputer that came before it.

“DEEP THOUGHT: I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me. A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate – and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the question to the Ultimate answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself will form part of its operational matrix. And it shall be called The Earth.”

I wonder whether Douglas Adams was influenced by a 1965 paper by British mathematician, Irving John Good, Speculations Concerning the First Ultra-Intelligent Machine.

Good is responding to the commonly held view that a machine could never be as intelligent as a human.

He argues that humans have limitations in intelligence. Ultimately, a machine could be constructed that would match or even exceed a human’s capability.

Good fundamentally believed that computers and their ultra-intelligent machine successors would deliver a benefit to humanity. The opening line of this seminal paper reads:

“The survival of man depends on the early construction of an ultra-intelligent machine.”

In it, he also originated the idea of an “intelligence explosion”:

“Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever.

Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

So is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy supercomputer Earth docile? According to Ford Prefect it is, “Mostly Harmless.”

If you enjoyed this article, and know where your towel is, you might like this episode of The End of the World by Josh Clark:

And you also might like to join my Hitchhikers appreciation group, Stand Up for Towel Day.

Level Up Human S2E12 – Sally Le Page vs James Piercy

Simon and Rach chat to biologist and science YouTuber Sally Le Page and science communicator James Piercy.

We discuss periods, expanding skulls and a rebooted ear.

In the news

Female female aggression in fruit flies:

The new kilogram:

Robots powered by the spines of rats:

The pitches

Sally wants selective ovulation, James wants a skull flap. There’s a suggestion from the audience for One Massive Ear and Simon is borrowing from the opossums which could hold the key to saving snakebite victims.

Mentioned this episode

Dragons’ Den:

Lesbian lizard colonies:


Decompressive craniectomy:


Barn owl hearing:

Opossum’s natural immunity to snake venom:

Stay In for Towel Day:

Support us

If you’re enjoying the podcast, you can support us on Patreon:

Leave us an iTunes review:

…or join our newsletter:

With thanks to the Physiological Society.

Why you need Otter in your life

Photo by Pixabay on

For the last couple of episodes of Level Up Human, I’ve been using Google speech to text to transcribe sections of the show for our show notes.

it works pretty well within the auphonic engine.

You can playback the sentence you’re reading to correct errors, and it’s possible to download the results as a .vtt file for YouTube.

But I think I’ve just found something better.

The Otter service uses AI to transcribe voice notes. It’s also possible to upload audio files to the program.

The user interface is so much nicer to use.

The playback feature is better, and the accuracy is superior to Google speech to text in the experiments I’ve done so far.

You have to check this out.

If you’re a performer, you might also enjoy the ability to riff into your phone and have an app transcribe the results for future reference.

I’ve just uploaded the voice memo recording of a gig I did in July last year, and Otter has transcribed it for me, for a performance on Friday. Having not thought about the show for six months, I now have a script!


If you’re on zoom calls at the moment, Otter will transcribe your meeting notes, with fully searchable results.

Which apps do you use every week to make your show?

How LOUD should my Podcast be? 🙉

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Approximately 80% of podcast listening is via Apple podcasts in 2020.

Standard podcast loudness according to Apple should be -19 LUFS for a mono file, and -16 LUFS for a stereo file.

Which is great, if you have ever heard of LUFS. If not, here’s a quick explainer.

What are LUFS?

LUFS stands for Loudness Unit Full Scale. Loudness Units are the unit of measurement used to analyse average loudness over time.

Previous level standards quantified the peak level (the loudest part of your audio, however brief) or the average level of the audio. But LUFS standardises loudness in relation to how we perceive it.

This means that two pieces of audio with the same LUFS measurement should sound equally loud.

Two pieces of audio that register the same LUFS should sound equally loud.

Which means that if you match your podcast audio to -19 LUFS for a mono file, and -16 LUFS for a stereo file, it should sound as loud as other podcasts.

How to adjust loudness

I’m a huge fan of Auphonic, and you can tell auphonic’s production engine to master your audio to -16 LUFS.

