I didn’t realize how much I had to learn about storytelling until I needed to create the most important stories of my career.
For over a year, I worked on Side Effects for the National Credit Union Foundation, our groundbreaking documentary series of 18 interconnected films, essays, and audio episodes about the financial crisis of cancer in America, and how credit unions can make a difference.
Check out the new audio episode about how one unconventional loan decision helped save a member’s life.
Even though I’ve written books, essays, and produced a variety of film and photo projects, I didn’t want to assume that those experiences would fully prepare me for the demands of Side Effects. I love credit unions, the Foundation, and cancer patients too much to let my shortcomings as a storyteller torpedo Side Effects before it got started.
To sharpen my skills, I studied This American Life, the iconic radio program and podcast from National Public Radio that has produced “little movies for radio” for nearly 5 million people every week for 26 years.
One of their producers, Alex Blumberg, wrote about what constitutes a good story:
Don’t confuse a story setting or topic with an actual story. “You can tell a lot about whether something’s a story entirely from the first question that occurs to you,” Blumberg says. “Literally, what’s the question that I want to answer, or the story I want to hear? If the questions seem obvious, chances are it’s a story.”
Just because something takes the form of a story doesn’t mean it’ll be an interesting one. The best stories, he asserts, always have a surprise that makes them stand out.
Blumberg developed a simple three-word test to identify the surprise that he calls the “and what’s interesting” formula: I’m doing a story about X , and what’s interesting about it is Y.
He uses a hypothetical story about a homeless guy as an example: I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.
In Blumberg’s test, even though there are undeniable benefits of treatment programs, there’s nothing surprising about this sequence of events. The story is on the wrong track; we need to solve for a different Y:
Y = “…and what’s interesting is, there’s a small part of him that misses being homeless.” Right track.
Y = “…and what’s interesting is, he fell in love while homeless, and is haunted by that love still.” Right track.
Y = “…and what’s interesting is, he learned valuable and surprising life lessons while homeless, lessons he applies regularly in his current job as an account manager for Oppenheimer mutual funds.” Right track.
As we embrace storytelling as a strategic priority, let’s leave the easy, predictable, and forgettable narratives to our competitors.
Let’s borrow from This American Life’s own description of their work, and create stories that “have compelling people at the center of them, funny moments, big feelings, surprising plot twists, and interesting ideas.”
Imagine how those stories could boost morale, help us stand out, and inspire our members.
Now that’s interesting.