Notes on storytelling

More specifically, this is a summary of the advice two This American Life (TAL) producers – Brian Reed and Miki Meek – provided in a keynote. I wish I could share notes from the much-touted Masterclass at Pause Fest, but it was in the keynote that the most important lessons were imparted.

I’m a fan of TAL, introduced to it in my screenwriting course at AFTRS a while back. It has helped me re-orient my viewpoints on storytelling, and has gently nudged me towards thinking bigger and more creatively about how to capture the audience’s interest and hold their attention. In other words, you don’t need print or visual mediums to keep people interested in the story. Audio can be an extremely powerful way of telling a tale.

TAL is a well-oiled machine, with 13 staffers, and as I discovered in the keynote, a very long-term approach to stories because it’s considered long-form storytelling. They will do lengthy interviews (up to seven hours if necessary); they chase a lot of stories that are abandoned when they’re not “enough”; and they have some key points that have to be ticked off to make a story viable.

  • Characters – a likeable character who has had something interesting happen to him/her
  • Action & surprise – the good character isn’t enough
  • Move it beyond an anecdote by making it reflective – it’s as simple as asking the interviewee how a formative event made them feel
  • Stakes – this is a big one, and the point I felt I needed to reinforce in my own mind. I love interviewing interesting people and hearing their stories. But it’s not enough to make compelling storytelling. What is at stake for this person? What do they want? Will they get it? Just like the classic hero’s journey, you want the audience to invest in the person’s outcome, regardless of whether or not they agree with it. Basically, raise a question.
  • Make sure you’re not getting caught up in the personality of the interviewee without imparting information
  • Go in with a strategy and plan ahead – but leave room for moments of surprise
  • Apparently, Ira Glass’ advice to his staff is – and I’m paraphrasing here – every interview has to be like a party for the interviewee. In other words, depending on the subject matter, it’s probably not much fun unpacking events to a reporter, so make it worthwhile