Give it a go here:

Under ‘Audio Algorithms’ you’ll see an option to adjust the Loudness Target

Screen Shot 2020-05-11 at 06.56.51

What you’ll get out of Auphonic is a beautifully mastered sound file at the correct loudness for iTunes, and every other podcasting platform.

Levels are smoothed out, compression has made each voice on your podcast easier to listen to, and the whole thing just sounds like a beautiful, bright sound bath.


Let me know what you’re working on, and any questions I can try to help with. I use comments to work out what to write about next.


Booking Guests for your Podcast

Level Up Human guests at the Barbican
Level Up Human live at the Barbican. Helen Scales, Vanessa Lowe, Cerys Bradley, Simon Watt, Rachel Wheeley, Robert Hindges and Barbican Life Rewired curator, Jamie Upton

So you’ve spoken to everyone you personally know in your niche. Where do we go from here?

The good news is that the guests you’ve already spoken to can be the keys to your future guests.

It’s a good idea to stay in touch with them, and nurture the relationship you extended by inviting them onto your show.

Help them to share the ideas they’re excited about, and ask them one key question.

“Who in your field of expertise should be famous, but isn’t?”

If they can give you a few names, these are the people it might be worth investigating next.

Use online book sites to research the market

Who’s written a book in your niche? Many online book sites have ‘Customers also viewed/bought’ sections. Start with a book in your niche that you know, and then see what else has been published in the area.

You can go down some fascinating rabbit holes doing this research!

Apps like Blinkist can help you get the gist of entire books in around 10 minutes, so you can make a shortlist of which authors to contact.

Explore creator spaces: bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers

Do some market analysis of everyone talking about your niche. Writers, podcasters and YouTubers might be good to invite onto your show, or they may have a laundry list of episodes with relevant guests guesting for you to explore.

You don’t want the exact same guest list as everyone else, but if you do book a guest from another podcast, listen to the episode. Work out what angles haven’t been covered.

Contacting authors, and other experts in your field

Having used up all the personal connections you can, it is sometimes useful to contact an author, or another expert in your field who you have not yet met.

But how to do this? What do you say to entice them onto your show?

Advice from my co-host on Level Up Human, Simon Watt, is:

“Everyone has a website nowadays. Make first contacts friendly but very brief. Be up front about time and budget if you have one.”

Simon Watt

Your email or DM, or whatever you deem the most appropriate way to contact the potential guest, should get straight to the point.

Hi [their name],

I’m [your name] from [podcast name]. I’d love to get you on the show for a chat about [topic]. I think it would be really beneficial for our audience who are interested in [subject].

[Let them know where you discovered them.] I just read your book [Name of book] and it helped me personally to understand more about [angle].

If you’d be interested, here’s a Calendly link where you can book a slot that works for you.

Calendly is great, because it eliminates all that back and forth you can get with guests for arranging dates.

Make an email signature with your podcast details and a link to your show for these emails, so your guest can click through and have a look at the work you’ve already done.

Contacting high profile guests

I listened to a podcast episode called ‘How to Get Super High Profile Guests’, with Jordan Harbinger on the Pat Flynn podcast, Smart Passive Income. Here are the key tips.

Be prepared to build your show before you can get a guest to say yes

Seth Godin reportedly says yes to podcast appearances, once the podcast has published its 100th episode. So it’s worth proving to your prospective guests that you’re in this for the long haul. And that you yourself have committed to your show.

Maintain relationships with publicists

If a publicist offers you a guest, chances are that guest won’t be a great fit for your podcast.

But Jordan usually replies to them to say that this guest isn’t great right now, but that he is interested in speaking to… and then he’ll outline the guests he wants for his show.

He says he generally gets a surprised response from the publicists, who I guess are used to getting nothing back from 80% of people they contact.

He’s been offered some guests by publicists who actively try to find people on their books who might suit him better using this method.

“I’m making myself easier to work with, which publicists love, because most people just delete their emails and never reply.

So when you’re polite to them, and you make it easier for them to pitch you, you get more pitches. And yes, you end up passing on more stuff… but you also end up with the occasional Malcolm Gladwell, Kobe Bryant, Chelsea Handler.

