Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (above) are in the middle of recording a second-season episode of their colossally popular science podcast Radiolab…when the phone rings.
Abumrad picks up.
He hands the phone to Krulwich.
“Thank you. Hello?”
“ROBERT? I can’t believe you’re still there – what are you DOING there?”
“What do you mean, ‘what am I doing there‘, I’m…”
“You were supposed to be home an HOUR ago.”
Krulwich’s wife, Tamar, is furious.
“Tamar, Tamar, I’m…I’m still…”
“I DON’T CARE!”
“What do you mean, you don’t…”
“I don’t CARE. You were supposed to be home an HOUR ago.”
And so the conversation goes, for the next couple of minutes.
We know how it went because Abumrad quietly pressed “record” and captured the whole thing – because it was just perfect for the episode they were recording, Where Am I?, investigating the bonds between the brain and the body.
Abumrad’s instincts as an award-winning storyteller kicked in. Yes, this was way off script – and normally, it would just get edited out. But what if it was left in?
That story with Robert’s wife is one of my favorites too. I love how they go from their amateur (and not bad!) acting to just laughing at each themselves. Very lovely moment and totally a surprise.
So, maybe they re-recorded the argument – but it certainly happened in the first place, and they were smart enough to work it into the show. It’s a funny, human scene that illustrates a point – and it’s a great piece of storytelling.
But – why?
If you’re a news reporter, you’re trained to write stories up like this:
1) FIRST PARAGRAPH – Sum up the whole story, giving away the ending in the process.
2) SECOND PARAGRAPH – Sum up the story again, but with more detail.
3) THIRD+ PARAGRAPHS – Explain all the details.
Upsides to this:
At first glance, if you’re a big media publisher, this looks sensible. It allows people to scan lots of your stories really quickly, which is great if you’re a platform delivering enormous quantities of news every day. It also helps the reader share the stories without reading all of them – which is apparently good news for media companies desperate for social media mentions. (Twisted, I know.)
– if you, as a reader, share something without reading it, and it turns out to be either flawed or more nuanced than your superficial understanding of it, you can easily look like a massive idiot.
– it’s the slippery slope towards the death of understanding. (Hey, no biggie.)
– if you’re a writer, it means people don’t actually read your stuff anymore. They skim it, they scan the opening summary and they skip to the most important bits – but they don’t read it. So it doesn’t stick in their memory in the way a great story does – and it doesn’t persuade in the same way either.
– the brains of your readers kinda hate it. Because you’re not telling a story – you’resummarising a story. Those readers are held at a distance. They don’t get immersed to the point their brain thinks the story is actually happening to them. They’re not “swept away”. The whole experience is abstract and abbreviated – and only stays in the reader’s mind until the next piece of news drives it out.
Luckily, there’s a much better way.
Here’s how you tell a story like the best of the best…
And it involves, well, lying.
I recently listened to an interview with Alex Blumberg, CEO and co-founder of podcasting network Gimlet Media.
Gimlet’s shows (Startup, Reply All, Mystery Show, Surprisingly Awesome, Science Vs and Sampler) are brilliantly crafted, enormously popular – and Gimlet is currently clearing at least $2 million a year in income.
These three things are absolutely related.
Their secret? They really know how to make people care about the stories they tell – and at the heart of it is discovery.
When Blumberg or any of his co-hosts narrate an episode, they could very easily do the news-reporter thing. They, sitting in their studio with the microphone on, are at the end of the story they’re about to tell, and they know everything there is to know about it.
They have 20/20 hindsight over the whole thing.
They know exactly how this story ends – and they could act like it.
Instead, they lie.
Instead of sounding like the all-knowing person they are today, they narrate as if they’re experiencing the story for the first time.
(Radiolab also uses sound cues – dun-dun-DUNN! for a moment of revelation, spacious silence for a moment of “woah!” reflection, and so on. Abumrad made his name as a sound engineer, and his use of sound to facilitate discovery is now a thing of legend.)
If they successfully depict the experience of discovery, their listeners get caught up in the thrill of a mystery being solved, a question being answered in real-time, the unknown being stripped away – but not immediately. It takes time.
When you hear a story being told and it’s riddled with uncertainty…
(What happens next? How are they going to get out of this one? How will it end? Is Robert Krulwich heading for a divorce?)
…you can’t look away or hit the off-switch. You don’t yet have the answers you crave – and in experiencing the journey towards those answers, you become curious, then hooked, then enthralled. And then you realise the world isn’t going crazy after all, and it’s boundless and thrillingly unknowable and endlessly fascinating – and you experience wonder.
And that’s what drives great storytelling.
Click here to watch Radiolab‘s Krulwich explain this process better than I ever could.
And then listen to Radiolab‘s story of a balloon, a breeze and two English girls. (It will blow your mind – but I won’t spoil it for you.)
Tips For Telling Discovery-Driven Stories
1. Forget Who You Are Now. Focus on who you were. Sound like that person. Pretend you only know what that person knew, back then, before you had all the answers. Only break this rule when you’re teasing the reader about something to come (remember my obsession with Breaking Bad‘s foreshadowing?).
2. Show The Process Of Discovery. Don’t skip ahead. Write out those moments of revelation. Play them out in front of your reader, so they can really feel them. Pull your readers in – and keep them hooked by keeping the revelations coming, again and again.
3. Guard Your Endings. Assume that as soon as your readers have enough endings to satisfy them, they’ll walk away. It’s your job to keep them reading. So only give away your endings when you have no choice. When you deliver all your endings, your story starts to die. They’re that important.
Thanks for reading – and happy storytelling!