Scale Up Your Stories: A Cookie Analogy
So...a crazy analogy popped into my head this week. I don't know why. Maybe I was hungry?
It basically goes like this...
Imagine that you are really, really good at baking cookies. For real. People are lined up around the block to buy them from you.
Your cookies are THAT good.
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet?
Being a good capitalist, you would like to make as much money selling your cookies as you possibly can.
You have a couple of options.
You could work all day and all night in your home kitchen, mixing up the cookies, one batch at a time. Driving to the grocery store every time you run out of eggs or butter or flour.
And, let's face it, if you want those cookies to bake evenly, you can really only cook one tray at a time in your tiny oven. That's twelve measly cookies every 8-10 minutes.
That means a lot of hours. Standing in your kitchen. Covered in flour and sweat.
Or, you could order your ingredients wholesale, schedule time in a commercial kitchen and mix and bake dozens of cookies all at once.
(In this scenario, the cookies don't become any less delicious for being baked in bulk. In fact, they get even better...by some magic that does not increase the calories, chemicals or carcinogens.)
Sounds amazing, right? Like, why wouldn't you do that?
Well, this is what happens to your reporting when you approach it from a storytelling point of view.
A lot of people -- I'm looking at YOU, public radio -- seem to think that taking a narrative or storytelling approach is going to cost them more time, money and people power.
But I'm telling you, if you do it right, a storytelling approach doesn't just make your work better.
It can make it more efficient, too.
Storytelling is your commercial kitchen.
Let me explain.
Coming from a traditional reporting standpoint, I always thought that the longer the story, the more voices I needed.
So I might just need to interview one person for a :40 second newscast spot. But even if my story was only four minutes long, I would interview at least 3-4 different people.
For eight minutes, I'd try to double that.
And I couldn't even fathom how to get to 35.
After a while, I realized...there was such a sameness to it all.
Person A thinks Thing X is good.
Person B thinks Thing X is bad.
Person C was boring and didn't have much to say, but I put them in my story anyway, because otherwise I didn't have enough voices.
Frankly, as a listener, this type of reporting bores me. Like, I have literally find myself looking at the clock and saying, "We're only 2 minutes into this thing? How much more do I have to suffer through?!?"
But if you take a storytelling approach, you're not just asking pundits for the pros and cons of the latest news item.
You're asking people to walk you through, step by step, exactly how we got here. There will be surprises. Twists and turns. Drama. Suspense. Emotion.
And those boring pros and cons? They're still there -- but now they're part of the adventure.
It's no longer about finding a whole lot of different voices who will all say basically the same thing. Instead, it's about finding a good story (and a good storyteller) and leaning into it.
So, you don't need eight different voices to keep your listener engaged. You might only need one. Or two.
And instead of holding the listener's attention for four minutes, your story might have them gripped for 12.
Or an hour.
Yes, you have to think strategically. But if you do it right, you'll have a much better story, a.k.a. cookie. And you'll have made it with less cost and less frustration.
Okay, so I know what you're thinking. If it's so easy, then why do my favorite podcast series always start with the reporter telling me the number of YEARS it took them to make this podcast?
I have a few possible answers for you:
1. Just because a reporter was chasing a story for YEARS, that doesn't mean that they were working on it all that time. Many of us have projects that sit on the backburner, simmering away, until they're ready to be made.
2. Maybe you're not listening to a "story." Maybe you're listening to an "investigation." Investigations can and should take a LONG time to produce. (But unless you're filling out FOI requests and getting whistleblowers to go on record and running everything past three layers of lawyers, you're probably not doing an investigation.)
3. I hate to say it, but maybe the reporter was just working inefficiently? Trying to bake their cookies without figuring out the recipe first?
Now, let me say just one thing before I go any further with this analogy.
Please, please, please do not use the same recipe for every story. That would be like selling 12 different types of chocolate chip cookies and only changing the size of your chocolate chips.
But every story needs a recipe. And you need to familiarize yourself with that recipe before you start baking.
Ooops, I mean writing.
You wouldn't start mixing up a batch of cookies without some idea of what flavor you wanted them to be, would you?
Are they sweet? A little spicy? Chewy? Crispy? All of these attributes require different ingredients assembled in different ways. And a professional baker isn't just going to wing it and expect good results.
So why are you sitting down to write your story without some sense of what you want this story to be?
Is it a love story? A story about friendship? Or fairness? Or injustice?
What is your story's flavor profile?
What shape will your story take? Is it chronological? A broken narrative? Do you want to start at a tension point and then rewind? (That's called an "e" structure, and it's popular for good reason.)
Just like bakers use a different method for drop cookies than they do for cookies that are rolled and cut, the shape of your story is something you want to figure out early on. It affects what questions you ask and which cuts you pull.
And don't go mixing the dry ingredients without first checking your fridge to see if you have any eggs. Make sure you have all the voices you need before you start writing. Who's missing? What ingredient do you need to run to the store to buy?
(While we're talking about ingredients, you wouldn't buy out an entire grocery story before deciding what cookie you're going to make, would you? So why are you interviewing 12 different people and asking them every question that pops into your head before deciding what kind of story you're going to make? That's a guaranteed way of ending up with a whole lot of ingredients that just go bad in your fridge -- or hours and hours of interview tape that never see the light of day.)
Okay, I realize, my analogies are getting all mixed up. And the only thing I know for sure is that I'd really, really love some fresh baked cookies right about now.
Oh, and there's one more thing that I know. Deep in my bones.
Storytelling is not as hard or time consuming as people make it out to be. So pull out your recipe book, put on your apron and get baking!
If you like this little newsletter, please, please tell a friend. I promise, I won't always go on and on about cookies. But when I do, the cookies will likely be chocolate chip!