Promises, Promises

Some people have superpowers, and Ira Glass’s superpower just might be framing and introducing stories. We have been so awed by this superpower over the years that we finally decided to concatenate a bunch of Ira Glass intros, listen to all of them back-to-back, and see what kinds of lessons we could glean. We decided, in other words, to x-ray that uncanny knack he has for duct-taping us to every story This American Life presents.

This exercise is hard for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s like turning on the song of the siren and trying to not get hypnotized. While we were working on this, we had to remind ourselves, ‘No, we’re not here to listen to the stories. We’re here to listen to the introductions.’ Glass puts you right in that place where you care about what happens next… and then you have to listen to yet another introduction. The process is incredibly frustrating, and that’s because Glass is doing his job incredibly well.

Another reason the exercise is hard is there that Glass doesn’t use a formula—it’s not like the introduction to a sitcom or an NPR news show. He does, of course, use the structure of “’Act… Title of Story…” then give the name of the storyteller, as well as a couple other details—the location, maybe an important character or two, and the basic setup. But these are not the elements that get us hooked.

We noticed two elements occurring over and over in every introduction: a promise and a consistent sensibility.

Glass is a master of promising. Let’s focus on this aspect first: there’s a promise in nearly every sentence of every intro, which builds into one big promise, and the story is what ultimately delivers on that promise. Here’s one of the introductions, as an example, with our comments in bold:

Glass: “Act 1: Hasta la Vista Arnie. Scott Miller was not an experienced therapist back when everything you’re about to hear took place. (I’m about to tell you what he was.)

He was a beginner, a grad student, starting off at a local psychiatric hospital, when this patient came in. (I’m about to tell you more about the patient.)

A guy who had been doing ok, leading a more or less normal life, when one day, the guy snapped.” (Curious? Don’t worry, you’ll get details on what I mean by this.)

Scott Miller: “He would go on and on babbling about how he was the Terminator.” (Are you even more curious? Better listen to the story then…)

It’s a little like carrying a candle into a magical cave – every step shows you something that makes you want to take yet another step inside.

The other element, sensibility, is a bit more complicated to describe. It has to do with the kind of thing he promises: authentic, human-level drama. Listening to these, you get the sense that the discoveries Glass promises are the kind of things that he genuinely cares about. You see this sensibility in the foreword to Glass’ book, The New Kings of Nonfiction. Whenever he describes why a piece has been selected, these are the words that consistently appear: discovery, curiosity, empathy, transparency, human drama, and pleasure.

Here’s another example from the concatenation; this time our comments, in bold, attempt to pull out the sensibility that is inherent to the intro.

Glass: “Act 1: ‘I’m the Decider.’ You know there are all kinds of situations where we step in as reluctant proxies. (It’s good to help other people, even though sometimes it’s not convenient.)

As a favor to friends and family, taking over a chore that they don’t want to do, taking their kids or their pets off their hands for a while. (It’s good to help other people with their everyday responsibilities.)

Doing something because it’s the right thing to do and nobody else is stepping in. (Sometimes other people won’t step in to help when it’s needed, but it’s good if you do.)

That’s what happened to Davy Rothbart, more or less.” (Meet our story’s main character, who is about to do a good thing, by stepping in to help somebody.)

This story is about Davy Rothbart trying and failing to help a friend. But notice that Glass’ intro doesn’t give away the main character’s ultimate failure in the intro, but focuses instead on his sense of duty, which is the positive vein of the story, and the thing we can all relate to.

So there is no formula per se, but there is the perpetuation of promise, and more promise, and more promise. Alongside a genuine appreciation for the generous, altruistic side of human nature.

We can all mimic this, of course, in our own ways. You don’t have to be passionate about the same things Ira Glass is. Take the energy of what you love about your story, and exude that in your introduction. Your listeners will identify with your enthusiasm, disbelief, and joy. Then don’t reveal too much, just promise us that what’s coming next is worth sticking around for.

Host intros pulled from the following This American Life episodes:

15 Dawn
77 Pray
159 Mother’s Day
263 Desperate Measures
319 And the Call Was Coming from the Basement
327 By Proxy
480 Animal Sacrifice
495 Hot in My Backyard

Article written by: Bonnie Swift and Will Rogers on 10/23/2013

{jcomments on}

The Most Engrossing Horrible Vacation

The infamous story of Typhoid Mary has been told and retold so many times that many people believe they understand the whole story (that she started the outbreak of a disease she didn’t even experience). However, in “The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation,” the Radiolab team paints a new picture of Typhoid Mary, one much more relatable and personal than any I’ve heard before.

