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Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Lesson 4 of 21

The Power of the Right Question

Alex Blumberg

Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Alex Blumberg

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Lesson Info

4. The Power of the Right Question

Lesson Info

The Power of the Right Question

So, just to sorta get across, like sort of like the power of, like, sort of what this question, you know, asking the right question. I wanna play a couple clips of tape here. And this first one is, like, a story that we did on, so, this first sort of like illustration of the power of asking the right question and getting people to reflect honestly. It's a weird story. It was sort of this really conceptual story that we did at This American Life a while ago. And it was this reporter named Davy Rothbart and I was the producer on the story so, I went out with him and asked all these questions. And the conceptual story was this. Davy lived on this block in Chicago that was sort of like a block in transition. There was like some sort of yuppies moving in, but it had been sort of like a poor, there was some gang problems there and it was like a, sort of a, neighborhood in transition. And he lived on this block and there was all these problems that the neighborhood was having with each other.

Like different neighbors were like having different conflicts with each other. There was like a neighbor in his building who was complaining about his loud music. Who was constantly banging on the floor and then there was another neighbor that had thought that somebody else stole her dog and then there was like, you know. So, there's all these things and the idea was that Davy, the idea of the story was that Davy was going to collect all these problems. Interview all the people in his neighborhood. And then take the problems that were happening in this neighborhood to an expert on neighbor relations. Whoops, I set up the wrong piece of tape. Sorry, crap, oh, there it is, right there in my notes. I missed it. I'm gonna set up a different piece of tape. This is another piece of tape. This will be very quickly, sorry. Keep all that in your mind for a second. (audience laughs) And there's two stories on it. I'm gonna play you the first one now, in order. So, this is a different story. This is one that I did on the housing crisis. This is a story from 2008. And it was one of the more famous stories that I did. It was called "The Giant Pool of Money" and it was about the housing meltdown, basically. And back in 2008, there was all this stuff happening with subprime mortgages. And a lot of the coverage was about our, Who's at fault? Is it like, were deadbeats taking out loans that they knew they couldn't pay back and then like ripping off the banks or were like poor people being victimized by evil banks that were now foreclosing on their homes and that was sort of the narrative. And neither narrative really ever made sense to me. I kept on thinking like there's like, there's something else going on here. Something bigger and more systemic that's going on than just like either people ripping off banks or banks ripping off people. And I wanted to get at the heart of it and there was like this question, so, we found this guy who was going through foreclosure and he was telling the story of how he got this loan. This enormous loan. And in the middle of this clip you'll hear the question that I'm talking about. The question that I felt like, turned the whole thing and sort of set up the entire show as a matter of fact. But sort of got him talking in a very different way. So, this guy's name is Clarence. He'd taken out a huge loan, almost half a million dollars. At the time of that loan, he had three not very reliable part-time jobs. He was making about $45,000 a year. And on the loan that he took out, they didn't ask him anything about his income. Call it 540 for round figures. You basically borrowed $540,000 from the bank and they didn't check your income. Right. It's a no income verification loan. They don't call me up and say, you know, how much money? They don't do that. I mean, it's almost like you pass a guy in the street and say, "Lend me $540,000?" He said, "Well, what do you do?" "I aint got a job." "Okay." It seems as if it's that casual even though there are a lot of papers that get filled out and stuff flies all over with the faxes and the emails and all like that. Essentially, that's the process. (jazz music) Would you have loaned you the money? I wouldn't have loaned me the money and nobody that I know would have loaned me the money. I mean, I know guys who are criminals that wouldn't lend me that money and they'd break your kneecaps, so, you know. Yeah, I mean, I don't know why the bank did it. I'm serious. I made $540,000 in personal bad credit. So, I love that piece of tape because it was the first time that, in my experience, that anybody, first of all, Clarence is at the center of the problem. And I'm asking him how he feels about, like that question got, enabled me to side step the whole, who's fault is it, in a way. And it just got to a very honest reaction from him. Which was sort of like, there's all sorts of other ways to phrase that question. Did you deserve that money? Should the bank have given you that money? Blah, blah, blah. And all that would've led to a defensive answer. It would've led to not the right answer. But then when I was like in the middle of it I remember thinking, oh that's the question. And when I asked him, "Would you have loaned you the money?" it forced him to be honest. There was no way to not be honest about answering that question. And it got a really wonderful, honest response that then, set up the entire hour basically. So, like, why were other people lending money to people, that those people themselves would not have lent to them. Right? So, like what was going on there? That question set up the entire thing. Alright, so I teased this next piece of tape, mistakenly. So, going back, cast your minds back to when I set this up before. So, anyway, Davy Rothbart, digging, getting all these questions from his, all these questions from his, the people in his neighborhood. And all the problems that he's running it by an expert in neighbor relations. (piano music) <v Mr. Rogers>Here's the bridge. Does anybody know who this is? Mr. Rogers, yes. Mr. Rogers, he has since past away. Fred Rogers, so, like I said it was a weird conceptual story. We're taking these problems from this like rough block of west Augusta in Chicago and then bringing them in front of Mr. Rogers and asking him to sort of pronounce judgment on what these neighbors should