We Are All Storytellers
A couple months ago, my husband and I were sitting in the balcony of a theater, waiting for a musician to take the stage. I was excited about the show. Enjoying my husband's company. Totally happy to be there.

But for the life of me, I could not remember the name of the musician we were there to see.

This will not be shocking for those who know me. I'm really and truly terrible at names.

But maybe more importantly, whenever I'm asked to see live music – especially the signer-songwriter variety – I try to say yes. Because I always enjoy myself. Even if I hate the music.

Because in between musical interludes, singer-songwriters tend to tell stories.

And you know how I feel about stories.

So anyway, while we waited for this anonymous musician to take the stage, I got out my iPhone and started jotting down all the things I've learned about storytelling from watching live music.

(For the record, the "anonymous musician" was Shawn Colvin. And she was great!)
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Show Your Work

If we're really being honest, this is the thing I love the most about going to see live music. It's when the songwriter shares some of their process. Maybe it's the inspiration behind the song? Or the lyrics that they tried and then discarded?

A friend who went to a Crash Test Dummies concert in the early 90s told us all, over and over, how their big hit, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" got its name. According to the friend, the original lyrics to the chorus was "f---ing sh--ty, f---ing sh--ty". But they changed them to "mmm mmm mmm mmm" so that the song could be played on the radio.

(For the record, I tried to fact check this story with a quick google search. But the story was impossible to confirm, because of all of the articles were too busy talking about how "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" is a really terrible song.)

In journalism, we call this a "process" story. And process stories can be great, especially if you need to pull the listener along through complicated information. Or if your information is incomplete, or contradictory, or confusing.

A process story can really help you out.

Plus, sharing a little bit about your process can make your listener feel like part of the team. Like they're invested in the outcome.

But be careful. Not every process story is interesting. Or illuminating.

Sometimes they can just feel self-indulgent, especially if you're not clear on the reason why you're telling them.
Details, Details, Details

You know I love me a good detail.

Not ALL the details.

Not EVERY detail.

That gets boring. Tedious. The listener doesn't know which detail is important.

But some details just stick out. They're important. They have meaning.

Sometimes we call them "sticky."

And of course, because I am a storyteller, I now have a story about telling stories with great details.

So, it had to be about 20 years ago. Some friends called and asked if I wanted to go see a singer-songwriter named Richie Havens. I had never heard of Richie Havens.

I would later learn that he was the opening act at Woodstock. But, like I said, I'm a sucker for live music. So I went.

Turns out, I really did not enjoy the music that night. No offense, but it just wasn't my thing. For one, it was really loud. I remember my ears ringing. And, let's face it, one does not usually think about bringing earplugs to what they expect to be a folk concert!

But…I had a wonderful time, because Richie Havens told the BEST stories. Like, literally the best.

There's one story he told that has stuck in my mind, even after 20 years. I can still hear his voice as he tells it. I can feel the anticipation as he builds up the tension, beat by beat by beat.

It was the story of the first time Havens played in a "real" venue. Up until then, he'd been playing mostly in coffee shops. Often they were dingy little basement venues. Or sometimes, you'd have to climb up a flight of stairs or two, to the lower rent venues on the second or third floor.

But this venue was on the ground floor. Havens kept repeating that detail, as the story twisted and turned.

"You didn't have to go up the stairs. You didn't have to go down the stairs."

"Ground floor."

It was such a small detail, but it spoke of struggle and anticipation and dreams.

"Ground floor."

Look for the details in your story that feel "sticky." They're memorable. Important. And they often have a deeper meaning.

And then, lean into them. Call back to them. Use them as a touchpoint to keep the listener engaged with your story.
Build up the Surprise

Okay, so in essence, the crux of the "ground floor" story was that Havens had heard someone play a song. And, as musicians do, Havens asked if he could cover it. The guy said sure, and so Havens started performing the song, always giving credit to the guy who had given him permission to play it.

But when he played the song at his first real "ground floor" gig, the room got quiet. Awkward. And everyone turned around to look at this one guy, standing at the bar.

Until suddenly, the guy at the bar declared Havens' performance to be the best version of the song he had ever heard.

As it turned out, the guy at the bar happened to be the person who ACTUALLY wrote the song.

