The Power of the Story Formula
This formula has worked several times for me and there's a couple of them that stand out. So, there's this story that we did and this was sort of there's like two of them, and the first is sort of silly funny, and the second on is sort of more serious. The first story was this guy, who has since gone on to become very famous, but at the time this was back, again this was back again in the early days of this American life. And he was a contributor of ours and he was like, "I have this game that I play when I go to parties, and I ask this question about what kind of super power you would like to have, and it's really funny and people really like it." And I was like oh I don't know, it's like a story about a about a parlor game you play, I don't get it. It's a story about a conversation starter, like what are you talking about? And he was like, he was good, he's good at the pitch. And he was like, "Oh no no, here's what happens, I ask them if they would rather be, the question is would yo...
u rather have the power of flight, or the power of invisibility?" And what's interesting is... And then I ask them what you would do if you had that power? And what's interesting is, nobody ever says they would use their power to fight crime. And I was like, oh that is sort of interesting. Right, 'cause that's what always happens in the comic books. Never happens in real life. So, I was like okay, do that story. So, he went out and he recorded himself asking that question to a bunch of people, and we ended up doing the story. So I'm going to play you a clip of that story right now.
Flight versus invisibility. This question is only for you. Whichever you pick, you'll be the only person in the world to have that particular super power. You can't have both. Which do you choose? I started wondering about this a few years ago. I'd bring it up at parties, dinners, wedding receptions. It was more interesting to ask them where people worked, or where they went to school. And clearly more fun to answer. Like a magic word, shazam. Flight versus invisibility would instantly change an evening's character. Opening passionate conversation and debate. But what surprised me more was how quickly everyone would choose, as if they had been thinking about it for a long time. Everyone knew exactly which super power they wanted. And what they would do with it. Their plans weren't always flashy or heroic. In fact, they almost never were.
If I could fly, the first thing I would do is just fly into, fly into the bar. Check out what's going on there, fly back home. I would attach my baby to me and fly to a doctor's appointment at 11:30. Fly right back. And then I think I would fly to Atlantic City. (jazz music)
[Elizabeth Gilbert] I'd go into Barney's, I'd pick out the cashmere sweaters that I like, I'd go into the dressing room, the woman says, "How many items?" I say, "five." I go into the dressing room, I put those five sweaters on, and I summon my powers of invisibility in the dressing room. I turn invisible, I walk out leaving her to wonder why there's a tag hanging from the door that says five and no person inside.
So you would become a thief pretty quickly?
Immediately. Until I had all the sweaters that I wanted, and then I would have to think of other things to do. (jazz music)
Typically this is how it goes. People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies, or onto airplanes. People who fly, stop taking the bus. Here's one thing that pretty much no one ever says. I would use my power to fight crime. No one seems to care about crime.
I don't think I would want to spend a lot of time using my power for good. I mean, if I don't have super strength and I'm not invulnerable then I mean, it would be very dangerous. If you had to rescue someone from a burning building or something like that, you might, you know catch on fire.
So again, that was like, and I think there was literally, like literally he said the words to me nobody ever chooses to fight crime. And that was the moment where I was like, oh this is a story, and we now have a direction, we know exactly what we're going to ask. And it was all that sort of formulation. Also, just to sort of reiterate, sort of the second, the woman who tells the Barney story, she's a little bit of a ringer. That was actually Elizabeth Gilbert. That was John Hodgman, yeah, that was. So, John Hodgman has since gone on he became the PC in the Apple PC commercials. He went on to great fame and fortune doing that and now you see him everywhere. But, this was yeah, he originally he'd done some stories for This American Life early on. And that was one of the first stories that he ever did. And he and I worked together on that story. But, when Elizabeth Gilbert, who has a quite obviously a natural story teller. But you just notice, like she was like I would do this again. A sequence of actions, I would take, I would get. I would go into Barneys I would get these sweaters, I would walk into the dressing room, I would summon my powers of invisibility, and I would leave, leaving the woman to wonder, and then the punch line is, you know and then, she set John Hodgman up and John Hodgman supplied the punch line, so you'd become a thief pretty immediately. It was like exactly a perfect story that we've been talking about. A sequence of actions, a punch line. You know, so again, it actually happens in real life. The second example of this formula that I want to talk through is, this is a story of a prison arts program and again, sort of up there with community gardens, in public radio land. You know, a lot of people want to tell a story about a prison arts program and there's not much that sort of like, again like anything. Like any great intractable problem, there's not much that's sort of like new to say. Like, you've heard, it reduces recidivism, you know like, sort of like, it's sort of interesting, it's a story you've heard before. And he was like I have this friend, she teaches this prison arts program, they teach Hamlet to people and sort of this like, super max prison in Saint Louis, and I was like I don't know and he was like, no but like they're teaching Hamlet. And I was like, yeah. And this, so the guy who was pitching was this guy Jack Hitt, who's another great reporter. He's an author, done some stuff on the radio, just an amazing reporter. And he was like Hamlet, and he knows more stuff than I know. Lots of people know more stuff than I know. But he knows more stuff about like literature and he was like, Hamlet, Hamlet. If you think about that play Hamlet it's all about like killing and revenge and murder. And most of the people who have ever performed the play have nothing to do with any of those things in real life, except prisoners. So, what is it like if you are performing, how do you see that play differently if you've actually done all the things in the play. And so that was the thing, and I was like oh right that's a really interesting question. That's what's interesting about this is that most of us think of it as sort of a metaphor. But if you're in prison, it's actually your real life. Like how do you see the play differently? So that was the question that sort of drove us to doing this story, and I was like oh that's a really good question, so we'll go and ask them, we'll ask them like how do you see the play, in ways that other people don't necessarily see the play, Hamlet. And just to remind people the plot of Hamlet, actually, anybody remember the plot? I was like, the plot of Hamlet is like, yeah you've got the plot of Hamlet?
