Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ira Glass pitch advice: surprise me

At last night's opening session of the Communications Network in Philanthropy annual meeting, Chicago Public Radio's Ira Glass, host of This American Life, talked about how his program does storytelling--and along the way, gave advice that many types of organizations can use to pitch reporters or communicate their messages more effectively. Known for quirky angles and deft narrative delivery, Glass recommends the following:

    - Think about what sound and visuals add or subtract from your story: On radio, Glass likes that the lack of visual keeps you from judging a teenage female gang member with black lipstick, and forces you to see her heart through her words. And the music that so often runs below the TAL narratives? Glass says: If you're talking over music, and then it stops, whatever you say next sounds really important. That got a laugh, but the point is sound, so to speak: use sound and visual--or the lack thereof--for emphasis, and to underscore your point.
    - Look for the pleasure, fun and discovery in the story you want to tell: Glass sees most news coverage as having "no sense of" those elements, and notes "it makes the world seem smaller and less hopeful." The universal elements of sucessful stories are the ones where we see (or hear) someone realizing a home truth we recognize in ourselves--and let us laugh at it, and ourselves, in recognition.
    -When pitching, pass on the corniness: Telling private foundations "your bigger problem [in storytelling] is the corniness of your stories" and that "the more do-good your mission, the harder it will be to get your point across," Glass said sometimes it's just best to give a reporter access to a program to let him or her see its intrinsic value, rather than trying to craft hifalutin language about how it fulfills its mission. Such language, while noble, "isn't hurtful, but it's just not relevant," said Glass.
    -When pitching, pitch the surprise: The twist in the narrative, the surprise ending, the unexpected narrator all can help your story move out of the crowd and forward in a reporter's line of thinking. (Check out TAL's "favorites" among its own programs here, and listen for the surprise in each story.) Glass: "You must be cunning to get attention."
    -Choose storytellers who can get their feelings across: The subject of your story has to be able to convey what happened with emotion and emphasis, or the story--no matter how good--won't reach the listener and hold her attention.
    Glass says his program finds its unusual stories in several key ways: occasionally they're emailed in by listeners or pitchers, and more often, the producers brainstorm what they're wondering about -- as in a recent show on the mortgage crisis -- and then go looking for stories that fit that topic or issue. In the latter case, they cast a wide net among their contacts--people who've been on the show, people who've pitched them successfully before, people they'd like to get on the show -- and say "we're thinking about this, what do you have?" They've also published this section on their website offering more concrete advice, including a manifesto by Glass and an essay on how to get on the show.

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