Our storytellers come from widely different backgrounds (they include a housecleaner from Brazil who is in the U.S. illegally, a postal worker, a tenured university professor, a retired high school teacher, a Cambodian immigrant, a blue-blooded Bostonian, a Jewish grandmother, victims of domestic violence, and seers of past lives). But their stories share a common goal: to give listeners a feeling for what it is like “to be the other guy.”
In public radio, stories that make a strong personal connection with a listener are said to have driveway potential—i.e., they keep the listener glued to the radio, even after he has parked his car. At their best, these stories also make us want to retell them, in our own words, to someone else. Whatever their style or subject, stories this vivid and infectious tend to have some common elements:
A dramatic story line that whets our appetite for what happens next
Specific incidents, behaviors, and details that are easy to visualize (not, for example, “Full of self-reproach, I took it out on others,” but “I came home and kicked the dog”)
A narrator with a genuine tone of voice, able to express or suggest the emotions the story inspires
Most of us are not professional raconteurs, able to tell a great personal anecdote to a stranger on demand; so, how do you get people with little or no radio experience to talk on the radio about something significant that happened to them in a way you just can’t forget?
Basically, get them to feel that the experience they want to tell us is happening to them there and then. We are all born storytellers, I believe, hardwired to make sense of important experiences by shaping and passing them on in story form. The closer we get to the heat of the moment that our story is about, the more lively, compelling, and relevant the details of our account are likely to be.
At Morning Stories, we have learned that one of the most effective ways of getting vivid, first-person accounts is through an hour-long recorded “talk” with the producer. Starting with the topic or experience he wants to explore, the storyteller is encouraged to re-experience some of the moments and feelings that most moved him in the past and that move him now. In the course of the hour, we can usually get more than enough images and incidents from which a three-to six-minute story can be edited. On occasion, a fully formed story takes shape on its own.
Talk might be the wrong word to use, because in this process, the main job of the producer is to listen—actively—with all his senses and imagination, for what the teller says that strikes a genuine human response and for what the teller has not yet said that might make the story take full shape and come alive.
Is the teller giving you images and details you can respond to, or can flesh out with memories and experiences of your own?
One of the great powers of audio as a medium is that it involves us in finishing the picture with sensory memories and images from our own experiences. This is part of the process that lets us turn someone else’s story into our own.
The villain the storyteller brings to life in her own story becomes real to each of us in our own way—based on my own experiences, my villain might have a mustache, a dark felt hat, and a limp, and yours might not. But both are real.
The teller’s tone of voice is a crucial part of his story. It reflects the emotions, spoken and unspoken, that he feels. The more you can encourage him to experience the emotions his story brings up, the more real and richer his tone of voice will be.
Listen to what he is feeling as he speaks, reinforce the feeling if it seems vague, and when in doubt, make sure you’ve got him right. “You must have been scared…” or “What an embarrassing situation…” or “That makes me feel sad” are examples of responses that let the teller know you’re listening to what he is feeling and that you want to know more.
Regardless of whether you actually talk about it out loud, be aware of what in your own life the teller’s story is bringing spontaneously to mind. Can you see, hear, smell, or feel what the person is describing in your own mind, out of pieces from your own memories and experiences? Are you interested, vitally, in what happens next because it has touched on something that matters deeply to you? Is what he is saying perhaps leading to someplace you have already been? Is he leaving a clue that might lead you both to where the story wants to go?
We have discovered that most of the stories we end up using on Morning Stories are not the stories the tellers start out thinking they are going to tell. Rather, they are the stories that come to life as part of the process of talking and being listened to.
In a sense, during the hour they spend together, the storyteller and producer are on a journey through only partially mapped territory, with the teller leading and the producer one step behind. The teller’s job is to report what he sees and feels, and the producer’s job is to follow behind, to keep the storyteller from wandering off track. Trusting the process will get you both where you need to go.