The Art of Storytelling – Ira Glass / This American Life

Mar 26


Sometime in 2006, Guy Kawasaki asked Seth Godin:

Question: What is an example of company that created a brand by conducting a dialogue with customers?

Answer: You don’t know many either, do you Guy? Ahh, we agree! I think that while markets are conversations, marketing is a story. Starbucks creates conversations among customers, so does Apple. The NYSE makes a fortune permitting people to interact with each other. But great marketing is storytelling, and if you’ve been to a Broadway show lately, you’ll notice that audience participation is discouraged. That doesn’t mean that great playwrights don’t listen! They do. They, like great marketers, listen relentlessly. They engage in offline conversations constantly. They poll and they do censuses and most important, they have true conversations with small groups of real people. But THEN, they tell a story.

(Source: Guy Kawasaki – How to Change the World: Ten Questions with Seth Godin)


So, lets talk about storytelling…

One of my all-time favorite radio shows is This American Life on NPR. Great show, ha?

Hold on, rewind, never heard of it? Here are three great episodes:

Superpowers [read more about this episode)


[direct download link - right-click and save]

First Day [read more about this episode)


[direct download link - right-click and save]

Mind Games [read more about this episode)


[direct download link - right-click and save]

A master class in storytelling. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, has spent years telling stories, and getting stories told. In one of the more popular GEL talks, Ira described the elements of a good story:


Want more TAL?

The 19 Most Loved Episodes of This American Life (

This American Life – Our Favorites (


So what are the components of a good story?

Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part #1:

Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part #2:

Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part #3:

Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part #4:

“The Power of the anecdote is so great…No matter how boring the material is, if it is in story form…there is suspense in it, it feels like something’s going to happen. The reason why is because literally it’s a sequence of events…you can feel through its form [that it's] inherently like being on a train that has a destination…and that you’re going to find something…”

— Ira Glass

Good stories have a particular structure that is easy to learn.

Here are a few of Ira’s building blocks:

  • In its most basic form – a story is really just a sequence of actions/events – first this happened, then this, then that, etc.
  • It feels like something is about to occur.
  • It’s not about logic, it’s not about argument or reason, it’s about motion.
  • Action action action, thought (anecdote), moments of reflection.
  • Listening to the actions is not as satisfying, if you don’t go on to “what’s the bigger universal something that this moment is an example of?”
  • Before you start working on your story, plan a universal take-away. Name it. Stories make a point.
  • Provide a “bait.” The anecdote should raise a question right from the beginning.
  • Raise questions, provide a moment of reflection for the reader/viewer/listener to answer them in their head, then answer them yourself.
  • Suspense – created by the sense of forward motion. Hold people’s attention
  • Why is this moment so powerful?
  • Pattern: alternate between anecdote and moment of reflection
  • Good stories have characters in them.
  • Good stories make people stick around / don’t want to leave.
  • Essay form vs. “something is about to happen”
  • Have something surprising. Surprising moments tell you more than anything else
  • Humor is important. Lack of funniness is failure.
  • Discover things (and let the viewer/reader/listener discover them with you). Give them a new thought, a new way of looking at things.
  • Storytelling is not always about the story, it’s about getting across a feeling
  • Music, sounds, visuals add to the story (suspense, feelings, emotions, etc)
  • Who is your target audience? Who are you telling this story to?
  • Talk like yourself, be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to talk like the people you hear on TV/radio.
  • Inherent in a story, is the personality and emotion of that person telling it.
  • You are a part of the story, but don’t be the main part of the story.
  • You need some drama, interaction with others, to make the story interesting. Have your characters interact with other people / each other.
  • Discovering / writing great stories is hard work.
  • Video and audio production is about hard work and a bit of luck. You have to record a lot of stuff to make something memorable.
  • If it doesn’t work…quit. NEXT. Move on to another story.
  • It takes a long time to get good.

Is creative advertising = story telling?

IKEA – Save the Lamp:

Epuron – Mr. W:

Discovery Channel – Milk Truck

EDS – Cat Herder

Lets see: A sequence of actions, then a thought (anecdote) √  Moments of reflection √  Universal something (truth) √  Suspense √  Surprising moment √  Sound/visuals that lead to emotions √  Interesting characters √  Humor √  Drama √  Discovery √  Getting across a feeling √

One comment

  1. Jade Douglas /

    Really enjoyed the u tube videos!


  1. The Art Of Storytelling « mmmajorly yummy - [...] [...]

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