It's the Lion King, but with people. (laughing)
So for people who haven't seen the Lion King...
It's uncle kills the King, to usurp the throne. The son has to return.
Has to return and figure out like exactly should I... And the big debate is sort of like should I kill my uncle or not, should I avenge my father's death. So that's the big debate, and so there's a lot of murders. A lot of attempted murders, a lot of plotting about murder. A lot of people die. So, we went and we asked that question. And so one of the first people we talked to was a prisoner named Danny and sat down and sort of, this was one of the first things out of his mouth.
My name is Danny Wahler, I'm 44 years old. The character that I've played was the ghost of Hamlet's father. The reason I choose that when I first read the script the words jumped out at me. And they made me feel things that I haven't felt before.
What in your experience drew you to those particular words?
I took a man's life. And I felt he was talking to me through that. That he wanted me to know what I put him through. "I am thy father's spirit, doomed for certain term to walk the night, and for the day confined to fast in fires, till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid to tell the secrets of my prison house. I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood. And make that two eyes like stars start from their spheres." There's one other spot that goes like this... "Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatched. Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin. No reckoning made, but sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head." And it was pretty much the same way with him, he was taken before his time. (slow music)
So when you read the character, do you feel like who's talking when you say those lines?
I'm the body up there, but the words are coming from mostly William Pryde, the man that I killed. He's mostly the one talking. (slow music)
Thought I had a fade on there. So, again I want to talk about that. I want to like, well let me just ask you. When you were listening to that what are your reactions? Just some reactions to what you heard. Anybody? Yeah, Kara.
It gave me chills. It was, it gave me chills. It was very chilling it was incredibly powerful.
And what was it about that do you think that gave you the chills?
He was so honest and he had done something so awful, and just that he recognized that was powerful to listen to.
And you get the sense that it's hard for him to recognize it though, still right? Like he's really, when he says the guys name. It's just like, takes forever.
[Woman In Audience] It just broke my heart. I felt so bad for him because he clearly was feeling those words of his victim. And the other thing I thought, you know, analytically the power of radio, here he is saying it in a semi sort of Southern sounding voice. And when Shakespeare wrote those words, you know they're still true, and the truth rang through. It's like gosh did Shakespeare ever imagine that a prisoner in some American prison would be so moved by those. It's really powerful.
Yeah, yeah, Liz.
What I was thinking about was that, so you have your NPR listener, typical NPR listener who's probably reasonably well educated, probably read Hamlet at some point, or has read Shakespeare before and wouldn't necessarily immediately feel a connection to a criminal, to a murderer, to a prisoner. And to be an NPR listener, who doesn't, you know I generally don't feel a strong connection to people, to prisoners, or criminals when you hear stories about them but to hear him interpreting it and connecting to these, to Shakespeare's words more than I ever have was a tremendously humbling experience. And made me feel more connected to him. And made me rethink how I view people in prison, or people that I perceive as other from me.
Yeah, definitely. Anne...
I think this was a... I don't know if this was a This American Life story, but it's one story that I will never forget and it was like a confession line, do you remember that?
Yeah that was even before my time I think.
That was mind blowing. And so there was a telephone answering machine where you could call in and confess. And people confessed, and so there's one of the things that you said earlier, yesterday was the honest emotion and of vulnerability and I think it's almost like you're hearing a confession 'cause you never hear that version of the story from the prisoner because they're in prison. So we don't hear their side of it. So, something really private that opened up that I think is riveting about that.
