Good Stories Make Good Lectures

Wade Davis is hands-down one of the great storytellers of our time. Holder of the oxymoronic position of ‘explorer-in-residence’ at the National Geographic Society, Davis is best known for his controversial work in the 1980s on Haitian zombies. Since then, he has traveled the reaches of the globe, thoughtfully documenting the world’s diverse spiritual traditions.

For a bullet-train introduction to Davis’s repertoire, I recommend his 2010 lecture, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. This is part of a series of Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) hosted by the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco.

This is a lecture, not a story. But it’s a great lecture precisely because it’s full of great stories.

Part of what makes it so much fun to listen to is that Davis stays close to that old radio adage, ‘Show. Don’t tell.’ A particularly captivating story starts at 16:39, in which he details a modern reenactment of an ancient Polynesian voyage across the Pacific. Davis describes the Polynesian wayfinders as:

sailors who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching and studying the reverberations of waves across the hull of the vessel, knowing full well that every group of islands in the Pacific has its own unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.

Many of his sentences are this long and this dense, which usually doesn’t feel good to the ear, but Davis, with his scrupulous attention to detail, and his voice lunging into each story, manages to keep us engaged in spite of his very writerly, academic diction. He is also good at summarizing his ideas with poignant analogies: “Take all the genius it required to put a man on the moon, apply it to the study of the ocean, and what you would get is Polynesia.”

Davis hits the ground running and wastes no time in driving home this central tenet: that the world into which we are born does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just a model of reality. Four or five times he asks the question, “What does it mean to be human and alive?” and each time it feels more relevant than the last. I don’t know about you, but I love that fundamental question, and am fascinated by its many, many answers.

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World [1hr 20min] SALT lecture at the Long Now Foundation, 13 January 2010
58 minutes

Tenderness in the Game Show Arena

I love to like the characters in a story.

When I listened to Roger Dowds: Millionaire Winner, by Irish producer Ronan Kelly, I immediately got into sync with the protagonist — when he felt sad, I felt sad. When he felt happy, I felt happy. The listening experience is simple when the character is likable.

With Roger Dowds, likability has everything to do with his desperate sincerity. It spills out of his mouth every time he speaks. He communicates sincerity not just through what he says, but in how he says it: the quality of his voice is a crucial element in this story. It’s a simple, soft, almost-pathetic-sounding voice with an element of pain behind it. You get that quality throughout the piece – it’s a part of who he is: like a whimper with a wounded heart. Without even seeing a picture of him, you still get an image of a hunched-over, pale-skinned body behind Roger’s voice. All in all, you kind of want to feel sorry for him… but when he smiles, you can hear it. You love that smile.

In the piece, Roger becomes a contestant on the Irish version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” This game show provides structure to hold Roger’s voice. Without this structure, you might be lulled to sleep by his easy, meek tone. After all, the piece is nearly half an hour long.

Instead, you’re on the edge of your seat. The anxiety of “Millionaire” sustains you through the length of this story. The narrative’s drama develops as the game show itself unfolds, with its pattern of Tension, Release, Tension, Release. (“Is the answer correct? …Find out after this break.”) The stakes are always building, and you want to know what happens next. While he moves forward in the game show, the story also takes you deeper into his personal life. Roger’s voice is there at every moment, tender even when the tension is at its peak; it brings you into the eye of this particular storm. It’s a genuine roller coaster, infused with meaning and purpose. By the end of this story, you’ll feel like you have a new friend.

“Roger Dowds: Millionaire Winner”
Produced in 2006 by Ronan Kelly for RTE Ireland
27 minutes
First heard on saltcast

Coaxing a Petty Tyrant out of the Dark

I love when This American Life illuminates some tiny piece of some random city that I might pass on the freeway, reminding me how this country’s landscape is still rich with stories. I had barely heard of Schenectady, New York, when I listened to Petty Tyrant. In this episode, for a full hour, Sarah Koenig tells the story of a single manager in a seemingly “normal” school district, reminding me that great stories can lurk in dark spaces.

Ira Glass describes the story as “a huge scandal was slowly coming to a boil in one of the least likely places,” and the difference between this radio story and the broadcast news-version of the same story is that the news only shows you the part that boils over the top. This American Life takes its time, though, waiting until the story reaches just the right temperature, seasoning it to enhance the flavor.

This episode mixes dozens (maybe a hundred) of tiny anecdotes throughout the story. Like salt, these anecdotes enhance the experience of the larger story being told, providing a more detailed image of what’s going on. Here’s one such detail:

Steve Raucci (the “Petty Tyrant”), in order to strengthen his grip on his employees, openly rewarded snitching. “A district carpenter even made a wooden wedge of cheese, which would end up in your mailbox if you’d been what Steve called, ‘a good rat.’”

In the six or seven seconds it takes to listen to that soundbyte, you imagine yourself opening your mailbox and looking at a fake block of cheese. You imagine your manager, Steve, placing it there, encouraging you to help increase his reign. With enough details like this, you get a really good picture of what Steve was like, during the days before he was discovered.

Steve Raucci’s reign lasted for years without anyone knowing about it, and the story takes its time describing those years. Sarah Koenig speaks at a relaxed pace while she spells out the details – her voice is comfortable.

At 46:37, more than three quarters of the way into the episode, we hear a TV news-reporter’s voice, announcing Steve’s arrest on the day it happened. You know that “reporter voice” as soon as you hear it – it’s crisp and quick, concise to the point of feeling rushed. That voice is starkly different than Koenig’s. It feels like a jolt.

And it’s certainly a jolt for the protagonist. While his reign is secure, he is comfortable, but when he gets caught, everything shifts at once. This piece gives you distinct images of (a) life before the shift, (b) the shift, then (c) life afterward. Koenig guides the listener through a time when no camera was present, then she shows you the effect of the cameras (ie, the eyes of the media), once they hit the character. This piece carries you through a powerful story, with the protagonist emerging from the dark into the light.

When you listen to this story, you’ll wonder what kind of stories might be lurking in the other nondescript buildings you’d normally just drive past without considering.

Petty Tyrant
Produced in 2010 by Sarah Koenig at This American Life
58 minutes