You've Got Questions, I've Got Answers
Remember last time I wrote, when I told you that I was super, duper busy and stressed?

Well, guess what...

It's gotten worse.

Luckily, 'stressed' is kinda my baseline. It's where I'm the happiest. It's where I do my best work. It's where I feel most inspired.

I am not a person who enjoys too much time to dawdle. If I have 20 hours to write a 2000 word script, it will take me 22 hours to write a 2000 word script.

But for a number of years, I took the train into Boston every day. And on that train ride I would have exactly 55 minutes to write a 2000 word script.

I'd settle into one of the few table seats, glare at the person across from me to make clear that I was claiming my rightful share of the table space, and get to work.

And you know what? I'd usually get it done with a few minutes to spare.
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(To be totally fair, by the time I get around to "writing" a script, I've already spent hours and hours going through my tape. I've pulled my cuts. Edited my cuts. Structured my story. I've already made all the difficult decisions. That's why I can write a 2000 word script in less than an hour.)

So anyway, in the spirit of "no time to dawdle," I've compiled a list of questions y'all have sent me. I'm going to set my timer for 55 minutes. Let's see how many questions I can get through!

All Aboard?
Train photo by me, from the before times. Wasn't that a pretty sunset? Totally matched the purple of Boston's purple line.
"I don't think in stories but in 'issues', argh! How can I learn to think like a storyteller?"

Argh, indeed! This is the hardest thing to figure out when going from "traditional" reporting to "narrative storytelling." Truth is, you're probably not going to break yourself out of the "issues" habit right away. So go ahead, start with an issue. But then approach it like a story.

How?

Delve into the history of the issue. Where did this problem come from? When did it start? How did we get to where we are now?

Or…

Find a stakeholder -- a person who was directly impacted by this issue. Tell their story. Their personal story. Beat by beat.

The important part…

Resist the urge to talk to experts. Try not to layer in loads of statistics. Instead, focus on a sequence of events. Find the tension. Find the surprises. And remember, narrative is all about "show, don't tell." Don't just replace the analysis you'd get from an expert with analysis from a historian or stakeholder.

Allow the chronology of your story to "show" the listener what they need to know.

"What if you have too much "hot tape", too many good options...how do you figure out what's the best clip to use?"

I know this is going to sound counterintuitive...

But don't build your story around your best clips.

Tell the story that you've decided to tell...and pick the clips that best support that story.

Look, whenever I do an interview, I come out of my "interview closet" with at least three different stories. The story I planned to tell. The story the interview subject wants me to tell. And the story I end up telling.

But really, there are an endless number of possibilities! There's the story I didn't know about. The story I didn't consider. The story that revealed itself to me halfway through the interview.

This is where a theme comes in handy -- some sort of guiding idea that you can keep coming back to, again and again.

Here's an example:

I had a rough draft due last week for a project I've been working on since March. I've done 15 interviews. I have hours and hours and hours of "hot tape."

Seriously...so, so, so much "hot tape."

And I somehow needed to narrow it all down into episodes that contain a reasonable number of voices and one compelling thought that ties everything together.

When I was researching and interviewing for this episode, I thought that my "compelling thought" was going to be "girl power." That's what I built my questions around.

But when I listened back through all my tape, I realized my "compelling thought" was "see it, be it."

(Yeah, I know this example probably doesn't make a lot of sense out of context. Just know that the distinction was small-ish, but quite important.)

Once I realized that "see it, be it" was my focus, I knew I was going to use the anecdotes that best supported that idea.

And I also knew that the only clips that belonged in my story were the clips that allowed me to build a narrative around the concept of "see it, be it."

That's it. Nothing else made the cut.

Be brutal.

People will forget your "hot tape." But they will remember how your story made them feel. So focus on that.

"What tips do you have for turning someone's 3-minute version of a story into a 1-minute version? I pride myself on being a good summarizer/editor for print. Finding it harder for audio."

Okay, I usually find myself making multiple passes through my tape. Listening. Editing. Listening. Editing. Listening some more. Editing again.

First pass, get the story in chronological order. People tend to start in the middle and then back up to tell you something you need to know to understand what's going to happen later. All of this back and forth results in a lot of repetition. So first...fix the chronology.

Second pass, look for places where the person repeats themselves, explains something they didn't need to explain, or gives details that don't pertain to your larger narrative. Delete, delete, delete.

Third pass, look for places where the person takes 20 words to say something you can explain in 5. Replace their 20 words with your narration totaling five words. Save a ton of time.

Once you've done all that... ask yourself the bigger question. Why am I putting a time limit on this anecdote? Is it compelling enough to hold for 90 seconds? Two minutes? Five minutes?

If you made a story of one-minute anecdotes, it would get old real quick. You want to mix up the pacing. Some anecdotes will take two minutes. Others will be :30 seconds. It's all good.

"Going beyond the experts to find "real" people to capture on compelling / emotionally-driven tape."

Stop talking to experts. No, really. Just stop. They're boring. And guarded. And rarely emotional. And they have an agenda that doesn't align with good storytelling.

That's the easy part. The hard part is finding those "real" people.

And okay, you're gonna laugh at me here, but…

Ask an expert! Seriously. Go to the person I just told you to ignore and say, "I'd like to humanize this story. So I'm looking for someone who has experienced X. Is there someone you could introduce me to?"

