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Three Things Ira Glass Taught Me About Storytelling

Three Things Ira Glass Taught Me About Storytelling

In December 2012, I was fortunate to see Ira Glass, host of National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” perform a live one-man show at the Troy Music Hall in Troy, New York. “This American Life” is one of my favorite radio programs, so I was pretty excited about the opportunity to hear Glass talk about it. I also knew that in addition to being entertained, I was probably going to hear some things that would help me as a content marketer. I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

If you’re a content marketer and you want to know how to effectively engage your audience and hold their attention, I highly recommend you give the show a listen because “This American Life” and Ira Glass do both of those things like nobody’s business. How? They tell stories.

Storytelling is nothing new. From the Paleolithic paintings in the Lascaux Caves, to Egyptian hieroglyphs, to the first words written with ink and paper, people have been telling stories. Kids beg their parents for “just one more” story before bedtime. And despite all the predictions of doom and gloom for the publishing industry after the advent of the Internet, fiction publishing is alive and well, even if it has had to adapt to 21st-century sensibilities.

But how does storytelling fit into marketing? Why would you want to tell stories rather than just inform people about your products or services? Shouldn’t you just be trying to sell, rather than wasting time with stories? And just how do you tell stories, anyway?

I learned three important things from Ira Glass that evening, both about storytelling and about content marketing.

If It’s Interesting to You, It’ll be Interesting to Others

Throughout the evening, Glass played snippets of shows that had aired in the past, and discussed why they worked, and how people reacted to them. At one point, he played part of an interview of a woman who restocks vending machines on an aircraft carrier.

Now, you’re probably thinking, why on earth would anyone care about an interview with someone who maintains vending machines? Well, that may be true in any other context, but this woman, as I said, works on an aircraft carrier, so already, there’s a unique aspect to her story, a glimpse into a world we don’t often get to observe.

At one point during the interview, the reporter asks her about which items she has to stock most frequently, and she mentions the most popular items (Snickers and Starburst), and the items that seem to never need rotating (Bonkers fruit chews—I’d never even heard of those).

So how did such a seemingly boring question make it into the final version of the show? Because the interviewer found it fascinating. You can hear it in his voice. As the woman begins describing what goes fast, and how the Bonkers will stay in the machines — even when there’s nothing else in them – you can hear him laughing. He’s obviously delighted by this information.

Glass explained that he loves those kinds of interviews. The ones where the reporter, maybe just for a few minutes, stops being a reporter and just becomes a person interested in the world around them, interested in what other people do and why. And if the reporter finds it fascinating, chances are, someone else out there will, too.

And it is. Because I can relate. Snickers and Starburst? Heck, yeah. Those would probably be my first choice, too. Bonkers? What the heck are those?! No, thanks. So this interview, this unguarded, unplanned tangent into vending machine products, gave me a moment where I could relate to those men and women who serve on aircraft carriers, who do jobs so far removed from my own.

Everything you create won’t be interesting to everyone, every time. But if you can reach just a handful, even just one person, with something that’s important to you, something you think is important to share, you’ll have succeeded.

Just for a moment, stop trying to sell all the time, and share something of value. People appreciate valuable information, and whether you believe it or not, they do make note of where it came from, and they’ll definitely notice that you weren’t trying to shove a product in their face. Give it a shot. Don’t sell something; tell a story.

Be Invisible

At a couple of points during the evening, Glass took questions from the audience. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the question that prompted this answer, but I do remember the answer. Glass recommended another radio program — “99% Invisible.”

This show, hosted by Roman Mars (someone’s parents like Roman mythology), examines architecture and design, and highlights something about the design process you probably wouldn’t have known about otherwise — the invisible part of the finished product.

The overarching point is, when you look at an example of effective design, whether it’s a beautiful building, or a sleek website, you’re not supposed to notice the design. You’re not supposed to think, “Wow, look how that cornice is formed,” or “Gee, that’s a really clean user interface.” You’re supposed to appreciate the design, yes, but as a whole, for the way it makes you feel, not for its individual elements.

A good designer, digital or otherwise, makes everything seamless, so those elements don’t draw attention to themselves, and detract from the whole. This philosophy can also be applied to content creation.

One bit of advice I give quite often when editing is, “Show; don’t tell,” which is pretty much the textual equivalent of being 99% invisible. Obviously, people who read what you write will know it was written by someone, that it took time and effort, and didn’t just magically appear on a page.

The trick is to let the content shine, and to not draw attention to the structure. Phrases such as, “here is an example of” or “below you’ll see” or the dreaded “in this post” take the reader out of the piece, and remind them they’re reading a blog post, or an article, or an infographic. I feel it’s also a manner of talking down to the reader.

If you can smoothly transition from the point of your post into the examples that support it, you’ll get much closer to the reaction you want to elicit than saying, “Hey, reader, because I don’t think you’ll be able to tell what’s going on, I’m going to point out that I’m giving you examples now!”

When you’re reading a fiction book, do you ever see, “In this chapter, we’re going to see how the main character solves the big problem he’s facing.” No, of course not, because that’s not an effective way to tell a story, not to mention, no self-respecting publishing house would ever accept a manuscript written that way. So why would you write a blog post that way? Why would you point out “In this infographic…” when you know good and well the reader is looking right at your infographic, and can see the information without you pointing out that it’s there?

Instead, describe the action or ideas, using dynamic language that keeps your readers interested, and keeps them turning the pages.