do. It was a weird, there's a back story that won't even get into. But, it was, I bring it up, all to sort of talk about because this was one of these moments where the question really brought us to a different place. One of the things that, so one of the problems that Davy had identified. I'm gonna play one more piece of tape and then we'll get to the tape with the question. So, one of the problems that Davy had identified in his neighborhood was that there was this fear, right? That was one one the big things. So, there was like, the people banging on the floor, the music playing too loud. There was a guy whose neighbor thought he'd stole her dog. And then, but mainly there was like a lot of fear. There was like the fear of like the yuppies moving into the neighborhood were afraid of the kids who were in the gangs. And so, Davy talked about that. You'll hear Davy and then you'll hear a kid named, The Mouth. Who he's interviewing. Who exactly are you afraid of, I'd ask. It's all answered the same way. The gang bangers. The kids in baggy jeans and basketball jerseys cruise the neighborhood with their stereos bumping. The gang bangers they said. Those are the bad neighbors. Guess it's no surprise The Mouth had his own idea about who the bad neighbors are. The ones who fear and distrust him. There was a neighbor in the neighborhood that he didn't agree with what we did so much so he'd stand in his house with a video camera and record what we were doing. Try to bring it to the beat meetings, you know. They used to follow us around with cameras, literally follow us around the neighborhood with cameras. And say I'm gonna call the cops on yous. You know, well for what? We aint botherin', you know? That's what I think the worst neighbor is, you know. Yes. They come in here fearing us, saying that, you know, maybe thinking that we're gonna do this and do that, but we'll talk to you, you know what I'm saying bro? We aint animals bro. We're normal people like you. Alright, so that's The Mouth and his friends. They were sitting on the street drinking Heinekens and so, we bring that to Mr. Rogers. And so all the, so Mr. Rogers is a wonderful, lovely man. Meeting him was like a thrill. He's got this strange sort of power when you meet him. It was crazy. When we met to meet him, his assistant said, we were trying to set up the interview and his assistant was like, "Well, Fred likes to be nearby a piano." (laughs) So we had to meet him in his studio so that he could play the piano every once in a while. He literally, he had the bag of puppets and he would bring them out sometimes to make a point and start talking in the puppet voices while we were talking to him. And yet somehow it was like moving and real. I don't know, he was an amazing person, amazing. But he was giving us a little bit of canned answers. Like, when we were answering, what should this neighbor do? His answer was always sort of the same. Like you know, well I hope I would be brave enough to go and talk to them. <v Mr. Roger>I would hope that I would be brave enough to visit. It's so easy to condemn when we don't know. And if I would visit you and find out that you are a reasonable person, I could tell you about my sensitivities and see if it would make any difference to you. It's funny, a lot of the things, like, you know, you said if you were in Davy's neighbor situation, you said that you hoped you would have enough courage to go down and visit. And a lot of what you were finding when you were talking to people had to do with that same sort of notion. And I'm wondering, what is it that we're afraid of, do you think? <v Mr. Roger>Perhaps we think that we won't find another human being inside that person. Perhaps we think that, oh there, there maybe are people in this world who I can't ever communicate with. And so, I'll just give up before I try. And how sad it is to think that that we would give up on any other creature who's just like us. So, what are your thoughts about that? I'd love to hear what you, like, what was going on in your minds? Anybody respond? That was Mr. Rogers? Like that was so powerful and you could hear the flutter in his voice which was his emotion, you know, rippling through his vocal chords. And it was amazing. And it was such an interesting contrast to think of Mr. Rogers and like, he sounded like the Buddha. Wonderful. He's very Buddha like in person. But it was like, but that was one of the, that was the most honest moment in that interview. And it came out of like, there was this question that was hovering over it, he was giving slightly, he said, I hear this and I wonder if you do too. Like in the beginning, he sounded more canned and then after I asked the question, right? You can hear it. All of a sudden, he's actually pausing and he's actually thinking and he's actually trying to figure out what is the emotion and he's trying to voice that emotion. And all of a sudden it becomes real and it becomes authentic and you connect to that moment. Yeah? I think that fact that he is Mr. Rogers carries particular weight. We're used to hearing him and we're used to hearing him do those canned, simple solutions oriented, just do this and it will all be great. For me that moment of real darkness when he identifies the greatest fear is I will never be able to communicate with you. And as a listener I can extrapolate that out to the neighborhood. I can see how that person would think that about that person and it just took me somewhere so hopeless, when he's usually someone who's all about hope, positivity and it's going to be great. So, that chucks the position of what I expect to hear from him and then what I hear from him is incredibly powerful. Right, but I think that's a really great point because I think that's what you're trying to do with it. That's what an honest moment will do with anybody. Whether it's Mr. Rogers or not. If you hear people talking and the way we all talk. We're all sort of like, you know, we're putting up fronts and lying to ourselves in various ways as we go through our day. And nobody's gonna notice that I actually screwed up the order of my tape, for example. But, you know, when you break out of it, even if you're not Mr. Rogers, that's what comes through. That's the thing that comes through. Yeah, go ahead. I was just gonna say that he really took something that maybe many of us could not relate to, like living in a project and when he answered that, when you asked that question about fear it made it so personal that I immediately was thinking to myself, what am I fearing, and he took this kind of out there thing and brought it deep. And so, because it was personal, then it was more important to me, like you said earlier in the