Because they like you, they know you’re going to respond, and they know you respond quickly.”

“I’m making myself easier to work with, which publicists love, because most people just delete their emails and never reply.”

Jordan Harbinger

And one final tip:

Be polite and persistent

The ‘father of advertising’, David Ogilvy, has this to say on persistence:

“The good salesman combines the tenacity of a bull dog with the manners of a spaniel.”

David Ogilvy

If you’ve made initial contact and they can’t do it, keep in touch with them, it might be possible to ask again later on, perhaps when they’ve a project to plug.

Send them an email every once in a while. Interact with them on social media. Keep asking. Within reason, obv.

You never know when your request might coincide with something they’ve got coming up to talk about. And in the meantime, your audience will have grown.

What have you found particularly helpful for finding guests for your podcast? Drop me a comment and let me know.

How Podcasts are Found

One of the questions podcasters ask themselves is, ‘how do I reach more listeners?’

We check stats and tell everyone we know about our podcast. We post every episode to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and risk burnout as our reservoir of creative ways to say the same thing rapidly diminishes.

We investigate social media scheduling apps, and read about content calendars, and gradually lose the will to live.

But maybe there’s a smarter way to do this. In order to reach more listeners, it helps to think about how podcasts are found.

How do people who listen to podcasts find podcasts?

They ask for recommendations (this is why you should tell everyone you know about your show) and they search for podcasts on their favourite subjects.

So the first thing is to make sure that your podcast looks like a podcast about your subject.

The second thing is to make sure you’re listed by places where listeners get their podcasts.


I moved Level Up Human to Acast in June 2018, and I really like the platform.

Their interface is easy to use, they moved all our episodes from Soundcloud for us, and their stats are pretty comprehensive.

I discovered when I looked into it that 80% of Level Up Human listeners listen via Apple Podcasts.

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 11.55.23 This means that 80% of our listeners are listening on iPhones. The number of listeners we get through podcatcher services is next to nothing.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t sent our RSS feed to any of them.

:facepalm emoji:

So, if you’re in the same boat, here’s a list of podcatcher services to submit your RSS feed to.


SEO has got to be one of the most uninspiring acronyms of all time.

It conjours images of slumping over a keyboard for TOO LONG.

Too technical, boring, boring.

Safety Lights are for Dudes


SEO is for dudes.

But, it’s just possible that paying attention to how search engines index podcasts might help with discoverability.

After all, since an update last year, Google search results return podcasts now, and one of the ways they do this is by transcribing each episode using AI and machine learning, and picking out keywords.

Yes, really.

So this means it might be smart to work out what your show’s keywords are, and maybe say them in your introduction.

If I was Google, I would put more weight in the words used in the first couple of minutes of the show.

If your episode has good SEO, it could show up in searches for a topic you discuss, even if that topic isn’t listed in the show or episode title.

So what can podcasters do to boost Search Engine Optimisation?

Here are a few ideas.

  1. Choose a clear title

Choose a title for your podcast that explains what the podcast is about. If you already have a show title where that isn’t the case, consider adding a subtitle.

For example, I really need to call our show, Level Up Human: redesigning the human body.

2. Write a clear podcast description

There are search functions within Spotify and Apple podcasts. So if people are searching with keywords, make sure you use your keywords in your podcast description.

Not sure which keywords to use? Try using Google’s Keyword Planner to help you.

3. Say your keywords in the actual podcast

Not over and over and over again, obv, but at least once.

4. And yes, share on social media

It’s a lovely idea to promote on three or more social media platforms every week, but it’s also exhausting. If you’re a solo podcaster, it’s fine to focus on the one that performs best for you.

It’s possible to create tracking links for use on different social media platforms. Work out which channels perform best for your programme.

‘Urchin Traffic Monitoring’ or UTM is one step beyond the remit of this post, but if of interest let me know in the comments.

What else do you do to boost the discoverability of your show?

5 of the Best: Forensic science and biology podcasts

Over in the Science Podcasts Facebook group, there has been some discussion of the best biology/ forensics podcasts for high school students. Here are five favourites.