Well, I'm not a huge fan of prisons, but, or anything to do with prisons. But, you know, I imagine like that would be like I guess the hope when you send someone to prison is that they will feel some kind of remorse, due to that kind of solitary time. And kind of having to be retrospective about their actions. But I wasn't, I didn't expect for him to like be a vessel, to channel his victim, you know. I think that's the part of the story that like blew my mind. That he not only was remorseful and still dealing with the pain of taking someone's life, but he created a space for his victim to still be alive through him and you know, I'm sure he didn't just perform that once, you're constantly performing that. So having to do that as a ritual over and over, is really interesting.
Learn the lines over and over again. And learning what they mean, I think that was the other thing is that they sort of like you know, it was like, I think taken, you know with all my imperfections on my head, something had been taken from my account with all my imperfections on my head, like he was basically saying like the ghost is saying I was killed before I had time to confess. You know is essentially what he was saying. Like I was sent to hell, in other words because I didn't have time to confess all my sins before I died and that's what happens when you're murdered. And that was the thing that he was... That was another part that really resonated with him. He was like that's what it was with him, he was taken before his time, (stammering) he didn't have time to confess his sins either. Again to sort of bring it back to... If we hadn't come up with the frame before we were going to this prison and talking to the prisoners of sort of like, what do you see in Shakespeare that people who have not lived this stuff don't. I don't think that we would have gotten those answers. I don't think would ever have... If we hadn't been asking those questions, and he was just one, we were going to do a ten minute story or something like that. We were just going to ask this question and maybe somebody would tell us. Everybody, every single person in this prison who was performing this play had these really deep resonate connections because they had, it was something that they were like actually wrestling with, it wasn't a metaphor. In their lives, they were actually wrestling with guilt, and redemption, and murderous rage. And they could all relate to it. And they'd all had lost people. And they'd all contemplated killing people in revenge, not all of them, but many of them. And so it was a really powerful thing. It ended up being a whole hour of just this sort of incredible sort of outpouring. Other questions? I see some people starting to talk. Yeah, Mooch.
Yeah, I was just going to say also basically with your pitch for startup that's something that we heard over and over again and that has a clear X and Y. That pitch could be so boring but it's like, I forgot what it was it's like I'm starting a company
Somebody who starts a company... We have two of them, sort of two tags that I've come up with. One is what happens when somebody who knows nothing about business starts one. Which was sort of like, sure. You want to sort of listen, right? (speaking quietly off mic) Yeah, exactly, yeah.
So this is the question that I was going to ask before. How much do you think about your audience before you put together this frame, and what does one do when they have different stakeholders, different audiences. Do they just think about one, or you know, 'cause the messaging can be a little bit different.
It's totally different. And I think there's like... It's a tricky question because I think on the one hand in a place like This American Life where if you're just going for general I'm trying to just reach as broad an audience as possible and just try to tell sort of riveting and entertaining stories. Most people are going to respond to it in some way or another. There's always, you're always going to miss people but you can sort of pull out all the stops and go. But at Planet Money this was something that we talked about a lot. Planet Money was a business and economics show and we did stories, but it was for people who didn't necessarily know anything about business and economics, or weren't financial experts. So it was this constant balancing of do we need to explain what a bond is? Yes, probably. For the people who know, it's alright we can just do it in two minutes, but for the people who don't know it's very welcoming. You have to understand how bonds works because it's part of this fascinating story. And so I think people have a tendency to assume, to give priority to the experts. When in fact they should give priority to the non expert. The expert will stick with you. The expert appreciates a good story. They're onboard with you. At Planet Money we had people who had no background, they were literature majors who were staying home and taking care of their kids and had never thought about business ever. And we had fed governors listening to the podcast. And so we had the whole range. But we definitely did not prioritize the fed governors. If anything we definitely prioritized the literature majors. And the fed governors stuck with us because it was interesting. So I would say that as long as you're following the rules. You're keeping the pacing right, you're sort of setting it up. Everybody likes a good story, everybody likes good steaks. You're not going to offend people with that. Does that answer your question? Are there other questions? Yeah.
Do you have, when you were with NPR, or now do you have team meetings where you throw stuff around? Because this has kind of inspired me to go home and pick out some people I trust and on a weekly basis have a conference call and be like guys, raise your virtual hands if you think this is cool.
