Ira Glass on Storytelling

This was originally written by Ira Glass at

Part 1: On the basics…

I mean, one of the things I think is really important if you’re making stories for television or radio is that you understand the building box of the stories.

And there are different ways to think about this.

One of the things you don’t want to do is you don’t want to think about it the way that you learned in high school, which is in high school we’re all taught that the way that you write is that there’s like a topic sentence and then there’s like the facts which fill out the argument.

In broadcasting it’s completely different.

In broadcasting I think you have two basic building blocks and they’re very powerful and you can use them as you will.

And one is the anecdote.

An anecdote is literally just a sequence of actions.

If you think of it as just like what is a story in its purest form?

A story in its purest form is somebody saying, this happened and that led to this next thing and that led to this next thing and that led to this next thing, like one thing following another.

And some of the things in the sequence can be, and that made me think of this and then I said this, like there could be thoughts and ideas as part of it but like one is leading to the next, leading to the next.

And the power of the anecdote is so great that no matter how, in a way, no matter how boring the material is, if it’s in a story form where there’s an anecdote happening and then he said this to me and then I went here and then I came downstairs and I thought like what the hell?

Like it has a momentum in and of itself that no matter how boring the facts are, like I’m trying to think of like, okay there’s, you know, if you try to think like the most boring possible story, okay there’s a guy and he wakes up and he’s lying in bed and the house is very, very quiet, just unearthly quiet.

And so he sits up and he puts his feet on the floor and he walks to the door of his bedroom and again just very, very quiet, walks down the stairs, looks around, just unusually quiet.

Now, like this is the most, like what I’m telling you is the most boring possible fact pattern and yet there’s suspense in it.

It feels like something’s going to happen and the reason why is because literally it’s a sequence of events, like this guy’s doing this thing, he’s moving from space to space, you can feel through its form that when you have one thing leading to the next, leading to the next, you can feel inherently that you’re on a train that has a destination and that he’s going to find something.

And so one of the most powerful things you have to figure out is like do you just start with the action or do you, you know, should you just start with the action?

In general, you want to start with the action or you often do.

So that’s one of your building blocks.

The other thing that that little anecdote has is that it’s raising a question from the beginning and that’s the other thing that you want is you want bait.

You want to constantly be raising questions.

So in that little story, the bait is that the house is very quiet and so the question hanging in the air is why?

And it’s implied that any question you raise, you’re going to answer.

And so again, that’s another thing you want to manipulate.

You want to be constantly raising questions and answering them from the beginning of the story and that the whole shape of a story is that you’re throwing out questions to keep people watching or listening and then answering them along the way.

Okay, so you have the building block which is like the actual sequence of actions, the anecdote part of it, that this thing happened and then this thing and then this thing.

That’s one building block.

Then the other big building block, your other tool, is that you have a moment of reflection.

And by that I mean at some point, somebody’s got to say, here’s why the hell you’re listening to this story.

Like here’s the point of the story.

Here’s the bigger something that we’re driving at.

Here’s why I’m wasting your time with all this.

And one of the things that’s very, very unfortunate for people who are launching into the kinds of jobs that all the people who are making video pods are launching into, one of the things that’s so very sad and it’s like the bane of my existence and it’s the bane of anybody’s existence who does this kind of work, is that often you have the two parts of the structure.

You’ve got the anecdote and you’ve got the moment of reflection.

And often you’ll have an anecdote which just kills.

It’s just so interesting.

Like this thing happens and it leads to the next and it leads to the next and it’s so surprising and so many things happen.

You meet these great characters and it means absolutely nothing.

Like it’s just completely predictable.

It doesn’t tell you anything new.

And so that’s one huge problem.

And then the other huge problem is you’ve got a kind of boring set of facts or boring story, right?

That actually like somebody actually has something kind of interesting to say about it.

And so actually I think a lot of us when we’re beginning, we get caught in the problem of we know we’ve got something here.

We know there’s something here that’s kind of compelling but it just doesn’t seem to be coming together.

And often it’s your job to be kind of ruthless and to understand that either you don’t have a sequence of actions, you don’t have the story part that works or you don’t have a moment of reflection that works.

And you’re going to need both.

And in a good story you’re going to flip back and forth between the two.

Like there’ll be a little bit of action and then someone will say something about it and there’ll be a little more action and someone will say something.

And that’s really like a lot of the trick of the whole thing, you know, is to have the perseverance that if you’ve got an interesting anecdote that you also can end up with an interesting moment of reflection that will support it.

And then the two together interwoven in, you know, three minutes or six minutes or however long your story is will make something that’s larger than the sum of its parts.

Part 2: On finding great stories…

One of the things I think that’s really hard that nobody ever tells you if you want to do creative work is how hard it is to actually find a decent story.

And I think that we all think, well, the real work of it is I’m going to go out and I’m going to shoot the thing and then I’m going to sit and edit it and I’m going to write it and I’m going to put music under it, whatever, and that’s going to be where time is.