Create a “Driveway Moment”

If you’re an NPR fan, you’re very familiar with the driveway moment. It’s the audio equivalent of a page-turner. You’re listening to something in your car on the way home from work, maybe, and just as you pull into your driveway, when normally you’d just get out of the car and go inside, the show creates a moment where you’re not sure what’s going to happen next, and you just have to hear how it ends. You sit in your driveway until it’s over, for the satisfaction of getting to the end of the story. “This American Life” constructs driveway moments like no other show on the radio.

That night on stage, Glass shared with us one such story, about a guy, his office manager’s nine-year-old daughter who would sometimes help out around the office, a little person, and crab walking. Yes, you read that right. Glass played the story up to this point:

…And so there’s this day when it’s early in the morning. I’ve arrived at the office. And I go into the bathroom. And when I come out of the bathroom, I have my glasses in my shirt pocket, rather than on my head.
And I look down this hallway and I see this small person walking towards me. And I then get down and start to crab walk towards her. So I go down on my haunches and put my hands up as if they’re claws and waddle towards her.

Here, Glass stopped the playback and said, “At this point, no one is turning off their radio.” And he’s right. Because we know even before the guy gets there that there has to be more to this story than him just joking around with a nine-year-old. There’d be no real story there. And not having his glasses on…that’s just asking for trouble. It’s the kind of foreshadowing that puts you on the edge of your seat, and makes you cringe at the same time, because you know something weird, bad, or just embarrassing is about to happen — and it does.

While no one’s going to be reading or looking at your content while they’re driving (at least, they shouldn’t be), you can still create that “driveway moment.” It’s about grabbing someone’s attention so that they stop whatever else they’re doing, and they take the time to truly absorb the information you’re offering. It’s about creating something that evokes an emotion, and maybe prompts the reader to comment on your content. If you can get someone to take time out of their day to not only read your content, but comment on it, you’re doing something right.

Just remember, that time you’re asking of your readers is precious and limited. We’re all busy, and we all have numerous things out there vying for our attention. And this is all the more reason to respect the reader, and give them something of value — to tell them a good story. Creating that kind of exchange, that immediacy, is part of the foundation of content marketing. If you can build that, you’re well on your way to success.

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  1. I love me some Ira Glass. Great share with the 99% invisible.

    • Michelle Lowery says:

      You and me both, Demian! I thought about leading off with how he’s my nerd crush (along with Neil DeGrasse Tyson), but thought I’d keep the focus on the content. :-) Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. Mary Page says:

    Great article. Lots of respect for the reader. Highlighting some things or pointing things out the reader with quote marks, bold or italics I think would depend on several factors. Both ways are acceptable with additional pointers or not. If a web design is particularly busy or graphics heavy an occasional pointer may be needed to clarify which graphic particularly if they are similar and may not be positioned by a subheading. It also depends on the site. I agree story telling is a great way to get a message across. If you are posting material on an education site that mentors teachers in best practices the some of the language deemed not so appropriate would be appropriate and also some medical or lawyer sites. I think Ira has lots of good things to say. Language and language needs has different levels and we need to honor diversity. It may not be the mainstream but all of it if in some kind of format is acceptable some place. :)

    • Michelle Lowery says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Mary! I agree, respecting the reader is very important.

  3. Tony Xiang says:

    It is really a great sharing about the experience to learn how to be a good story-teller. In our daily job, it’s easy to forget the principle. We try to sell our own ideas but forget whether the audience is paying attention to the subject we are talking about. Thanks again for the sharing. Look forward to more sharing in the future.

    • Michelle Lowery says:

      It can be very easy to forget, absolutely. We get caught up in our daily routine, and look ahead to the goal rather than how we’re getting there. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Loved the “driveway” example. I think we get so caught up in writing “how to” articles or lists that we forget the real way to get readers to hang in there — make them want more! The blogs that I read regularly are definitely the ones who inject personal stories or evoke emotion in me. I need to do that more with my own blog. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Michelle Lowery says:

      You are most welcome! I’m very glad you found this helpful. Thanks for your comment, Tara!

  5. Jerod Morris says:

    Wonderful post. But I was so lost with a “In this post I’ll…” transition from the intro to the body. ;-)

    I actually just started listening to The American Life, and I absolutely love it. And you are so right about the driveway moments! I really appreciated you giving this example and then tying it into content marketing and storytelling. One of those moments that “clicked” for me in making an old concept make sense in a new way.

    • Michelle Lowery says:

      Hahaha! Drat, I forgot to mention what I was going to write about! ;-)

      “This American Life” is one of my podcast subscriptions. There was actually a television version on Showtime a few years ago. If you can find it, I highly recommend it. The story about Mike, and how Johnny Depp comes into the picture is phenomenal. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Ed Slovik says:

    So… what happened when the guy got to the nine-year old in the hallway?

  7. John Breerwood says:

    Coming from a creative writing background, I took had to adjust to the different style that is content writing. And, I certainly agree that there is an opportunity to include creative elements to connect with people more so than the product that is being marketed. We tend to forget the overall human experience sometimes in the marketing world.

    • Michelle Lowery says:

      I couldn’t agree more, John. I think it can be very easy to get wrapped up in making the sale, getting the conversion, and boosting revenue, and forget that the people who do those things for us–the customers–are exactly that–people. Thanks for your comment!

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