day, right? And I engaged with that immediately. Right, and he was identifying something, I mean again, that's also identifying, putting words to a feeling that we have that is sort of undiagnosed or unexplained. That is sort of the definition of profanity. A little bit, you know what I mean? When you can actually give voice, put that in words, the feeling that we share. And that's what he did with, oh that is our fear. That is the fear, right? We're afraid that people, that we are going to encounter somebody who we can't connect with as humans. Yeah. I think it's also incredible because he uses his own language. He doesn't break out of being Mr. Rogers, you know. He actually manages to remain himself and still go to this really different place for him and that's how at least I could tell it was really honest was that he, you also get to know Mr. Rogers honestly in his language. Yeah. Exactly. And you can see why like, Mr. Rogers of all people would find that an especially horrifying thing. Oh, that there are bad people in the world is just like such a, you know. Like it's more poignant for Mr. Rogers than any of us. Morgan, yeah. Just going off of that, at the end he uses the word creature instead of like another human, it's like we're all just these beings that need to like connect with another being. It's not, you know, it's not within our organisms. We have a few more coming in from the chatter. Jennifer says, "Of all people, coming from someone who's so genuinely and innocently sees the beauty in people, acknowledging that core fear is really powerful." And Claudia says, "You can feel how carefully he's thinking about the question and that makes it very authentic." Absolutely. You can hear, for the first time, he didn't have a ready answer. And that was important too. And so, again, I don't think that moment would've happened, you know, I often feel like there's like, in every interview or in a lot of interviews there's like this, there's a question that's sort of hanging over the interview that if like you can just figure out what that question is, what's the one that's gonna like, sort of like, what are we talking around? And can you figure out what that is and present it to people. It breaks through often. Like you, again, the therapy language. You have a breakthrough a little bit. And that's what you're sort of going for. Yeah, Jeff. I'm wondering if both of those clips ended up in the final cut. And whether or not you like including that transition when you get the right question and that person changing from their canned response to the more personal honest one. Oh yeah, absolutely. No, those are both pulled from the actual final version. So, that's what, the music was there and everything. That was, I just downloaded the clip off of iTunes and put it in there. But was that your answer or was that. Well I was wondering if you had gotten the second answer first. If that would've satisfied you. Or if you like capturing that moment when you kind of break someone open. Like, did you need the drama of him giving a canned answer first and then to like break through. There's something nice, there is something about that where it's nice to, like it was the same thing that happened, the Dave Ramsey thing, where somebody is not being totally honest and then there's a question that sort of confronts them. I don't know, that's a good question. I think it helps, I think. Cause it also, sort of, tells a story. It's like a chord, I feel like it's a chord resolving in music when you're just like waiting for the chord and then finally the power chord comes and you're like ah! That's how it feels, a little bit. You know, where somebody is sort of like wrestling with it. They're not being honest, they're not being honest, and then they, there's a question that breaks them out of it and then they acknowledge it. There's a nice feeling to that as well. But I think it could've worked either way. We often will use the answer without using the question. And it often is just as powerful. You don't need to include the whole thing. It's just how it works. Yeah? We had a couple of questions come in that I think tie in nicely to these clips that we just heard. So, I'd love to get your opinion on this. In that clip, you were talking about getting that location, that street in Chicago. So this ties into a question that Brayden had. Who says, "When you're reporting on a town or a location or with Mr. Rogers, a neighborhood, do you have a methodology for getting to know that town or that place? God, that's tricky. Do I have a methodology? No, I don't. I think my methodology is trying to find somebody who knows it better than me as to sort of like go like find the, ID the person who is the exemplar of whatever it is. Like, if there's somebody, if it's a town and there's like somebody who's in that town who sort of represents the mainstream view of the town and then I identify the outsider, the goth kid or whatever who can sort of like have a more anthropological view of the town and if you get both of those people, generally you're sort of circling around some sort of authentic picture of it. But, that's the biggest difficulty of being a journalist. Is sort of like parachuting in some place, trying to pretend, trying to get as much as you can about the place, but you never know. You never know as much as you wish you knew and you never have time to figure it all out entirely. Generally when I'm reporting on a topic, when I find that I have, that I'm getting the same answers from enough people like then I feel like, okay well I've done enough reporting now that I'm getting similar answers. We have another question here. And this came up with Mr. Rogers. This user wants to know, many times I've interviewed people that either sound fake, like they have a very prepared script in their minds and they follow it or they don't wanna open up and they give those canned answers. Any advice for getting to that level of emotional response when you have people like this? What did you do with Mr. Rogers that got him to open up? Well, that's like one of the things. So, there's a couple things. And I guess that gets to, that actually does transition into the next slide. Sort of like with the nuts and bolts of sort of setting up and interview. And the first thing is finding that person to interview. I'm gonna get to that user's question in a second.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Join Alex Blumberg, award-winning reporter and producer for This American Life and co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, for Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, and learn podcast tips on how to tell powerful, memorable stories through audio.