But often, and people don’t really tell you this, often the amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story.

And that if somebody wants to do creative work, you actually have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories.

I mean, I work on a national radio show and we don’t follow the news, we don’t do anything.

All we do is look for interesting stories and there’s seven of us or eight of us now.

And I got to say, like more than half of our week is simply engaged in the looking for stories and then trying stuff out.

And like, we’re really good at our jobs, right?

We’re as good as, you know, anybody who does this kind of thing.

And I got to say, like, we take a run at a lot of stories and between a half and a third of everything that we try, we’ll go out, we’ll get the tape and then we kill it.

And you should think of it the same way.

That like, you know, you thought it was going to be good, you went out, you did the interview, the person wasn’t such a great talker, they weren’t so funny, they weren’t so emotional.

Somehow when they told it to you in person with the camera, it wasn’t the way they told you when they talked to them on the phone beforehand.

They just got a little intimidated by the camera.

Just something in the chemistry was wrong.

You can’t even name what it is and why even bother to try.

But then when you look at the footage, you know there’s a feeling that you had about it, which isn’t in the footage, right?

And then it’s time at that point to be the ambitious, super achieving person who you’re going to be and to kill it.

It’s time to kill and it’s time to enjoy the killing because by killing, you will make something else even better live.

And I think that like, not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.

And one thing that you should know is that all video production is trying to be crap.

Like in fact, all radio production is trying to be crap.

Basically it’s like the laws of entropy, you know that thing where all the energy of the universe is dissipating and all the atoms are getting lower and lower in energy.

Well basically, like anything that you put on tape, from the moment you put it on tape, basically it’s trying to be really bad.

It’s trying to be unstructured, it’s trying to be pointless, it’s trying to be boring, it’s trying to be digressive.

Much like these sentences that I’m saying right here.

And pretty much you have to prop it up aggressively at every stage of the way if it’s going to be any good.

Like you have to be really like a killer about getting rid of the boring parts and going right to the parts that are getting to your heart.

And you just have to be ruthless if anything is going to be good.

Things that are really good are good because people are being really, really tough and you’re going to be really tough in doing it.

And you’re going to know also that failure is a big part of success.

Something I sound like some Michael Jordan ad.

But you know what I mean?

Like you’re going to run a lot of stuff and it’s going to go nowhere and you should be happy about that.

If you’re doing that, you’re doing it right.

If you’re not failing all the time, you’re not creating a situation where you can get super lucky.

And basically, like a lot of video and radio production, a lot of broadcasting, is just in the purest way about luck.

Like really you just want to be in a situation where you’re doing enough material, where you’re doing enough interviews every week, where like you have put yourself on a schedule so that you know every week you’re going to interview somebody about something.

And through that, once a month, maybe once every six weeks, you’re going to stumble on somebody who is so compelling and a story that’s so great that it makes those other five weeks worth it.

And I don’t know, it’s like people don’t talk about this that much.

You have to kind of go into it knowing that you’ve got to record and get rid of a lot of crap before you’re going to get to anything that’s special.

And you don’t want to be making mediocre stuff.

That’s not why anybody gets into this.

The only reason why you want to do this is because you want to make something that’s so memorable, special.

And that’s what you want to do.

One other thing that…

Part 3: On good taste…

Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me, is that if you’re watching this video, somebody wants to make videos, right?

And all of us who do creative work, like, you know, we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste.

Do you know what I mean?

Like, you want to make TV because you love TV, you know what I mean?

Because there’s stuff that you just, like, love, okay?

So you’ve got really good taste, and you get into this thing that I don’t even know how to describe, but it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, okay?

It’s not that great.

It’s really not that great.

It’s trying to be good.

It has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

Like, you can tell that it’s still sort of crappy.

A lot of people never get past that phase.

A lot of people at that point, they quit.

And the thing I would just, like, say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be.

They knew it felt short, you know, and like, some of us can admit that to ourselves, and some of us are a little less able to admit that to ourselves.

But we knew, like, it didn’t have this special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that.

And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase, you’ve got to know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work.

Do a huge volume of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story, you know what I mean?

Whatever it’s going to be.

Like, you create the deadline.

It’s best if you have somebody who’s waiting for work for you, somebody who’s expecting it from you, even if it’s not somebody who pays you, but that you’re in a situation where you have to turn out the work.

Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap.

And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

In my case, like, I do a national radio show, right?

Like, I’m making my living at this.

I’ve made my living at this for a long time.

And, you know, won the Peabody Award, like, won all sorts of prizes.

Like, 1.7 million people listen to our show.

And they listen almost to the entire show.

Like, people love our show, right?

Like, the show that I make with my coworkers.

And so, like, I’m in a place where I’m done, right?

I’ve mastered this thing.

But I’ve got to tell you, like, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met.

