Winning Recipe For Success: Prepare Tight and Perform Loose

Winning Recipe For Success: Prepare Tight and Perform Loose

by Tracy Johnson

Here’s a term that could unlock the next level of radio performance for many personalities: Tina Fey calls it Relaxed Readiness. It’s a terrific goal for radio personalities to find the “sweet spot” of preparation. It means being thoroughly prepared, yet spontaneous. For radio, I call it Prepare Tight and Perform Loose.

These terms seem contradictory, but they are complementary. Deep preparation creates confidence that allows shows to be more spontaneous, creating magical moments.

Most Radio Shows Are Poorly Prepared

Air personalities often struggle to find a balance between being prepared to perform and “winging it”. Some are over-prepped to the point of sounding stiff. Nobody tunes in radio to hear a scripted-sounding performance. But other shows are under-prepared. They identify a topic, then turn on the mic and hope something good happens.

There is a better way.

I’ve had personalities tell me that they can just come in and talk about their life, confident they would find something entertaining.

One told me:

I just bring my experiences to the air. It’s good enough. My show is totally spontaneous. I plan nothing. That’s how I get such a natural response.

Okay. Fine. How is that working out for you? Spoiler Alert: I’ve heard the show. It’s not going very well.

This approach almost always sounds sloppy and unprepared. And it’s one of the things that causes radio shows to lose ground in the battle for attention.

Trent Green on Preparing to Be Spontaneous

George Johns once told me radio performance is the most under-prepared medium in the world. He may be right.

As an example, this was in an interview on a sports-talk station. The host was interviewing Trent Green, the NFL quarterback turned television star on the NFL Network. Green is known as a loose, fun personality with high energy dialogue.

The host asked Trent about how they prepare for the broadcast, suggesting that they all show up at the studio a couple of minutes before the broadcast and adlib.

Green paused, considering his answer. He was surprised. Then he responded:

Actually, the team spends dozens of hours off the air exploring topics and discussing angles. We debate the best approach and search for the most entertaining way to present content. When we hit on something, the producer takes notes and crafts our organic dialogue into a structured topic outline for the show. It’s rehearsed, yet spontaneous.

Then The Radio Host Said…

The art of show prep was lost on the host. He asked,

Do you ever have those times in the production meeting when you get on a roll, and the producer stops the team and says to save it for the air? That way, it’s fresh and you don’t lose the magic?

Green paused again for an uncomfortably long time, thinking about how to respond. Then he said,

No, that literally never happens. We go through everything in detail so we know what to expect, what’s going to work and not work. That way we don’t step all over each other.

This is the art of Prepare Tight and Perform Loose. Spontaneity is contagious. But spontaneous responses shouldn’t surprise the performer!

You might also like:  The Difference Between Relevant and Relatable... and Why It Matters [audio]

There is a solution. You can be prepared and ready to perform, yet preserve natural, spontaneous reactions with Relaxed Readiness.

Tina Fey on Prepare Tight and Perform Loose

Comedian Tina Fey is one of the most naturally likable improvisational performers in the world. She’s likable, spontaneous and always seems in control.

How does she do it?

Here’s what she said about what it takes to be ready to perform:

I call it relaxed readiness. There’s a lot of preparation. So first it’s preparation, preparation, preparation.

And then you want to be in a state of relaxed readiness so that if something spontaneous does happen, you’re there and can take advantage of that moment.

But I think you only get there with a lot of prep work.

I love that so much. It’s at the heart of Prepare Tight, Perform Loose. That’s why Time Spent Listening is in direct proportion to Time Spent Preparing.

When prepared for anything that might happen, great personalities capitalize on mistakes.

In her book Bossypants, Fey relates one of her rules of improv:

There are no mistakes, only opportunities, which doesn’t mean that things can’t go wrong. But it’s your job to make the best of the situation you find yourself in.

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?  Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel.  I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike.

In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.  And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident.  I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

Reservoir Dogs Show Prep

Fey’s techniques apply to radio performance. Jonathan Wier hosts the WKLB/Boston morning show, Jonathan Wier & Ayla Brown.

You might also like:  The Topic Tree

Jonathan is one of the most perfectly prepared personalities I know. The show prep process is thorough, yet sounds natural, loose, and spontaneous. It’s the radio epitome of Prepare Tight, Perform Loose.

Here’s how he does it:

The scene in Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino where the undercover cop is supposed to tell a story to convince the gangsters that he is also a gangster drives my preparation.

They give him a script, and they show him progressively memorizing details, and making the story his own until he tells it in a way that is believable and relatable.

That’s pretty much what I’m doing. Taking a weird/funny/sad story that I read and then owning it.


Relaxed readiness comes from deep preparation. Combining the concepts, radio personalities can Prepare Tight and Perform Loose. But it doesn’t happen when personalities cut corners in the preparation process.

This produces confidence to unleash personality and create magical moments. To discover how to prepare properly, follow the links below.

The Art Of Show Prep

The Battle For Attention

Time Spent Preparing & Time Spent Listening

Radio Lessons From Improv

Personality Profile: Jonathan Wier – #1 in Kansas City

Harvest Your Life ebook

Radio Show Prep & The Low Hanging Fruit

Putting Show Prep In Perspective

TESOP Method of Topic Preparation

The Science of Show Prep


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