Ira Glass on the Craft of Story

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Ira Glass is one of the most gifted story curators today. His most known work is the radio show/podcast “This American Life” but he also has the goods on story composition. About every other year he stops by town to host a seminar which is part “This American Life” and part explanation of how he performs it.  For part one, “Exactly Human Sized Stories” click here.  Part two below are bullet point highlights of what Ira taught.

 

  • He earns his right to speak by being a great listener and by providing understated meaning to story, which is to say, to our lives. He has a light touch and doesn’t oversell.  Understatement is the new language of persuasion.
  • He learned story telling from his Rabbi.  Move the plot forward, then step out of it and verbally reflect on what happened, then back into the plot, reflect etc. Ira told us with chargrin, “I thought I had invented this technique. It turns out my rabbi used it, as does every preacher every Sunday. And then I found out that is how Jesus taught.”  A fine example of this was Brene Brown’s most recent talk at Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit.  
  • Narrative is the back door entrance to a deep place within us. It touches us deeper than argument or debate can. Narrative can actually change someone, debate rarely does.
  •  Ira was equal part storyteller, journalist and DJ. He spoke with an iPad in his hand and he was frequently launching audio as he spoke. We heard quotes from people, fade in music to change mood etc and somehow it wasn’t remotely hokey. It made me wonder what preaching would be like if it were modeled in a similar fashion with soundtrack fades and 3rd party quotes. Ira also mentioned that he has a full-time staff of 8 people producing the show each week.  Is the preacher constraint by resource in this area?
  • “Dialogue is the “ground zero” of a good story.”
  • TAL chooses amazing music for their transitions. Ira uses soundtrack and music that ‘isn’t too interesting.’ He starts speaking on top of the music about the time you’d start singing if it had melody.
  • One of Ira’s best shows was an episode where he played interviews from his earliest days as a journalist.  They were cringeworthy and awkward. Ira says, “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
  • Think the modern attention span is dead?  TAL runs for 58 minutes and the average time listeners spend with the show is 48 minutes. Ira, “once they tune in, we’ve got them until we’re done with them.”  Stunning feat for radio and evidence that Ira Glass and TAL are one of the most important story curators alive today.

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