Below are four videos, and a transcript, of an interview with a famous radio presenter in the US, Ira Glass. He speaks about storytelling, the importance of being yourself, and the difficulty of the early days, when you know what “good” is, but you’re not there yet:
One of the things I think is really important if you’re making stories for television or radio is that you understand the buiding blocks of the stories, and there are different ways to think about this. One of the things that you don’t want to do is, you don’t want to do it the way you learned about it in high school. Which is in high school the way that we’re all taught is that the way that you write is that there’s a topic sentence, and then there’s like the fact that fill out the argument.
In broadcasting it’s completely different. In broadcasting you basically have two building blocks, and they are very powerful, and you can use them as you will.
One is the anecdote. And an anecdote is literally just a sequence of actions. If you think of it as, what is a story in its purest form.
A story in its purest form is someone saying, this happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing. Like one thing following another. And some of the things in that sequence can be, and that made me think of this, and then I said this, and there can be thoughts, and ideas, as part of it, but one is leading to the next is leading to the next.
And the power of the anecdote is so great that in a way no matter how boring the material is, if it’s in a story form where there’s an anecdote happening, and then he said this to me, and then I went here, and I went downstairs and I thought, like, what the hell, like, it has a momentum in and of itself, that no matter how boring the facts are… I’m trying to think (blah blah)…
Like okay, if you try to think of the most boring possible story…
Okay, there’s a guy, and, uh, he wakes up, and uh, and he’s lying in bed and the house is very, very quiet. Just unearthly quiet. And so he sits up, and he puts his feet on the floor, and he walks to the door of his bedroom, and again, it’s just very very quiet. Walks down the stairs, looks around. Just unusually quiet.
What I’m telling you is the most boring possible fact pattern, and yet there’s suspense in it, it feels like something’s going to happen.
And the reason why is because, literally, it’s a sequence of events, like, this guy’s doing this thing, he’s moving from place to place, you can feel, through its form, that when you have one thing leading to the next leading to the next, you can feel inherently that you’re on a train that has a destination, and that he’s going to find something.
And so one of the most powerful things you have to figure out is like, do you just start with the action, or, should just start with the action, and generally, you want to start with the action. Or you often do.
So that’s one of your building blocks.
The other thing that little anecdote has is it’s raising a question from the beginning, and that’s the other thing that you want, is you want bait.
You want to constantly be raising questions.
So in that little story the bait is that the house is very quiet, and so the question hanging in the air is “why?”
And it’s implied that any question you raise, you’re going to answer.
And so again, that’s another thing you want to manipulate. You want to be constantly raising question and answering them. From the beginning of the story.
And the whole shape of a story is that you’re throwing out questions to keep people watching or listening, and answering them along the way.
Okay, so you have the building block, which is the actual sequence of actions. The anecdote part of it, the this thing happened, and then this thing, and then this thing. That’s one building block.
Then the other big building block, your other tool, is that you have a moment of reflection. And by that I mean at some point somebody’s gotta say, “here’s why the hell you’re listening to this story,” like here’s the point of the story, here’s the bigger something that we’re driving at, here’s why I’m wasting your time with all this.
And one of the things that’s very, very unfortunate for people who are launching into the kinds of jobs that all the people who are making videopods are launching into, one of the things that so very sad, and it’s like, the bane of my existence, and it’s the bane of anybody’s existence who does this kind of work, is that often you know, you have the two parts of the structure, you’ve got the anecdote and then you’ve got the moment of reflection, and often, you’ll have an anecdote that just kills, it’s just so interesting, like this thing happens, and it leads to the next, and it leads to the next, and it’s so surprising, and so many things happen, and you meet these great characters, and it means absolutely nothing. Like it just, it’s just completely predictable, it doesn’t tell you anything new.
And so that’s one huge problem.
And the other huge problem is you’ve got a kind of boring set of facts, or a boring story, right, that somebody kind of has something interesting to say about it.
And so actually I think a lot of us, when we’re beginning, we get caught in the problem of, we know we’ve got something here, we know that there’s something here that’s kind of compelling, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming together, and often, it’s your job to be kind of ruthless, and understand that either you don’t have a sequence of actions, you don’t have the story part that works, or you don’t have a moment of reflection that works.
And you’re going to need both.
And in a good story you’re going to flip back and forth between the two. A little bit of action, and then someone will say something about it, and then there’ll be a little more action, and then someone will say something.
And that’s really a lot of the trick of the whole thing. You know, is to have the perseverance that if you’ve got an interesting anecdote, that you can also end up with a moment of reflection that will support it, and then the two together, interwoven, and you know, three minutes, or six minutes, or however long your story is, will make something that’s larger than the sum of its parts.