1. Test Tube Testimony

Test Tube TestimonyProfessional scientist Michelle Campbell-Firak presents true crime. A super high quality, beautifully narrated podcast which will appeal to fans of Serial.

Michelle tells true crime stories, and explains how forensic science contributed to how the crime was solved.

Instagram: @testtubetestimony, including slides of the research papers used in each episode.

2. This episode of Science Vs

Science vs

Wendy Zukerman presents a critical look at forensic science.

This podcast is funny, without being sweary.

Incorporating TV clips, SFX, ‘hallelujah’ noises, a fun romp through forensic sciences of all kinds.

Learn: what the ‘oldest maggot’ can teach you about how time of death estimates.

3. Off Track

Off TrackOff Track combines the relaxing sounds of nature with awesome stories of wildlife and environmental science, all recorded in the outdoors.

Each episode features beautiful photography of the subject

Presenter Ann Jones grew up in country Victoria in a family of birdwatchers and keen picnickers. She presents Off Track for ABC.

4. Into the Wild

ITW_LogoRyan Dalton is a brilliant comedian and presenter of this wonderful podcast, Into The Wild.

Ryan’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, plus Into The Wild has the best intro music of all time.

Ryan’s recent guests include wildlife filmmakers and presenters, explorers, field biologists, broadcasters, authors and national treasures alike. Don’t miss it.

5. Botanical Mystery Tour

BMT-logoBotanical Mystery Tour is a podcast about the real science behind plants in popular culture.

Jasmine Leonas and Erica Masini from the Chicago Botanic Garden interview a scientist, horticulturist, or educator at the Garden who dives into the botany behind our favorite stories.

I LOVE this show. Sadly no longer active, but binge the archive for some wonderful botany and plant stories.

Level Up Human – Steve Backshall vs Kate Storrs

Level Up Human Series 2, Episode 11: Steve Backshall vs Kate Storrs

Level Up Human is a podcast panel show, on a mission to redesign the human body.

Simon and Rach chat to naturalist and broadcaster Steve Backshall and visual perception scientist Kate Storrs.

We discuss enhanced vision, limb regeneration, gecko hands, super kidneys and re-breathing.

Extracts from the episode, edited for readability are available here.

In the news…

Kate is tickled and baffled by a news story about Microsoft. They have patented to generate cryptocurrency by monitoring people’s brain activity.

Steve’s news story is entitled, ‘Venomous Frogs use Heads as Weapons.’

And Rach’s levelled up human is Bertolt Meyer, a DJ, producer and Professor of Organisational Psychology from Technische Universität Chemnitz who has hacked his prosthetic hand to hook it up to his synth.

The Pitches

Steve wants to borrow the abilities of the Iberian sharp-ribbed newt, a type of salamander which can regenerate limbs and organs.

Kate, on the other hands, thinks the human body should be able to see the polarisation of light

From the audience, we have suggestions including souped up kidneys and gecko hands.

Finally Simon has a suggestion from nature.

Which of our suggestions will make Rachel’s shortlist? Which will win? Listen to find out.

Mentioned this episode

Deep Neural Networks:

Microsoft has filed a patent to mine cryptocurrencies using your brainwaves:

Venomous frogs use heads as weapons:

Golden poison frog:

Pig-nosed purple frog:

Bertolt Meyer:

Disabled or superhuman?:



Pluripotent stem cells:

Tissue-specific stem cells:

Zebrafish can regrow their brains:

Planaria worms:

Steve bitten by black piranha:

Honey bee waggle dance:

Haidinger’s brush:

Cuttlefish and high-definition polarisation vision:

Cuttlefish iridophores and chromataphores:

Mantis shrimp:

Bioinspired camera could help self-driving cars ‘see’ better:


Bear Grylls:

The IT Crowd:

The Exorcist III:


‘Scuba-diving’ lizard, Anolis aquaticus:

Steve’s Home Schooling (9.30am, Wednesdays):

The Mirror Trap:

Stay In for Towel Day:

Support us

If you’re enjoying the podcast, you can support us on Patreon:

Leave us an iTunes review:

…or join our newsletter:

Follow us