This American Life: The Art of Storytelling

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  • Bob Davidson tweeted this on 10/18/2012
What makes good story?

Today was like most days. I pull up to my office, but can’t bring myself to get out of the car. I sit there with the car running, captivated by yet another story from Ira Glass and team at This American Life.

Let me put it bluntly. I’m addicted.

It started off as a little exercise. As much as we had been dedicated to a discipline of seeing here, the notion of a discipline of story sans visuals was just as intriguing to me. So, I decided to give it a shot… the plan was to listen to the entire collection of This American Life episodes – starting with the most recent and working backwards to the first episode in 1995. I’m currently in 2002 and have listened to over 250 episodes. I’ve subsequently determined the TAL team are arguably the best storytellers in the business today. Primarily, because they get this:

Great storytellers are made by great listeners. Great listeners understand how to ask (and identify) the right question. The right question(s) beckons the story.

And while this is the basic framework of all great storytelling, the real brilliance of the TAL team (and what arguably sets them apart) is their ability to unpack a narrative in its purest form – a focus on the sequence of actions, or the “anecdote”, as Ira Glass deems it.

This might seem like a given for storytelling, but the more I listen to radio (and watch documentary films), the more I realize how most miss this. Most default to commentary – the “let me tell you what I think about that” syndrome. While this is appropriate in due time, it only makes an impact alongside an actual narrative. Here’s why.

By welcoming someone(s) to simply “tell the story” and focus what happened (the anecdote), the audience has no other choice but to begin visualizing the narrative… a space for wonder is created. And once you’ve gone there, it’s hard to escape it… which is exactly the space I seem to find myself each morning when I pull up to our office.

If your looking for an excuse to sit in your car, I’ve suggested a few places to start below. But first, here’s Ira on storytelling.

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Some Favorite This American Life Episodes

#1. Switched at Birth.
This is one crazy story that you wouldn’t believe unless you heard. The episode that got me hooked.

#2. NUMMI.
“NUMMI” is a complex story and experiment in management, global relations, and innovation. It will both affirm and change your view of the American labor/union system. Think Different. And then (hopefully) stay different.

#3. Georgia Rambler.
This one gets the #3 spot on concept and presumption. Concept? Send all reporters to Georgia and see what happens. Presumption? Story is everywhere. The question is… “Do you see it/hear it?”.

#4. House on Loon Lake.
In junior high, a group of friends and I entereed an abandoned house and began to try and contstuct the story behind it. This is that story (different house of course). A real life Scooby-Doo mystery.

#5. Fear of Sleep.
The Mike Birbiglia story (Act I) is the funniest story on TAL right now. This story is worth this episode alone. It’s also the basis of the Birbiglia + Ira produced independent film (and Sundance winner) Sleepwalk with Me, which is worth the viewing (now available on demand).

#6. Very Tough Love.
Conditional love got a whole new meaning when the TAL team “broke” (nationally) the story of Judge Williams, a powerful juvenile judge in Georgia. Be prepared to feel the injustice of justice.

#7. Petty Tyrant.
Speaking of power hungry… meet Steve Raucci, a maintenance worker in a NY school district who is the quintessential adult “bully”. You will be left wondering how many people and scenes as such exist midst our everyday

#8. The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.
The entire episode devoted to the story of what was a century old mystery that involved a kidnapped 4 year-old and three families with differing story lines.

#9. Heretics.
A look inside a more frequently debated question midst Christian sub-cultures these days… “Who’s going to hell?” This story points looks at the idea of “inclusion” and why it is an appalling idea to some.

#10. Million Dollar Idea.
Act IV is simply an amazing story of someone beating the system. In this case, beating the 80s game-show “Press Your Luck” system. No wammies.