Making the Story Work for the Audience
So the power of a story. I want to talk a little bit about that. So, and I sorta touched on it a little bit. When, and you heard it in the raw tape. When Henry said it the way he originally said it, where he was like, there's a situation, a guy moved, and the boys in the hood showed up and they said that's our mailman, right. It was like, it didn't land, right? It just was just sort of like, it just came out of nowhere and it wasn't like, and you didn't know what to do with it and it felt sort of like, oh that feels somewhat meaningful. But it doesn't, it hasn't landed, it didn't register. And so that, I think, is the great power of telling a story, whatever you're doing. If you can tell it in the story form where the point lands... as the crescendo, the build-up of a sequence of events, then it sticks with people. And it makes it... it just makes it real, in a way that if they just say the punchline without the story, you can miss it or it doesn't feel real. And there's a couple power...
ful examples of that that have happened in my work that I wanna talk about now. And it's just a couple small pieces of tape here. So, the first one was like, I did a lot of financial reporting and a bunch of, like you know, at Planet Money there was a lot of financial crisis reporting. And we did this big story and it's super complicated stuff, right, and we did this big story about this hedge fund that during the run up to the financial crisis had been doing these complicated things where they'd put together these complicated financial instruments that they made money... if the things inside the financial instruments that they were making failed. So, this hedge fund had this incentive to create, sort of these, these investments out of riskier and crappier assets. And we did the story about them. So it's a really complicated thing, and so the first thing we needed to do was we needed to be like, okay, the minute you say risky assets and financial CDOs and stuff like that people are gonna tune out, so we found a metaphor. And the metaphor was The Producers. Anybody ever see that play, The Producers? Well the play The Producers they realized oh the play, you can make more money in a play if it fails the opening day. Because then you can collect the insurance on the play. So that's the realization, right. So they set about making the worst play in history, hoping that it will close immediately, and they'll collect the insurance money, and be rich. And they end up making the play, Springtime for Hitler. (audience laughs) So we were saying, this financial, this hedge fund was doing something very similar to what they were doing in The Producers. They were trying to create the crappiest financial products they could in the hopes that they would fail and that they could collect, essentially, insurance money on those things. But they weren't telling people that they were crappy. So, but then the problem is you have to sell these financial assets to people thinking they're good. So that's the problem with it, right. So there's this super complicated thing and we had, I was working with these super wonky financial reporters, these great guys, who worked at this place called ProPublica, which does this amazing financial investigative journalism, and these two guys, Jessie and Jake. We were constructing the story together and we were talking about the hedge fund, we had talked to all these people, nobody would talk on tape, and it was just this really complicated thing. So they were, and they had this moment that they kept on trying to tell me, they kept on trying to put in the story and I kept on being like, I don't get it. And they kept on saying like... there was this one guy who said... yeah, after looking that over, I should've lost my job. And I was like, okay, who is this guy? And they kept on saying it to me like... you know, he said it. It was this very powerful moment to me but I didn't get it because it was like, it just, they weren't telling it right. And then I was like, so wait, sit me down, wait, where were you when, and then they told me where the scene in which this guy had revealed this information to them, and it was around this table, I was like, oh. Well let's just tell that story, put that, tell that story. So that's what they did. So the guy in question, I don't think you even need to know the details, he was like a regular financial guy and at the behest of this evil hedge fund he was... picking bad assets to put into this investment vehicle... on purpose. So that's sort of what he's doing. And so, and again you'll see once they lay out the details, the punchline lands. And this is what they said.
At lunch, they showed this banker the list of unusually risky assets that were in the CDO that he'd help put together with Magnetar.
[Reporter Voiceover] And, he looked at it. And, you know, he went down the list, and he said, yeah they asked for this one and they got it. They asked for this one and they got it. And they asked for this one and it went in. And then he said, after looking at this, I deserve to lose my job.