Like one of the things that I think is really hard that nobody ever tells you if you want to do creative work is how hard it is to actually find a decent story. And I think that we all think that the real work of it is that I’m going to go out and shoot the thing, and then I’m going to sit and edit it, and I’m going to write it, and I’m going to put music under it, and whatever, and that’s going to be where the time is, but often, and people don’t really tell you this, often the amount of time finding a decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story.
And that as somebody who wants to do creative work, you actually have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories.
I mean, I work on a national radio show, and we don’t follow the news or anything, all we do is look for interesting stories, and there’s seven of us, or eight of us now. And I’ve got to say that more than half of our week is simply engaged in the looking for stories, and then trying stuff out.
And like, we’re really good at our jobs. We’re as good as anybody who does this kind of thing. And I gotta say, we [something] around a lot of stories, and between a half and a third of everything we try, we’ll go out and we’ll get the tape, and then we kill it.
And you should think of it the same way. That like, you know, you thought it was going to be good, you went out and did the interview, the person wasn’t such a great talker, they weren’t so funny, they weren’t so emotional, somehow when they told it to you in person with the camera it wasn’t the way they told you when they talked on the phone beforehand, they just got a little intimidated with the camera, just something in the chemistry was wrong, you can’t even name what it is, and why even bother to try.
But then when you look at the footage you know that there’s a feeling that you had about it, which isn’t in the footage. Right?
And then, it’s time, at that point, to be the ambitious, super-achieving person who you’re going to be, and to kill it.
It’s time to kill.
And it’s time to enjoy the killing.
Because by killing, you will make something else even better live. And I think that not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.
And one thing you should know is that all video production is trying to be crap. Like, in fact, our radio production is trying to be crap.
Basically, it’s like the laws of entropy, you know, that thing like, where all the energy in the universe is dissipating, and like, all the atoms are getting lower and lower in energy, well, basically, anything that you put on tape, from the moment that you put it on tape, like, basically, it’s trying to be really bad. It’s trying to be unstructured, it’s trying to be pointless, it’s trying to be boring, it’s trying to be digressive. Much like these sentences that I’m saying right here.
And pretty much, you have to prop it up aggressively at every stage of the way if it’s going to be any good. You have to be like really a killer about getting rid of the boring parts and going right to the parts that are going to your heart.
And you just have to be ruthless if anything is going to be good.
Things that are really good are really good because people are being really tough, and you’re going to be really tough in doing it.
And you’re going to know also that like failure is a big part of, um, success. I sound like some Michael Jordan ad, but like, you’re going to run a lot of stuff, and it’s going to go nowhere, and you should be happy about that.
If you’re doing that, you’re doing it right. If you’re not failing all the time, you’re not creating a situation where you can get super lucky.
And basically, like a lot of video and radio production, a lot of broadcasting, is just in the purest way, about luck.
Like really you just want to be in a situation where you’re doing enough material, where you’re doing enough interviews every week, where like, you have put yourself on a schedule, so that you know that every week you’re going to interview somebody about something, and through that, once a month, maybe once every six weeks, you’re going to stumble on somebody who is so compelling, and a story that’s so great, that it makes those other five weeks worth it.
And, I don’t know, it’s like people don’t talk about this that much. You have to kind of go into it knowing that you’ve got to record, and get rid of, a lot of crap, before you’re going to get to anything that’s special. And you don’t want to be making mediocre stuff. You know what I mean, that’s not why anybody gets into this. The only reason why you want to do this is because you want to make something that’s so memorable it’s special. And that’s what you want to do.
…nobody tells people who are beginners… and I really wish somebody had told this to me, is that if you’re watching this video, you are somebody who wants to make videos, right?
And all of us who do creative work, we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste.
Do you know what I mean? I mean, you want to make TV because you love TV. You know what I mean, because there’s just stuff that you love. Okay? So you’ve got really good taste.
And you get into this thing, I don’t even know how to describe it, but it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great, it’s really not that great.
It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer.
And your taste is still good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You know what I mean? Like, you can tell that it’s still kind of crappy.
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people they quit.
And the thing I would just, like, say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short, and like, some of us could admit that to ourselves, and some of us were a little bit less able to admit that to ourselves.
But we knew it didn’t have this special thing that we wanted it to have.
And the thing [something] is, everybody goes through that.
And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, or if you’re just getting out of that phase, or if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase, you gotta know it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you could do, is do a lot of work.
Do a huge volume of work.
Put yourself on a deadline, so every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story, you know what I mean?
Whatever it’s going to be. You create the deadline.
It’s best if you have somebody who’s waiting for work from you, somebody who’s expecting it from you.
Even if it’s not somebody who pays you. But that you’re in a situation where you have to turn in the work.
Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
In my case, like, I do a national radio show. I make my living at this, I’ve made my living at this for a long time. And won the Peabody award, won all sorts of prizes, like, 1.7 million people listen to our show, and they listen almost to the entire show. People love our show, right? Like, the show that I make with my coworkers.
