Looking for Stories

I’ve noticed that Twitter has been replacing my daily RSS feed reader activities. I’m not at my desk enough to keep Twitter open all day, but do find moments to jump in and review the last couple hours worth of conversations. When I do this I am always prompted to click on things people I care about find interesting. I don’t need to use digg or something like stumble upon as I have what I think is the most powerful (and targeted) recommendation engine available in my Twitter network.

This morning was no different. I jumped into Twitter to find a link to one of my media heros, Ira Glass, discussing storytelling. Hearing Ira talk about storytelling is about as compelling of a professional development opportunity that I can get my hands on. His stories on This American Life are engaging, moving, and just downright amazing to me. I listed every single week and can say it is honestly the only media piece that I work hard not to miss. In the short clip I’ve embedded below, Ira is discussing how hard it is to go out and find good stories to tell … I love this quote because it is so true on so many levels …

Between a half to a third of everything that we try, we’ll go out, we’ll get the tape, and then we kill it.

When he talks about this I not only reflect on the art of storytelling, but also in a lot of ways about the things we do in our work. We do Hot Teams to try things out we think might be interesting only to find that, while marginally useful, they aren’t worth the effort going forward. I think too many times we get bullied or pressed into making something happen when there aren’t compelling reasons to do so. In our work, creativity is just as important as anything else — I firmly believe that there is an art to innovative practice, that it isn’t all science. And with any sort of great creative art, you have to be bold enough to say no a hell of a lot more than you say yes. I think Ira says it best when he mentions,

Not enough gets said about the abandoning of crap.

What he is saying and what I am trying to say is that for things to be really, really good we have to be tough. In storytelling, as in our work, we have to cut to the “so what” moment and focus energy on making things great. I’m always amazed at how much crap gets amplified because someone wasn’t willing to demand more. With where we are in education, that can’t continue to happen. We have to honestly say that if something isn’t worth the time, energy, money, or whatever to move it forward we kill it. We have to be willing to not only abandon the crap, but be willing to push as hard as we can towards superior outcomes. Maybe I’m pulling things together that don’t belong, but the video clip below and the other ones from the series really spoke to me.

8 thoughts on “Looking for Stories

  1. This reminds me of a quotation from Rene Char, French poet, who wrote: “If you destroy, may it be with nuptial tools.” It seems that the abandoning of crap of which Glass speaks is just such a destruction with nuptial tools: it is creative destruction that opens new possibilities of community and relation. Good stories do this, and so do good discussions, be they through digital media or in person.

  2. Hi Cole,
    Was excited to read your insights. Ya know I am a bit bashful about commenting/posting.. but his storytelling series just hit the nail on the head for me. I blogged my notes about each under title Making Stories for Television and Radio: http://www.personal.psu.edu/ksw3/blogs/weekly/2009/06/week-of-060109.html

    Continuing forwards the question that is stuck in my mind…which relates to teaching and learning. You will recognize where I got the “I kick ass”from.

    With my “killer taste” how can I create a story that will make the viewer think “I kick ass?”

    • Hi Kim … I read your accounts of the series as well. I loved them. Ira is really something in the way he can weave a story out of the ordinary. I have no idea how to get people to think you kick ass — I struggle with it. One thing is certain for me though, it is important to iterate towards greatness. I’ve always found that being highly critical of first attempts lead to greater long term outcomes. It is tough to take sometimes, but I firmly believe it is the only way to make things better. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I love the clip- what a great perspective of the creative process from a jedi master (I admit I am a TAL junkie… I also went to the same high school as Ira, 5 years later tho). It’s about being there, cutting out the non essential, but also as you suggest- trying a lot of things and knowing most will not pan out.

    This American Life is masterful in its edits, use of music, and storytelling method; all in just audio. And my favorite part? the closing credits where they insert a line as if the “boss” said it.

  4. I relate to Ira’s quote that “Failure is a big part of success” in a number of ways. Of the gazillion quotes that John Wooden has put forth, his “The team that makes the most mistakes will probably win” quote that I try to keep in mind (I’ve gone a month w/o a quote from The Wizard!). The simple reasoning lines up with what Ira says here. Wooden felt that mistakes come from doing but so does success. The overall idea is to keep working hard, trying things, honestly evaluating them, learning and moving on.

    While it seems a rather simple concept, you should see the look on 10 and 11 year olds’ faces when I try to explain this concept to them. They’ve been told for years by other coaches that “if you make mistakes, it will cost us the game”. But you should see how they fly once they learn that it’s ok to make mistakes as long as they keep moving and trying.

    What Ira doesn’t quite get to is possessing the judgment to know when something is ‘crap’. With all the content creation going on out there by practically anyone, someone with his judgment simply becomes more invaluable than ever before.

    • Matt,

      I will never forget my high school baseball coach telling us “I will never get mad at hard-charging mistakes made while hustling, but I will get mad if you don’t try to correct them.”

      Alan, I love TAL and that end bit as well. It’s always a good laugh.

      I guess what Ira is talking about is so much a part of my career that I don’t really think of it as surprising or novel. When I was editor of my college newspaper, our adviser would always say “ask about an article this question ‘why should anyone give a shit?’ And never, ever forget that your ego should never get into the way of the fact that your own opinion of relevance means little compared to others – learn to think outside yourself and get in the mind of the audience.”

      That’s a tough thing to do and the biggest challenge to the creative process.

      Also, this is something from my experience at the Crucial Conversations seminar, another difficult part of this process is speaking up. Especially when there are managers above you on the org chart who have a differing opinion and you feel intimidated.

      And the final part goes back to ego. Your idea might have a great skeleton, but one has to have the courage to let it go through the critical eye and under the knife to make it better. I often hear bands say “well, Sue came up with this great bass line, and Artie played this killer riff, and our producer suggested adding piano instead of the sax, and it sounded great.” VH-1 Class has a series called classic albums, where they take say Dark Side of the Moon or The Joshua Tree and discuss the creative process behind recording the album. It’s a great series and well worth watching.

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  6. Cole,

    The nugget in this post that hit home for me is the idea of throwing out the crap once you figure out it’s crap. So often that’s really hard to do. I’ve worked places where something gets started, and then months or years later it’s still being perpetuated even though it’s just not good enough for talented people to be spending time on. Sometimes there are good reasons to hold on to something crappy, but too often it’s just kept up because it’s “always” been done. In the heat of the work it can be so hard to step back and decide to let go of something that’s just not worth doing.

    Thanks for the post. It made me think about things I’m holding on to.

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