Ira Glass on Storytelling — What Works for Radio, Works for the Web

June 16th, 2008

Today, Brian Clark from Copyblogger posted on a video where NPR’s Ira Glass talks about the building blocks of storytelling in broadcasting. (Video embedded below.) Like any Monday morning, I had plenty of email to slog through, but I had to watch this video. For those of you who are fans of Ira, you know what I mean -– that something in his voice and manner of speaking that compels you to stop everything you’re doing and listen.

In the video, Ira talks about how to take traditional story structure that we learned in school and turn it on its head. That is — forget the topic sentence followed by a set of supporting facts — it isn’t effective for TV and radio. Instead, Ira’s got two key building blocks of storytelling:

  1. The Anecdote
  2. The Moment of Reflection

Brian’s right, Ira’s approach isn’t just for TV and radio. Nearly any medium on the web benefits from good storytelling, particularly those that lend themselves to more informal anecdotes like blogs, podcasts, and videos.

Let’s take The Anecdote. A vast majority of what we are trying to accomplish on the web is baiting people, and one tried and true method of doing this is through storytelling. Who doesn’t want to know how one person paid just $20 on a $192 grocery bill? That’s why headlines, first sentences, and other forms of baiting are so important. If the average web surfer spends less than 5 seconds on any given website before clicking away, we need to tell an interested story and get the reader asking questions.

The second building block that Ira talks about is The Moment of Reflection. Ira likens this to meaning of the story, or “What’s the Point?” Websites should do the same thing — you can do all sorts of storytelling, even engage readers to spend a whole ten minutes on your site — but let them know what the point is, or they’ll leave and never come back again. This is where your call to action comes in. Refer them to more detailed information, let them buy the product, have them sign up for the newsletter. Whatever you want them to do, it should be obvious.

Storytelling, if it’s done well, can be particularly compelling in video format. It’s one reason we try to encourage our clients to get a video message on their website. Not only does it lend that human element to the site — websites can be woefully cold and calculating — but it also is an opportunity for the company to tell a story. (Check out David’s message on ArcStone’s home page, a video that has turned casual browsers into solid leads.)

People like stories. Don’t forget to tell them!

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