5 Things You Can Learn About Storytelling from Ira Glass

“If you’re someone in a creative field, you probably started because you have good taste.” — Ira Glass

Ira Glass is the most captivating storyteller in the world. His claim to fame is dazzling over 3 million listeners on public radio — and over 900,000 people online — every week.

Ira Glass is the executive producer of This American Life, an extremely popular, award winning, public radio show. If you’ve never heard of it, you definitely should. Each episode is packed with value loaded lessons for any observant student of storytelling.

It’s not a talk show with a host, and nobody calls in. It doesn’t even really have a format at all. The easiest way to explain This American Life is that it’s a weekly show about dramatic stories arranged around a theme.

Why a theme? It’s mostly to make it seem like there’s a reason that a story about how David Letterman ruined a small town in Illinois, and a story about Puerto Rico’s conspiracy to send its drug addicts to the US are in the same show.

With that being said, there is absolutely nobody else better to learn about the craft of making and telling stories than Ira Glass.

1. What is “a story” in its most basic form?

When you’re watching TV you can almost feel “the people” behind the production. You can almost look at the screen and figure out who’s behind the show — the actors, people to run the mics for the actors, camera men, writers, producers.

Listening to a radio show is different in that all of that machinery behind the production is invisible. A radio show that’s done just right feels like one person with a microphone talking to someone at the other end, who just happens to be incredibly charming and knowledgeable…

But what’s left if you strip away the magic and editing power of TV and radio producers? There’s still a story under all of the makeup and stage lights.

The most basic form of a story is an anecdote. Simply, a sequence of events. “This was happening, and that led to this. After that, this came next.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that an anecdote is only fact and time based information. You can easily incorporate ideas and feelings into an anecdote too.

“I heard something outside, so I went to see what it was. I felt scared at first. Then I opened the door, and I saw my neighbor was kicking my dog! The first thing that came to mind was this lame video I saw in Middle School… On Funny Junk or something? Weird, but anyway then I was REALLY PISSED and told him off like “Hey! Stop-…”

Another cool thing about stories is that no matter how boring the material is, they still have a way of pulling us through it.

“It was very quiet in the house. The man got out of bed and started towards his bedroom door to see why. He stepped quietly, as to not break the silence of the house… When he got to his door he scanned the room. He had to decide, should he check down the hall in the other bedrooms? Or should he sneak down the stairs to search the rooms on the first floor?”

See? You probably read that little story, even though the most interesting piece of information I gave is that it’s quiet. Even though the content is factually boring, it still feels like there’s tension though…

2. What makes stories keep “going”? What drives the story arc?

On its own, a sequence of events has an inherent aspect of suspense to it. Hearing something as a sequence of actions has an effect of feeling like you’re on a train, and you’re heading towards the destination.

But in produced stories, what mostly keeps the story going is asking questions.

Think back to the last story I told. It was very boring, so why did you read it? Well, I did raise a question of why is the house so quiet? Will the man go to the left or to the right?

Even though the facts might be boring, when you ask a question (or even just imply one) there’s an assumption that you’re going to answer it.

Unanswered questions create a “tension” in the reader’s mind — almost like an itch you have to scratch. This is why you’ll see techniques like cliffhangers used on TV shows (or “Continued on P12!” in magazine and newsprint stories).

This is something you want to manipulate when you’re telling stories. You should constantly be raising and answering questions. Experiment with raising one “overarching question”, then answering sub-questions while you’re discussing the “overarching” topic.

The whole shape of a story is throwing out questions to keep people watching and listening, then answering them along the way.

3. The difference between stories that put you to sleep and stories that keep you on the edge of your seat…

In every story there’s what Ira Glass calls a “moment of reflection”. There’s always a time where you ask yourself “Why the hell am I listening to this?” This is your other biggest tool in storytelling.

You can have a story that really kills. You can have a story that’s surprising, and so many exciting things happen, and there are some great characters… But there’s no point. You don’t learn anything new, there’s nothing. This is a huge problem.

If there isn’t some point, or purpose, that your piece is driving towards you’re running the risk of the reader feeling disappointed with your work.

4. “I really wish someone had told this to me…” — Ira Glass

If you’re someone in a creative field, you probably started because you have good taste.

You just love radio, TV, writing, marketing so much that you want to add to it yourself. You’re an avid consumer of every piece of content put out in your craft of choice, you can dissect the greatest books or ad campaigns all day.

But when you first start creating… There’s always a gap.

What you make disappoints you somehow when you look back on it. But you’re good enough to know that it’s disappointing to you. Too many people quit at this point, but you just have to keep pushing.

“The most important thing you can do is make a lot of work. It’s only through making a large body of work that you can start to close the gap and make something you feel is truly special.” says Ira Glass.

Here’s a tip from Ira: Give yourself a deadline where once a week, or once a month you’re making a story (that’s what I’m doing here with my Medium account). Even if it’s not to someone who’s paying you, having your Facebook friends or a small email list of your supporters “expecting” your newest story on every Wednesday can be the motivation jumpstart you need to get going.

5. Not enough is said about the importance of killing crap.

Creating a killer story is fucking hard. 9 times out of 10 finding a good story takes way longer than editing it down. Ira Glass spends more than half of his week searching for great stories and experimenting with new formats for This American Life.

In his talk at Google, Glass talks about the process that’s behind creating stories for This American Life. It goes a little something like this:

One day a reporter suggests an amazing story. It doesn’t really fit with any of the themes we’re running this week, but it’s so compelling let’s try to fit it in there. Most of the time they can’t fit it in there, so this super juicy delicious story now becomes “an anchor story”. That means that sometime in the future, the theme for a different This American Life episode will be based around this anchor story.

Then the TAM team will scratch their heads and say “Hmmm.. What are some other themes this story could possible fit into?” and they’ll think of maybe 3.

Then they go off on a search to find other stories that could combine with this anchor story into a compelling rendition of one of these themes. It’s a pretty quick search at 3 to 4 months per episode (not).

After that you need to get the story down, which is another challenge…

From the moment you try to put a story on record — whether it’s videotaped, recorded, or written — it’s trying to be bad. The story is trying to be boring, it’s trying to drag on, and you have to be forceful about propping it up whenever you can.

“I have to say we take a run at a lot of stories. Between a half and a third of what we try we’ll go out and get the tape — and then we kill it” says Glass.

But really, don’t shy away from killing bad ideas. Revel in it. By killing something bad, you’re allowing something better to live.