Storytelling has been around forever. It might be the oldest source of entertainment. Besides…rocks? And like comedy, it takes a lot of experience to be really, really good at.
Ira Glass is an American radio personality best known for his show This American Life. He’s an incredible storyteller and you should definitely check out his podcast if you enjoy stories. Which you should.
Glass was interviewed about storytelling for a small side project a while back and the videos have become some of the best known advice on storytelling out there on the web. A friend recently showed me the videos and I thought they were fantastic. They reminded me of a lot of parallels between the art of storytelling and comedy, especially since I had known Ira Glass originally from his work with comedian Mike Birbiglia. Birbiglia is actually very much a storytelling comic, but to me the parallels go even beyond just “storytelling jokes.”
One of my favorite parts about these videos is that Glass goes right out and says that everything you’re taught in school about telling stories is wrong. At least for radio. He says that we’re taught to write an introduction, a thesis, and then back that up with facts and explanations until we reach a conclusion. Glass says this is an incredibly boring way to tell a story and instead recommends the repeated structure of “something happens and then…and then…and then…”
Which sounds incredibly simple and perhaps not even effective, but it reminds me of how my better longer jokes tend to work, especially the ones that are stories. I find myself saying “and then” a lot when I’m on stage, which sticks out to me as classic *air quotes* “bad writing.” At least that’s what I’ve been taught. I’ve been taught to come up with different fancy transitions to use at the beginning of sentences to keep readers interested. But when it comes to live audio performance, people just want to know what comes next. It boils down to the simple structure: something happens and then something else happens.
It also reminds me of how crazy I thought whatever teachers told you was “good writing” in school. They do tell you “intro, body, conclusion” and to me that was the most boring way to go about it. There shouldn’t be a formula to how you write. A pattern, definitely. But there can’t be a formula for what’s interesting. I never really liked listening to my writing teachers’ advice and maybe that’s why I’m drawn to less structured forms of writing. After all, most people don’t even consider stand up “writing.”
I like the idea of messing around to see what actually works, rather than listening to what people say is the “right” way to do something. That’s how Glass figured it out; he was doing radio for decades before he figured out what people really wanted to hear and what worked for him. He used to do topic sentence, fact, fact, conclusion and it didn’t work. It took a long time to find what the trick was. That’s what comics do on stage: they try jokes over and over until they can refine their comedic sensibility. Just like a storyteller.
One other very important idea that Glass shared in this section was that there are two major components of a story: the story itself and the reflection on the story. And they both have to be good for it to be a great story that is worth telling. If it’s a good story but no good reflection – nothing important to say about it – then there’s no staying power. And if the story is boring, it doesn’t matter how interesting the thing you have to say about the story is, you’ve already lost your audience.
I think a good joke is the same way. You can say something really funny, but that doesn’t make it a good joke. If there’s no end to the joke, a logical way to pull it together, then it’s just a funny thing and nothing more than that. It isn’t worth as much.
The major takeaway I had from this part of the video was the amount of editing and reworking and scrapping material that radio storytellers do. It’s just like stand up comedy. Glass says that he’ll spend just as much time finding interesting stories as he does preparing them for radio. The hard part isn’t the interviewing or the editing, it’s finding the good story. He says that he’ll find someone, go out and interview them, and then “kill” all the material at least half of the time, because the story just isn’t good enough. That’s an incredible amount of work just for the potential of a good story.
Comics scrap at least half of their material too. And for me, at least where I am now, I’m trying out way more material than what actually ends up being the good stuff. But comics can just try that out on stage. Besides writing it down in a notebook, there’s no commitment necessary. Radio storytellers actually have to go out and spend hours interviewing someone, only to realize half the time that the story wasn’t even that good to begin with.
The techniques are different, but the idea is the same. Editing, editing, editing. It takes a lot of time, effort, and experience to get the content down to the really good stuff. Glass describes the material as “wanting to be boring,” saying that it takes a ruthless amount of editing and reworking to get the material down to something worth holding someone’s attention. I love that perspective because it puts an idea that I haven’t been able to articulate very well into words. Countless times I’ve told jokes that I know there’s something funny about, but for whatever reason the joke just is not funny. It is like the joke wants not to be funny and you have to force it to be, working it over and over until it makes someone laugh.
The first many years you do radio, pretty much everything you make is bad. But Glass says that you still have a killer taste for radio; that’s what got you into it. He says it’s that taste that frustrates you because you know what you’re making is bad and that’s the tough thing to work through. Most people can’t push past that stage.
It’s the same with comedy. Comics love watching comedy. They know what’s funny. But it’s a whole different thing to be funny. It’s frustrating knowing that what you’re doing isn’t all that great, which is why a lot of people eventually quit. It takes a long time for your ability to catch up with your taste.
Glass actually plays a recording from when he was already eight years into radio and the difference between him then and now is incredible. He sounds like a boring, stereotypical news anchor in that old recording. He picks apart his own voice, listing the many mistakes he was making that he didn’t even realize he was making at the time. It just takes time to learn that. A lot of time. Years and years to develop the ability to correct all of those little things so that it becomes instinct.
Part of all that time is just figuring out who you are as a storyteller. You’re used to copying other people’s style because you don’t have your own voice yet. You might not even hear yourself doing it yet. You have to learn not to imitate and you have to become your own self.
I’ve heard the same thing from famous comics hundreds of times. You won’t know your real voice for a long time. I don’t know exactly what I sound like yet, I’m just trying to tell jokes. When I first started out, like a lot of people, I was just a bad version of Mitch Hedberg. I’m not that anymore, but I am a bad version of something. I guess we’ll see of what in the long run.
Glass says that people want to hear your individual take on things and the way that you react to other people. They want to see you and your unique perspective in your work. That’s not just something you can decide to do – it comes with time, being better at showing yourself more naturally and just knowing better ways to showcase your selfness.
Finally, Glass says that people are captivated by the mixture of you with other people, which I think storytelling and comedy are all about. Your interaction with the audience is always going to be slightly different than someone else’s, so you just have to know yourself well enough to do that in the best possible way.
You can read more about Ira Glass here.