Listening to Ira Glass, the host of the popular podcast This American Life, two weekends ago at BAM offered important insight on what it means to be an artist, a storyteller, and a podcaster. In front of a packed house, Glass told stories about important lessons learned from his life in media, while simultaneously mixing music and audio clips on stage. He livened up his presentation by bringing on dancers and a mascot, showing animation made for one of his stories, and giving examples of his earlier work just to demonstrate how much he had improved. It was a remarkable evening and I walked away with a three major lessons:
1) Learn to tell stories
If you can’t tell great stories about an incredible experience, Glass said, it’s like it never happened. Telling stories is not just a way to entertain your friends at the bar, but it can be used to win elections, sell products, and inspire people to action. Most humans prefer narrative presentations and are more likely to remember them if it is presented as a story (just think about your favorite TED talks).
In Jack Hart’s book on writing non-fiction, Story Craft, he makes the case for a biology of story. We often see our lives as a narrative, with each new experience adding another layer and possibly altering the way we view the world and ourselves. Evolutionary scientists even make the case that storytelling has been historically important for us as a means to organize information and even find a mate.
Hart defines a story as a sequence of events that occur when a relatable character enters a conflict or situation that he must try and solve. And when crafting a story, Ira Glass stressed that the story must have a beginning, middle, and end. In the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell studied primal stories and made the case that consistent themes exist in the stories of many cultures, from how a hero is called to action (beginning) to crossing a threshold into the unknown (middle) to eventually returning from an adventure (end).
In fact, Glass said that early in his career, he thought his method of telling stories, cycling exposition followed by analysis followed by more exposition and then more analysis, was a breakthrough invention until a rabbi pointed out to him that the Bible followed the same pattern.
So learn to tell stories! It will make you a more engaging and memorable speaker.
As you try your hand at telling stories, the key is to practice! During the talk, Glass told stories about his early days producing stories for NPR. He would struggle for days to produce a three-minute story and it took him ten years of working on his craft before he felt like he knew what he was doing.
He wittily described how he produced a story about how Oreo cookies are made, how the process is actually like baking cookies!, and how the workers frantically packaged the cookies as they fell off the conveyer belt. And then Glass played the clip. It sounded non-descript and bland, with none of the personality or the memorable scenes he had just described.
Glass said all of this to make the point that even with a lot of experience, it is still a normal part of the creative process to be bad at what you are doing. The important thing is to keep practicing. It can be difficult to push through the frustrating moments, but that is the only way to improve. As Confucius once said:
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing but rising every time we fail.”
In other words, keep trying!
3) The only way to become good at anything is to get feedback.
When I finally finished editing my first podcast episode, I was excited. There was a satisfying sense of accomplishment. But right before publishing I become nervous as the impostor syndrome seeped into my mind. What will people think? How harshly will they judge me? Do I even belong here? Why did I even try? But I pushed through those thoughts and braced for the hail of criticism.
Yet nothing happened. In fact, people went out of their way to say what a fantastic job I did. They talked about that it was a great idea, how much they enjoyed it, and that they were looking forward to listening to future episodes.
But wait a minute, I thought. Can’t they hear the poor audio quality? Or where the audio from the Skype call was lost? Or the shoddy editing, where I cut too much of the empty space and the words didn’t have time to breathe?
Of course they did. But at the beginning of any project, most people will ignore that and support the fact that you are making anything at all. In order to become better, I had to seek out mentors who had worked in media and who would give me honest feedback. Only then did I get advice on how to improve the sound quality, better ways of asking questions, and a more nuanced approach to editing. But my mentors also echoed the words everyone else had been saying: good work, keep it up.
Ira Glass said that is exactly how he improved his ability to tell stories. He practiced and he showed his work to editors who had more experience. They helped him shape his craft, nix bad ideas, and become as polished as he is today.
Now it is perfectly fine to write or to compose music or to make films for yourself. You don’t have to show it to anyone. But in order to improve, feedback is essential. Otherwise you will just live in the echo chamber of your own mediocrity and think you are better than you are. Even the “smartest” people fall prey to illusory superiority. In a survey of Stanford MBA students, 87% of students put their performance as above the median. Which as you know is mathematically impossible.
In the end, I walked away from the talk by Ira Glass filled with inspiration. It was reassuring to hear the gold standard of an industry speak about his struggles. And finding success ultimately boils down to learning the craft, practicing a lot, and asking for feedback. Lessons that can be applied to not just storytelling, but any creative endeavor you choose. And when you finally find success, I look forward to hearing your story.