I mean that's just like a minor detail in this story. But it was like, it was a very, very meaningful detail in their reporting. For them that was like this big ah-ha moment where he was like, I looked at this and I deserved to lose my job. But they were just giving me the punchline and they hadn't set up what had actually happened, the scene at the table where he was looking over this list and he was like, yup, I put that one in and shouldn't of, put that one in and I shouldn't of. You know, it's essentially what he was saying. And then all the sudden it resonated. So that was like one tiny example of how turning something into a story makes it land. One other thing about stories, you know we're talking about personal stories but stories can be big and broad and you can tell the story of a... you know, the story of somebody's day. But you can also tell the story of an era, or the story of a century, or the story of, you know, sort of like, we've told, on Planet Money, we've told the story of how garment manufacturing came to Bangladesh. It's like, you know, it's not a personal story, doesn't happen in a day, it happens over decades. But it still follows the same thing. There are details, there's rising action then there's this sort of resolution where it finally arrives or whatever. I'm gonna play something and this is like a little bit outside, sort of, what we've been talking about but we did a story like this on This American Life where we were telling the story of the American health care system and how we got the health care system that we have. And if you think about our health care system, most health care is delivered through our jobs, we get heath care on our jobs. But, that's sort of the only thing like that, right. Our jobs don't give us a grocery store plan, where they pay for all our groceries. But you can only shop at certain stores, right. And they don't give us a clothing plan where they pay for all our clothes but you can only shop at certain designers. So, why is health care different? Why is health care the one thing that we expect our jobs to provide for us that other things aren't. And it turns out there's this story behind that. And the story starts at the turn of the century... and then there's a key detail that happens during World War II. So Adam Davidson, who is my co founder at Planet Money, and I found this economic historian, this wonderful woman, Melissa Thomason, and she helped us tell that story. And this is one moment from that story. And it's a big moment, it's sort of like, again, getting to your point, this was a larger story that was made up of smaller stories. So this was one of those pivotal moments and it's World War II. In World War II what happened was the government was very, very worried about inflation, because inflation often happens during wars, so the government said, you're not, to businesses, you're not allowed to your raise wages, because that leads to inflation. So that was the situation during World War II. There's all these businesses, they need to produce all this stuff for the war effort, but they can't raise wages.
The war economy is an entirely different ballgame. I mean, essentially, we go from being a mixed economy with mostly market and some government intervention to a bein' a planned economy. I mean think of government rationing on all levels. They don't want inflation. They need to harness all the resources in the economy for the war effort. And so what they tell people is you can't, you legally cannot raise prices, you can't raise wages. And so, people have no ability to do this. At the same time, lots of people are joining the military and labor is scarce. So, you can't find workers. Can you imagine in today's environment? You can't find workers who can work for you. You can't lure them by increasing wages.
And at the same time you need to produce enormous amounts of stuff for the war effort.
[Reporter voiceover] And you're losing all your young, strong men.
Exactly. So what's a poor employer to do? They turn to fringe benefits and they just started offering more and more generous health insurance plans and pensions and everything else, actually.
So you would say, Rosie come work at my riveting factory because I can offer you this boutique insurance package, versus --
So that was it. I mean that was just like one detail but, again, it's a story that we're telling about the health care system. And we made it into, and turning it into a story and putting it into these, sort of, digestible moments, it really helped people realize, like, oh that's where that started, right. Are there any questions about that, just like what you just heard? About taking something and turning it into a story as a way of getting across the point.
Who were you interviewing for that piece and how did you find them to tell that story?
So we, it was an economic historian, her name was Melissa Thomason, she was awesome. She was one of those people that you, sort of like, come across and she's like a wonky academic but had a totally lovely manner and was very, very relatable. So, that was a lucky find. She happened to have this expertise and this, sort of like, you know, background that we were like you're golden (laughing). And she was like, it was like a 19-minute piece and it was all we had was us and an economist. And it was actually pretty good. Yeah, yeah.
I notice that you use analogies a lot to --
help carry a story. Is that intentional?