Storytelling is in our DNA – integrating its principles into a podcast not only helps you tell better stories, it allows you to authentically and emotionally connect with your audience. In this class, you will learn the unique approach to interviewing and story composition, which has made This American Life a fan favorite on public radio stations across the country. Alex will share production techniques you can use to create a multi-layered sensory experience and share tips for standing out in the ever-growing field of podcasts. You’ll learn: 

  • How to develop your narrative instincts
  • How to prepare for an interview to get the best answers
  • The elements of a good story

Alex will teach you how to create a “driveway moment” — that experience when the story is so good, it makes the audience pause what they are doing just to listen through to the end.

Whether you already produce a successful podcast, are a creative entrepreneur looking for a new marketing method, or just a public radio-loving audiophile – this class will help you tell better stories.


Matt James Smith

The best storytelling resource I've come across bar none. I've read all the books, paid for all the online courses, listened to all the podcasts but for me none have been anywhere near as useful, engaging, moving, fun and outright inspiring as this course. If you're trying to tell stories with factual material, whatever your medium, this is as good as it gets. Regarding those reviewers saying it was haphazard and underprepared - huh? He doesn't offer strict formulas and perfectly structured, detailed approaches, but that's because he's the real deal. Those things only exist for snake-oil-merchant online "story gurus" who charge through the nose for "the perfect strategy" (*cough* Patrick Moreau *cough*). Alex offers what he can of tricks and formulae, but where it's about experience and gut feelings, he's honest. Thank god. Superb.

Gregory Lawson

This class is great on multiple levels. Are you interested in interviewing? There are great tips and techniques. Interested in Storytelling? Great insights into the basic structures and tools to test how compelling your story idea is. Interested in podcasting? Great tips and ideas here too... Alex is a seasoned pro, has an easy, approachable style and allows his class (and you) time to really consider and work through the concepts. Excellent all the way around!