He also happened to be Bob Dylan.

When I tell you the story like that, with little more than the basic facts, it's mildly interesting. Maybe a tad bit funny.

But when Havens told it, building it up, taking us along for all of the twists and turns on his way to his first, real "ground floor" venue, the audience was HERE for it.

We didn't know where this was going, but he dropped enough hints along the way for us to know that this first, real "ground floor" gig was going to go terribly, terribly wrong.

He finally revealed the name of the man who had actually written the song almost as an afterthought. With no fanfare. Almost like a footnote. As if it wasn't REALLY the point of the story.

"That's a heck of a way to meet Bob Dylan."

And then he launched into the song.

We rolled. Tears streaming down our faces.

It's 20 years later, and I still find it funny.

(And you know, he was right. The story was about SO much more than Bob Dylan.)

Sometimes, in order for a story to land, you've got to give it time and space. You've got to lean into the tension. Lean into the details. Really build it out.
Pick Your Moments

Okay, I just told you to take your time...build the tension...don't be in a hurry.

And now I'm gonna tell you that you can't do that with every beat of your story.

Look, if Richie Havens had told us the "ground floor" version of every story for every song, there wouldn't have been time for the actual songs.

(Which, frankly, would be fine by me. I was only there for the stories!)

But even in the world of podcasting, where there is no clock counting down the seconds of a 3 minute, 45-second story, we still have to pay attention to time.

And so how do you "take your time" while also not creating stories that drone on and on and on?

As a story editor, I see a lot of reporters facing this dilemma. They're worried that their piece is too long, so they'll start cutting details out of every single beat of their story.

They'll snip out a detail here. A reflection there. Skipping past all the tension in the middle, in order to get to the resolution faster.

But by doing that, your anecdotes lose their power. They become a string of unimportant details.

Instead, rid yourself of the belief that you have to include every beat of the story.

More is not necessarily better.

Skip the anecdotes that don't change anything. If you have a string of anecdotes that are all examples of the same thing, try combining them into one graph, using just the punchlines.

Find ways to shorten the connective tissue. Move the story forward more quickly.

And then really dig in and focus on the anecdotes that have tension. Or suspense. Or surprise. Or deep, deep meaning.

That's where the magic is.
Timing and Flow

I'm gonna switch up the analogy a little here, but it's still music related. So please, stick with me.

As every good wedding DJ knows, you can't just play a dozen fast songs in a row. You gotta slow it down every once in a while. Give the couples the chance to get lovey-dovey.

And give the single people the chance to refill their drinks and pee!

But if you play too many slow songs in a row, people are going to get bored and start heading for the door.

The real key is getting just the right mix. A string of fast songs until the young people start to get tired. Then slow it down, and get a whole new crowd onto the dance floor.

The same thing is true of your stories.

There's a lot of debate about the proper cadence for audio stories. I've heard Ira Glass say that the perfect length for an audio anecdote is 75-seconds. String enough 75-second long anecdotes together, and you've got the perfect story for audio.

And maybe he's right? He is super smart…

Or maybe there is no perfect length? Maybe perfection comes from variation? Using the speed at which you tell the story as another storytelling tool?

Speeding up the action when you want your story to sound active, frantic, hurried.

Slowing it down when you want to express emotion, wisdom, serenity.

Letting your story feel loud at times and slow at times. Letting it feel soft and hard. And funny and sad. And smart and silly.

Don't be like Nickelback, using the same chords over and over and over again.

Because, really, nobody likes Nickelback.

Nobody.
I've been getting a lot of questions about story structure lately, so I think it might be time to bring back my "WTF is Story Structure" workshop -- featuring .gifs from The Princess Bride.

It's a super fun -- and super informative -- workshop. Cost will be $50. But as always, I'll offer help to those who can't afford to pay.

I usually hold these things on Sundays, in the early afternoon, Eastern time. But if there's a time of day (or a day of the week) that you would prefer, please just reply to this email and let me know. I'll take that into account when scheduling.

And, as always, if you're interested in supporting this newsletter, consider joining the Narrative Beat community. It's not about the perks (the perks are admittedly very small) but it does help me pay my Mailchimp bill!
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