Yeah, absolutely. So that's another thing. It's sort of like sometimes people that you're interviewing aren't comfortable, necessarily. They don't, they know, like she understand, like to her there is a, when she says rationing labor that is a term that has lots of meaning to her and obviously to everybody else it has no meaning at all (laughing). And I know that, right? And so, I have to, sort of, explain to everybody, and often you can say to them could you just put the, say that again but don't use ration. I used to do that and then I was just like, aw screw it. I'll just, I will translate as we're going. So it's essentially simultaneously translating. Sort of putting in terms that people can understand. It was hard at first to get into that habit. But then, as I got more adept at it, it's become sort of a habitual thing to do. The minute somebody starts talking on something, and again, this is what I'm talking about. Again, so much of doing this is paying attention to your gut. And like on a very, very deep level sort of recognizing, am I slightly confused here. And recognizing that in the moment. If I'm slightly confused, everybody's gonna be slightly confused. What's going on? What's the problem? And then trying to sort of like come up with it. Am I slightly bored here? Everybody's gonna be slightly bored. What do I do, right? Am I sensing dishonesty here? Or am I sensing, not dishonesty, but like skirting, something, something more, or something beyond what you're saying, or something, you know, everybody's gonna be something with that. Like we all are, right? So, we all have this gut and that we all learn to ignore. But we feel it. And when you're like just listening through different stories in audio, the minute that gut tells you something you're not even gonna know why you're gonna lose interest but you're gonna lose interest. So, that's what it is a lot of times. Other questions from, yeah.
Well we had another question that came in here and this one's from Jen Simmons and we had eight other people voting on this one. A lot of people are interested in getting a few more tips on the editing process. People are just sort of, some people are just learning that today for the first time. But Jen wants to know, how are you able to get clean cuts without better controlling of the background noise in that last clip with the mailman, for instance. And, she says, you don't have any cross fades or other tracks to smooth things out. I mean, how much time do you spend on those sort of things?
You spend a lot of time on that. I mean you can get, like that can be a whole two days of itself. You know, just sort of like proper use of Pro Tools. Pro Tools is this insane engine of a editing system and I know like a tenth of it.
We could do a whole three-day course on that.
Yeah, absolutely. Background noise is awful. You try to limit it to the best that you can. But there's other things that you can do, there's tricks and cross fades. That image that I showed, I don't know if that was, I think I might have... this gets a little technical but, that might have just been, I might have put those edit marks in afterwards as a way of... as a way of demonstration. I don't know if those were that actual edits marks that were actually in, if you actually looked at my original Pro Tools session from 1997, you (laughing), I'm not sure those lines would've matched up exactly. The raw audio was the actual raw audio.
So I was thinking about yesterday's story with Ann and it was long, I mean that was a long thing. What's in your mind as you kind of pull the key ideas out? I mean, is it completely determined by how much time you have or...
It's interesting, like yeah --
'Cause I was like, how would you edit that, yesterday, 'cause they were so many different, kind of, interesting tangents...
Well, there's gonna be more on that, coming up.
Oh, okay, good.
But, I would say, I mean, I bet you if we... So part of it is like what's your audience, what parts are you gonna focus on. There's a lot of good stuff in there, and there's a lot of stuff on, sort of like, you could do a whole bunch of different stories from that one interview. If you're talking about art and how to make money from art, you're doing it one way, if you're talking about, just sort of like... dealing with the after affects of a dysfunctional family and, sort of like, having, you know, being in a relationship that suddenly surprises you, you could do a whole other story, and there's a couple of other stories in between. So part of it is just, sort of, figuring out what is the story that I want to tell here. Well, who's my audience, what are they interested in? And then... But part of it, I think, you and I would probably, if we sat around, I mean, let's do it. What are the main, what's the for sure you're not gonna leave out of that story? The moments that you would not leave out of Ann's story. What were the moments that were the most gripping to you?
When he pushed her across the room.
Yeah. Right. What else?
Giving the advice to her friend with cancer.
Ah ha. Right. So those very emotional moments. Anything else that stood out?
That her friend with cancer isn't here anymore.
The wet blanket moment with her mentor, when he was like, you know artists aren't business people, I don't know anything about that.
Ah ha, ah ha, so... Yeah, go ahead.
I still have images of the flowers and the salad.