And so I’m in a place where I’m, like, I’m done, right, I’ve mastered this thing.
But I’ve gotta tell you, like, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met.
I’m going to play you a clip of tape from my 8th year, like I started at public radio when I was 19, at NPR’s headquarters in Washington, so this is like a big new organization, I had a really peachy set of jobs.
And, like, I was always a good tape cutter, but I was a horrible reporter. I was horrible at the thing you’re setting out to do with these videopods.
And so this is a tape from year 8…
“It’s not such a long way from the local grocery store to the international debate over whether sorghum and meat production are causing corn to decline in Latin America.”
Alright, that debate. We were talking about that at dinner…
“There’s a general air of prosperity here. Partly due to Mexican imports of US grains, which helped boost our farm economy. Mexico is now one of our biggest grain customers, buy a half billion to a billion dollars-worth every year, including corn to feed its people, and sorghum to feed its livestock.”
Like, what am I talking about? Like, I wrote this, I don’t even understand what it is. And every part of this is ill-conceived, okay?
The writing is horrible. You can’t even follow what I’m talking about. And then the performance, just a little tidbit if you’re performing for broadcast, you don’t underline every third word for emphasis, because it sounds really unnatural. What you want to do is you want to talk the way people normally talk.
“This helps cut our own trade deficit, and benefits everyone in the US economy.
“But in Mexico this policy has led to fewer tortillas for the poor, and unappetizing tortillas for everyone else.”
Again, like, this is like the most moronic kind of, like it doesn’t mean anything. And it’s hard, it’s actually kind of an interesting story, which I’ll say to you in a sentence, which is, because Mexico produces a lot of stuff that they ship to the United States… tomatoes, and all sorts of really wonderful food that we eat here, they don’t make enough corn for their own people.
That’s the story.
So we, for us to get really great tomatoes, or semi-great tomatoes year round, basically, Mexicans eat worse. That’s the story.
And it’s kind of an interesting idea, right?
Like that’s sort of actually a cool idea.
Executed in the worst possible way.
So this is like year 8. I’m 27 years old when this is happening, like, I’m not a beginner. I’m deep, deep into it.
It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while, and you just have to fight your way through that.
You will be fierce, and you will be a warrior, and you will make things that aren’t, you know in your heart, as good as you want them to be. And you’ll just make one after another.
…there are two real errors that beginners make, and I certainly made when I was first making stuff.
And one is, in a way it’s a really dumb error, and we’ve all seen TV, and the first time we get a camera, or a tape recorder, we want to sound and act just like the people we’ve seen on TV.
And so we’ve all seen really bad videos of people who talk like people on TV.
And just, like, when I was first on the radio, I tried to talk like somebody on the radio. And of course, everything is going to be more compelling.
It’s just like one of the laws of broadcasting: everything will be more compelling the more you just talk like a human being.
Just talk like yourself.
Like, your cable channel, they already have the real Ted Koppel. Ted Koppel is already on TV. They don’t need you imitating Ted Koppel.
There’s a real Ted Koppel on the same TV you’re going to be on, right?
And so the more you are actually your own self, the better off you are.
But this brings you to the second problem, which is that often people submit stories to our radio show which show that they have a horrible personality. Which is to say they are somebody who only talks about themselves. And when somebody’s got a good personality, it’s like somebody’s who good in a conversation. They talk amusingly and interestingly about themselves for a while, and then they let the other person talk for a while, because they’re interested in other people, and they’re interested in the world.
And so, you know, in a good story, you’re going to get both. Most of the story is going to be about whoever’s life it is you’re trying to document, right? Like most of it’s going to be about them. But you’ll be in there too, as a particular person saying, like, what the hell are you talking about, or like, I didn’t think it would go like that, or just whatever, you know, like, you’re going to be in there as a clear personality.
But I think for a lot of stories, for most stories and kind of like a documentary fashion, like for a lot of stories, like, you know, another person is going to be the main character of the story.
But even if it’s a first-person story, documenting your life, what’s interesting isn’t just like your take on things, it’s seeing you interact with other people. Seeing other people through your eyes.
And seeing the other people you have to deal with.
Like you want both things. Otherwise there’s no drama.
What’s really interesting, like, it’s a drama, you get people interacting, and conflicting, liking each other, hating each other, and like, laughing. You want all the things that happen between people. And that’s not going to work if there’s too much of your interviewee, and none of you.
And it’s not going to work if there’s too much of you, and not enough of the other people. There’s not enough characters to make a drama.
About Matt Krause
Matt began his professional life as an import buyer, and since 2006 has been teaching companies how to connect with their investors and clients better. His clients work for companies like Allianz, 3M, P&G, Citibank, and Reckitt Benckiser. He also walked across Turkey and wrote a book about it.