That is a great point. And I think, the one thing that I would say that is the most important of anything that I've learned is that everybody needs help. And everybody needs and editor. And everybody needs help brainstorming. And there is no question. I think the biggest mistake we make is that we think okay, what I need to do is I need to go over here and figure it all out and then bring it to the world. And that's absolutely the wrong thing to do. What you need to do is brainstorm ideas, and it works, you have more brains. And that's absolutely... So when I first got hired at This American Life back then I read, I was actually a reader. Now I have kids and I never read anything anymore. But I actually read a lot, I would read the New Yorker magazine. I had a favorite, one of my favorite writers in New Yorker magazine was this guy, Adam Gopnik. He's a wonderful writer, he writes about art, he writes interesting things about art. He was very funny, he's just sort of a hero of mine, a little bit, you know a literary hero. My first day on the job I got hired and the Senior Producer sat me down, and she's like so we have this Adam Gopnik story that we don't know what to do with, will you just read it and edit it? And I was like, okay. So I was sitting at my desk my first act is editing a literary hero of mine. And so I started reading through the story, and there's like lots and lots of great parts, and there was like all of these parts where it was like gobbly gook. And then there were parts where it was sort of like the same idea repeated over and over again. And then there was a certain section where he was like something here about how we don't perceive what we think we're perceiving. Or something like that, and it was just like he had stopped writing and he was like I got to have some idea but I don't know what the idea is, I don't even know how to put it into words. And then there was this whole sort of like half sentence section where it was like segments, sentence fragments, and I hope I'm not... Adam if you're out there I hope I'm not revealing any tricks of the trade here, but to me it was this really really freeing moment of everybody sucks. The first draft, everybody's first draft sucks. Everybody's first draft sucks. And now I know it more than anything, I have dealt with everybody. The first draft always sucks. You do not ever get it right the first time, ever. No one does. The sooner we realize that and know that what we need to do is we need to get a first draft out, and then submit it to others, anybody. Anybody is going to give you, if you give them the right direction, anybody will be a great editor. Just tell me when you're bored, tell me when you're confused. Don't tell me anything else, just tell me when you were bored and tell me when you're confused. And that will just help a lot. And then certain people can really tell you, I wanted this here, and I wanted to move this here and stuff like that, and that's great if you find people who are really good stick with it. But even just a panel of your friends and peers who can just be like, "I was bored there." Who can be honest with you, that will just do so much. And it's the same thing with coming up with an idea, I think. No idea, and we're just fully formed, and the best thing you can do is to gather people around you who can help you think.
And I want to get into a couple of questions that came in from online. All relating to the story formula here. So Jeff Large says, "Does the story formula apply to just specific episodes? Or can it be applied to a podcast series as a whole? How do they differ?"
Before we get to it, I think the story formula is super helpful as a starting point. And sort of organizing your thoughts and trying to turn it into something. It does not need to be binding. To me it is an exercise that you start with. And when you're starting out, when you're saying, but I think to answer the question, I think it can be helpful as an individual story, and for a show. I want to do, what is the purpose of your show? What is your show going to do that is different, or interesting, or new? How is it going to be surprising? So, absolutely. But I think it's an absolutely useful exercise and I go through it, I really do. I try to think, I'm doing a story about this, and it's interesting because of what? What is the interesting thing? I go through it all the time. And I go through it when I'm trying to forward promote. And I'm going to talk about that later, but when I'm trying to set up the stories that I'm telling. But you don't want to like, if you're out there and you've come up with your story formula and you're like, other things are more interesting, that's okay. You can kick out the story formula. It's just a way of getting you started and getting you organized.
Great, now I know we had a couple of examples come in, but Bethany and we've had a number of other people voting for this. They'd love to know, would you be able to provide another example of how the formula evolves as you interview people and learn more about the story that you're trying to tell.
Yes, let me see. Can I talk about how the formula evolves? Let me see, I'm trying to think of some examples. I'm trying to think of some recent examples from Start Up, I feel like that has been sort of an evolving story as I've been going forward. Like, I thought it was going to be one thing, and it has turned into a bunch of other things. (speaking low off mic)
What'd you think it was going to be first, and then what has it become?
I thought it was, good question. So I though Start Up was going to be about, I thought it was just going to be following the journey, I thought the interest of it was just going to be tension that's inherent in it, the tension with my wife, about whether or not this is a good idea or not, and sort of the ups and downs and the stresses of it. That was definitely what it started out being. It was just like, what was interesting was it was a story about business, and what's interesting about it is it's actually a story about human drama at home. It's actually a story about a family in peril, essentially. (laughing) And it was a little bit, and that's sort of how it started out. But then I was learning all these other interesting things along the way and so each episode sort of became a different thing. And Episode Four it ended up being why people invest in a company in the first place. And I thought I knew why people invested, I thought they invested because they thought you were going to make them money. But that's like one, it's not a tiny part, but it's certainly not the only part. And what we found is people invest for all sorts of crazy reasons. And that became the story. So that would have become the new X and Y, this is a story about investment, and what's interesting is because a lot of reasons people invest has nothing to do with money. And so that became that story. So, yeah, definitely evolves, yeah.