I’m going to play you a clip of tape from my eighth year.

Like, I started in public radio when I was 19 at NPR’s network headquarters in Washington.

So, the big news organization had a really, like, peachy set of jobs.

And, like, I was always a good tape cutter, but I was a horrible reporter.

That’s horrible at the thing that you’re setting out to do with these video pods.

And so this is a tape from year eight.

It’s not such a long way from the local grocery store to the international debate over whether sorghum and meat production are causing corn to decline in Latin America.

Oh, right, that debate.

We were talking about that at dinner.

There’s a general air of prosperity here, partly thanks to Mexican imports of U.S. grains, which helped boost our farm economy.

Mexico is now one of our biggest grain customers, buying a half billion to a billion dollars worth every year, including corn to feed its people and sorghum to feed its livestock.

Like, what am I talking about?

Like, I don’t even understand.

Like, I wrote this.

I don’t even understand what it is.

And, like, and, and, and, okay, also, like, like, every part of this is ill-conceived, okay?

Like, like, the writing is horrible.

You can’t even follow what I’m talking about.

And then the performance, like, okay, just a little tip if you’re, you know, performing for broadcast.

You don’t underline every third word for emphasis because it sounds really unnatural.

What you want to do is you want to talk the way people normally talk.

This helps cut our own trade deficit and benefits everyone in the U.S. economy.

But in Mexico, this policy has led to fewer tortillas for the poor and unappetizing tortillas for everyone else.

Again, like, this is, like, the most moronic kind of, like, you know, it doesn’t mean anything.

And it’s hard.

It’s actually kind of an interesting story, which I’ll say to you in a sentence, which is because Mexico produces a lot of stuff that they ship to the United States, tomatoes and all sorts of really, like, wonderful food that we eat here, they don’t make enough corn for their own people.

That’s the story.

So we, because for us to get really great tomatoes or semi-great tomatoes year-round, basically, Mexicans eat worse.

That’s the story.

And it’s kind of an interesting idea, right?

Like, that’s actually sort of, like, a cool idea executed in the worst possible way.

Okay, so this is, like, year eight.

I’m 27 years old when this is happening.

Like, I’m not a beginner.

Like, I’m deep, deep into it.

And I guess I’m saying, like, it takes a while.

It’s going to take you a while.

It’s normal to take a while.

And you just have to fight your way through that.


You will be fierce.

You will be a warrior.

And you will make things that aren’t as good as you know in your heart you want them to be.

And you just make one after another.

Like, I think there’s

Part 4: On two common pitfalls.

There are two real errors that beginners make and that I certainly made when I was first making stuff.

And one is, in a way it’s a really dumb error, but we’ve all seen TV and we’ve all seen video and the first time we get a camera or a tape recorder,

we want to sound and act just like the people we’ve seen on TV.

And so we’ve all seen really bad videos done by people who talk like people on TV.

And just like when I was first on the radio, I was just trying to talk like somebody on the radio.

Of course, everything is going to be more compelling.

It’s just like one of the laws of broadcasting.

Everything will be more compelling the more you just talk like a human being and just talk like yourself.

Do you know what I mean?

Your cable channel, they already have the real Ted Koppel.

Ted Koppel is already on TV.

They don’t need you imitating Ted Koppel.

There’s a real Ted Koppel on the same TV that you’re going to be on, right?

And so the more you are actually your own self, the better off you are.

But this brings you to the second problem, which is that often people submit stories to our radio show which show, I don’t know how to say this, except it

shows that they have a horrible personality, which is to say they’re like somebody who only talks about themself.

And like when somebody’s got a good personality, it’s like somebody who’s good in a conversation.

They talk amusingly and interestingly about themselves for a while and then they let the other person talk for a while because they’re interested in other people and they’re interested in the world.

And so in a good story, you’re going to get both.

Basically most of the story is going to be about whoever’s life it is you’re trying to document, right?

Like most of it’s going to be about them, but that you’ll be in there too as a particular person saying like, what the hell are you talking about?

Or like I wouldn’t think it would go like that or just like whatever.

You’re going to be in there as a clear personality.

But I think for a lot of stories, for most stories in kind of a documentary fashion, I don’t know, for a lot of stories, another person is going to be the main character of the story.

But even if it’s a first person story documenting your life, what’s interesting isn’t just like your take on things.

It’s seeing you interact with other people, right?

And seeing other people through your eyes and seeing the other people who you have to deal with.

You want both things.

Otherwise there’s no drama.

Do you know what I mean?

I think what’s really interesting, like it’s a drama.

It’s like people interacting and conflicting and getting along and liking each other and hating each other and then like laughing, you know?

It’s just like you want all the things that happen between people and it’s not going to work if there’s too much of your interviewee, right, and none of you.

And it’s not going to work if there’s too much of you and none of the other people because there’s not enough characters in a way to make it drama.