In the world of NPR Geeks Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” is utterly revered. Because I was fortunate enough to see him in person at a recent NPR event in Tampa I got to learn, first hand, why he’s so revered.
Ira, a sharply dressed, wise-cracking, incredibly humble guy, kicked off the evening by talking about the unique power of radio in reaching people’s heads, hearts and minds. Hearing about his life experience as a radio journalist made for an entertaining 2 hours, but I was most struck by his observations about the “design” that goes into broadcast journalism. Through a series of audio samples from traditional media (CNN, etc.) juxtaposed with those from Ira’s show, you could hear the use of good storytelling in the quality of the writing, the use of narrative and humor and music, and the thoughtful editing that constructs a story using pacing, tension, and drama to elicit curiosity, connection, and emotion with the listener.
1. Broadcasting Content vs. Storytelling with Content
Most broadcasting is a fairly boring, passive experience for an audience. Information is reported. Short clips are played and context is interspersed by the journalist. For the most part this style of broadcasting is economical information sharing; not designed to engage you in critical thinking or reflection. It wants only that you sit in your seat and watch and listen…and tune in tomorrow.
Storytelling, on the other hand, is a much more engrossing experience. It’s almost a conversation between the audience, the protagonist(s) and the storyteller. By using a narrative approach – an opening hook that sets the stage, or a question followed by an explanation – and then another hook/question, etc., the storyteller gets out of the way and establishes a cadence or rhythm that brings the listener along. Brief pauses for silence, some interstitial music sprinkled throughout, and even the humorous observations of our protagonists become part of the story’s fabric, because they serve to add depth and complexity and feeling. All of this ambience helps the audience to emotionally and intellectually engage with information in a deeper, more satisfying way.
So what’s the L&D take-away? For me it was the recognition that I spend a good deal of my time trying to steer people away from a “broadcasting” approach and towards a storytelling one. Further understanding the distinction really gives me a good metaphor I can use when discussing the value of creative treatment of material. Does compliance training need to be delivered in the form of a story? Maybe or maybe not. But it’s an option and we shouldn’t be afraid to use the “e” word (emotion) when we discuss learning.
2. Humor Is a Powerful Tool
Speaking of emotion, Ira spoke at length about the importance of incorporating levity into the stories he crafts for “This American Life.” He pointed out that traditional media side-lines humorous content so that everything is neatly segmented like a Toddler’s plate with serious content over here, human interest over there, and a dash of absurd/humorous content off to the side for dessert. It’s formulaic, and trite, and boring.
But with storytelling, humor and levity are powerful tools for breaking the tension and humanizing the characters. Humor, when used well, builds connection between characters and audience and builds curiosity. This is the stuff of deep thinking and engagement.
The L&D take-away? Humor and levity can be challenging to pull-off without coming across as cheesy or contrived. But whether you decide to side-line it, feature it, or avoid it, humor is a powerful tool for creating an authentic human experience and establishing connection between ideas (information) and emotions (behaviors) in our audience. And isn’t that what learning should be about?
3. Make Content Contributors Audition for You
Ira discussed the process they use for finding stories/content and then editing that material for the show. One of the most surprising things was hearing how much time was spent on the process of “auditioning content” and how much of it actually never makes the cut. Turns out, Ira and his team are so good at what they do, people come to them and “pitch” their ideas for stories. Sometimes there’s good alignment between content and format and audience right off the bat. Sometimes there’s some potential and they pursue it. Often they reject the idea outright because the show’s style of storytelling is the wrong approach or because it’s just not a good fit for their audience. But it’s this process of auditioning and scrutinizing and rigorously editing content that maintains the show’s credibility as a source for information AND perspectives you won’t get elsewhere. It is, in effect, the show’s brand.
While I’ve worked in L&D orgs that were highly sought-after by business partners, and even a few who had the organizational clout to act as a sort of “shark tank” with content contributors, this notion of taking a very editorial, critical eye to content and making it “audition” for its place in the Training Department’s line-up of courses, really resonated with me. How many of us see our L&D role, not as a critical value filter (an editor), but more as a producer whose job is to push every piece of content we’re given, out onto the eLearning stage, regardless of its merit? More importantly, what does your organization’s brand look like?