Ask your friends. You know people. You are not a hermit. Use those contacts!

Go on social media. Look for people who have commented on posts made by advocacy organizations. Or people who have already shared their personal story.

If that doesn't work...make a post yourself! Invite people to contact you. You'.. be surprised at who you hear from.

"I want to educate people without lecturing them, and to make them feel empowered to do something constructive with what they have learned. It's a fine line between being frank/truthful, and having people shut down and not listen to the main message because they feel attacked. I find that as a BIPOC person, white people can be really defensive about topics like cultural appropriation and race. My goal with my storytelling is to get my mainstream (target) audience invested in the issues of the marginalized communities I talk about on the show."

Whew. That's a big one.

Let me start here. We'd all love our storytelling to change the world.

And, let's face it, there's so much of this world that really needs changing.

For me, I believe the power of narrative storytelling is in the "show, don't tell." So whenever I'm dealing with an issue that might make some people get defensive, I try to make my storytelling as bare as possible.

What do I mean by that?

This is going to sound odd, but I avoid adjectives. I don't say that someone was treated horribly. I describe the horrible treatment, in painful detail, and let the listener come to the conclusion that the treatment was, in fact, horrible.

I avoid analysis. I avoid drawing conclusions. But I construct my story in a way that -- I hope -- will lead my listener to the right conclusion.

I trust my listener. If they're open-minded, they won't need me to tell them how to feel. If they're not open-minded, then there's nothing I can do or say to change their mind.

So, last week I did an episode about transgender athletes. Definitely a topic that gets people riled up. And my focus wasn't on sharing the science or dismantling arguments made by those who oppose trans inclusion in sports -- though there was a little of that.

My focus was on introducing my audience to one trans athlete and, hopefully, allowing them to see the issue through his eyes.

For some reason, your question made me think of Humans of New York.

When I think of the profiles that stick with me, they follow this really simple pattern.

  1. They make me care about a person I've never met.
  2. They use that person's experiece to show me something about the world I might not otherwise understand.
That's it.

It takes a lot of discipline to strip down your storytelling like that. But personally, I find it really effective. Because first, I have to keep people listening. And then, I might just have a shot at changing their minds.

"Creating suspense. It's so hard to know how to build a story effectively when you already know the ending."

Oh man...this was such a difficult thing to wrap my brain around when I first came to storytelling.

My favorite example here is the movie, Hidden Figures. I love that movie for so many reasons. But the scene I want you to remember is near the end of the movie, when John Glenn goes up into orbit.

Now, we all know that he's going to make it home just fine, right? I mean, maybe I'm old, but I remember Senator John Glenn. And since he wasn't a senator when he went up into orbit, I know that he's not gonna burn up on reentry.

But somehow, the movie had me on the edge of my seat. What's going to happen?!? Is he going to make it home?!?

And literally, I was sitting in the movie theater thinking, "How did they do this?"

Okay, so this is how they did it…

(And I get it, this is a movie. And Hollywood probably made the whole thing more exciting than it really was.)

The movie sits in the moment of uncertainty -- the moment where something went wrong.

The movie slows down. Pauses to almost real time -- maybe slower than real time.

It brings you into the minds of people who didn't know whether John Glenn was gonna make it home. Where were they? How did they first learn that something was wrong? What were they watching? What did they say to each other?

They draw the moment out. They make you feel it.

As narrative storytellers, our job is to find those moments of uncertainty. And then we ask our interview subjects to describe them. In detail.

This is where the interviewer has to be paying attention. Because the interview subject is going to want to skip to the end -- where everything turned out just fine.

Your job is to say, "That's great. I'm so glad it worked out. But I want to go back…"

Given half a chance, most people will share rich details about those fears, those worries, those moments when they didn't know how it was going to turn out.

And then, when you put your story together, take your time. Let the moments of uncertainty linger.

<take a deep breath>

<take another deep breath>

<pretend like you're in yoga class>

Resist the urge to let the listener know that it's all going to turn out okay...until you get to the part of the story where it does.


"Writing the script. I often know what I want to say, but not always sure how to say it. I want to keep my audience captivated the entire time. Also could use some work on creating interesting hooks."

Okay, can I just say...maybe you're trying too hard?

Look, I often get complimented on my writing. But I don't really write much. Mostly, I paraphrase.

I take the things people say to me and describe them more simply. In fewer words. (And often, with fewer adjectives. I'm not a big fan of adjectives!)

Sure...I want to make a story that hooks the listener.

But I do that by choosing a story that is captivating -- a subject who is compelling.

When it's time to sit down and write, I know that I have the bones of a good story.

And I just have to keep reminding myself, "Don't f it up."

Don't let your ego get in the way. Don't try to do too much. Don't try to sound smart or get distracted by shiny things that have nothing to do with your central thesis.

Don't try to be brilliant. Just try not to f it up.

Train selfie by me, from the before times.
Well, my timer has buzzed, my hypothetical train is pulling into the station, and that's gonna be it for today.

I have tons more questions on my list. Like, seriously, this could become a thing.

Do you have a question you'd like me to answer? Please, send it my way! You can reply back to this email. Or, if you skipped it the first time around, answer the survey.

I'll be back in two weeks. And maybe we'll do this Q+A thing again? I had fun!

Karen