Ira Glass on Getting People Into a Story: “You Gotta Be Tricky”

Ira Glass of This American Life.

From the commencement speech of Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio show This American Life, at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism:

I really believe that the more idealistic your mission, the more cunning you have to employ to get people to engage with what you have to say.

On our show, we did two hours from the refugee camps in Greece, and we were very aware that if we said at the top of the show “Okay, great! America! Two hours from refugee camps in Greece!” I think any reasonable person would turn off the radio. Like that’s just too sad.

But being cunning means, for starters, you have to get really hardcore about how you begin those stories. How you’re going to pull people in and get them listening.

And again, this is kind of a terrible thing to say. . .but our goal is to get them pulled in and listening before they actually understand what the story’s about.

And before we went to Greece, a bunch of us sat around a table and brainstormed about what we could possibly do at the beginning of those shows.

And we thought, okay maybe a couple falling in love.

Maybe something with kids, and we brainstormed what that would be. Or basically any little narrative with someone fun to listen to. We could get the characters going. . .let plot kick in. . .so the audience is invested in these people and would want to see how the plot would play out.

I have to say, this is one of the great strengths of narrative for a journalist, is that you can get audiences to listen to material they might think they’re not interested in, simply by getting them caught up in the people and wondering what will happen next, like, what’s the next beat of the plot. That’s enormously powerful.

The thing we actually started those shows with. . .I remember I was reporting in this camp called Ritsona and this thing happened and I was like, “Oh, this is the opening of the show!”

And what it was, they were showing me around the camp, and every now and then someone would mention, “Oh yeah, and then there’s the wild boars that come out at night.”

I was like, “The wild boars that come out at night?”

They were these giant wild pigs. The camp was in the forest. And at night, these wild boars would roam between the tents. So if you had a little kid who wanted to pee or whatever, it was actually pretty dangerous to leave your tent. You’d have to time it around the wild pigs.

And everybody had pictures of the pigs, and stories about the pigs. And one of the older guys had set up this trap in the woods that was not gonna work at all. Like, I made him take me out there and show me the trap.

And I was like, okay, this is so surprising. This can open the show.

You gotta be tricky.

What Ira Glass is describing is using the anecdotal lead typical of narrative journalism. When writing a narrative story, you look back at all the scenes to see if there’s one that will get the reader into the story. Glass is making the case that with stories about a subject that probably will turn off the reader, you may have to search hard for a good anecdotal lead.

This month’s Washingtonian has a good narrative, by Luke Mullins, about the shooting at a practice for the annual Congressional baseball game. The story’s head: “9 Minutes of Terror.” The lead here was pretty obvious with no need for trickery: Start with what happened that began the life-and-death story:

The first shot ripped across the baseball diamond at 7:08 a.m.


What the f— was that?” said Representative Rodney Davis.

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