Oh yeah, the flowers and the salad, right. So all those are sort of like, so you know, and then what about, I listened back recently, so I'm trying to remember some ones that you probably, that nobody would necessarily mention. Well, I mean, obviously there's all the ones where I'm turning aside. Like a lot of that, I just listened back to the audio, so a lot of it is me, sort of, talking to the audience that you're not going to leave in. But then... There was a lot of stuff where I would ask her questions and she was like, I don't actually remember, right, I don't remember how it was, you're not going to leave that stuff in. There was a lot of stuff in either the beginning, the end or the middle that would be like, where it was just sort of like, and then I was like working here, and then I was like working there, and like, it was all, like totally like, it's interesting stuff but if you're choosing the moments, you know what those moments are. And like often, that's all you're doing. Is you're just sort of saying, here are the key details. And like, this was the most, these were the most emotional moments, this was the one that was like felt the most real and sort of resonant. Here were the key details. And then everything else drops away, you know. And depending on how long it needs to be, that's sort of how it's determined.
Is the setting up of the story that you might do to encapsulate a large piece, so we're not going to listen to all that audio, but you would frame the story before we hear the story. You've done that a lot in the stories you're telling here, do you do that also on the podcast?
Absolutely. I'm gonna talk about that a lot in the next, in one of the next segments. How do you sort of like motivate, if you're sitting down and listening to a long story, how do you motivate people to stay tuned and just to keep listening. Ann?
I just want to say that my favorite moment was trying to sing the Light Bright song with you.
Oh, that's true. (audience laughs) That's true. That was good. Yeah?
Do you ever keep recording after you've ended the interview and then ask permission after, based on if new information came out?
I don't. I mean you can, it's fine. But I don't, I don't... Why be, why be sneaky? You don't need to be sneaky. Like you're gonna, people open up to you whether you're recording or not, or they won't. It's not, it's not like, it's not worth it to sort of like, that shows that you're uncomfortable with the process. If you've had the impulse, and everyone has that impulse, by the way. I'm not like, I had that impulse, everybody has that impulse, to be like, maybe I'll get better stuff if they don't know I'm recording. You know, it's not true, it's not true. Just, yeah, be okay with it yourself, and everybody will be okay with it. Yeah.
So this is all great information for people who are planning, or this structure could work for people who have the time to edit and craft their perfect story that maybe the person's giving to them. But, a lot of us are planning on doing this, either we don't have the time to edit, we're doing these things on the side or in addition to other projects, or people are planning on applying these... these tactics in a live situation, perhaps as moderating a panel, for example. So, how, do you have any experience with how you can, how it differs when you're in person and when you cut someone off, when you, or how you get them to tell the story when you don't have the magic of editing software.
Well I'm doing that right now in a live setting. I'm using the same tricks, I'm trying to get, like I'm trying to forward promote stuff, I'm trying to get people to talk in stories, I'm trying to tell stories myself. And the only difference is, you can't edit out the stuff that didn't work. But that's okay, because a live setting is like a different sort of thing and people are okay with like, you know, the PowerPoint not working or whatever. It's a different, it's a different thing. I would have edited that out of my pre-produced story, right. You're gettin' the live experience. And I think it's just a matter, the impulses, the tricks, are the same. It's just sort of like how much, how finicky are you gonna be? And there's a whole spectrum of finickiness where you just gonna sit in your editing booth and sort of get every breath and pause perfect and, sort of like, get it all right. And I've worked in that scenario. And then there's this whole other thing where you're gonna be like, I'm not gonna edit anything, I'm gonna turn on the tape recorder and I'm gonna do my interview but, I'm still, I will still benefit from like trying to set this up and trying to get stories out of this person and trying to sort of get these emotional moments and knowing that's what I'm going for. Even if, you know whatever, half the time, it doesn't work. You know, or whatever. And I still have my interview that I've done and I've given it, and then sometimes it will really work, right. And when it works, if your audience is accustomed to a, you know, a 60-minute... you know, unedited interview and that's what you're going for and that's what you have time for and that's what your audience is accustomed to and that's what you're, that's what you're tryin' to do, that's great. The tricks are the same. You know, what you still want to do is the same. And like, our unedited interview with Ann was very interesting and compelling because we sort of went through this process anyway, right. So, the edited version will be compelling as well but it's all about what your audience is after.