How do they make it so intimate? By recreating Mary’s point of view through reenactments of her perspective and weaving in historical documents.

The piece starts in the present, on a now-abandoned island that once quarantined victims of contagious disease, including one Mary Mallon. It then transports us back to the turn of the 20th century to Oyster Bay, New York, where several cases of typhoid emerged, all leading back to Mary Mallon as the carrier. What then ensues is a harrowing battle of wits as Mary desperately tries to convince the government that she is not, in fact, contagious.

The fact that it begins in the present elevates the listener from a mere passive bystander to being a thoroughly engrossed participant — you’re there with the producers on the island. One of them has very same view that Mary Mallon experienced, while she was quarantined. “Holy Moly!” he says, “If this is where her cabin was, then one window of it looked exactly onto Manhattan… you can see the traffic on the streets.” And by reenacting Mary’s perspective, he is recreating her point of view, giving listeners a chance to stand beside her and see what she saw all those lonely years.

Seeing what Mary saw helps listeners to begin to understand what she might have been thinking, but historical documents show us exactly what she was thinking. For example, after she is first placed under quarantine, she fights for her own release, and in the piece, an actress reads Mary’s letters to her lawyers. “I have in fact been a peep show, for everybody,” Mary’s letter says. At this point, it’s as if Mary is telling the story herself. This correspondence helps us visualize the people around her, and the time period, the way they talked.

Every story happens in a specific time and place, and in this story, the historic documents take us to the time and the reenactments take us to the place.

By the end of the story, I didn’t feel like a detached spectator, but rather an involved witness and confidant to the trials of Mary Mallon. So what actually became of her in the end? It wouldn’t do much good for me to tell you – better to let you go there yourself, and get the story straight from the source.

Podcast: The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation
Produced by: Sean Cole, Lynn Levy, Jad Abumrad, and Robert Krulwich in 2011 for Radiolab
Duration: 15 minutes

Article written by: Tina Tran on 10/10/2013

{jcomments on}

QUESTIONS FOR Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)


Wednesday, October 9, 2013
7:30 pm
Cemex Auditorium
Stanford University
Free; no registration is required

The Stanford Storytelling Project is thrilled to announce our first event of this school year: an evening with Daniel Handler, author of Adverbs, The Basic Eight, and most recently, Why We Broke Up. Under the name Lemony Snicket he has also written two best-selling series A Series of Unfortunate Events and All the Wrong Questions. He is also a screenwriter, composer and the adjunct accordionist for the band The Magnetic Fields. His latest book, When Did You See Her Last, will be released on October 15th.

In this very special event we are choosing 2-3 Stanford students to appear on stage with Daniel Handler to interview him about his writing and creative life. We will choose these students based on 5 questions submitted on the  facebook event page, by 12 noon Sunday, October 6th. Questions may also be submitted to Winners will be announced that evening.


Recovery can be pretty straightforward – you take medicine, you sleep, you wait. But sometimes getting back on your feet requires a radical act. The stories in this show are about those acts: people who have to do something surprising in order to recover.

This week on State of the Human, people are changing radically in order to recover. They are learning about interior decoration for home recovery, how to get by in the emergency room, how to let go of a loved one, and how to trade broken legs for a set of hooves.

Producers: Rachel Hamburg and Xandra Clark

Host: Sophia Paliza

Featuring: Zubair Ahmed, Ryoko Hamaguchi, Lucas Loredo, Carlos Loredo, Nina Foushee, and Greg Wrenn

Release Date: 2 October 2013

Image via flickr


Intro Story: The Happiness Project

Zubair Ahmed was sad, and he wanted to be happy. He heard that to be happy, you should love where you sleep. So he took that idea to the extreme.

Featuring: Zubair Ahmed

Producer: Rachel Hamburg

Image courtesy of Rachel Hamburg



Story 1: I Thought I Would Be an Angel of Compassion

Ryoko Hamaguchi is a premedical student at Stanford who spent much of last year volunteering in the emergency room. She thought she would find it easy to feel compassionate for her patients, but then she discovered something that plagues many medical professionals and first response teams: being a witness to suffering is hard. This is called “compassion fatigue”, and this story is about how Ryoko learned to deal with it.

Featuring: Ryoko Hamaguchi

Producer: Xandra Clark

Music: Steffen Basho-Junghans, Podington Bear, Nic Bommarito, Matt Baldwin, Gillicuddy, Augustus Bro and Gallery Six, The OO-Ray, Candlegravity, Alright lover

Image courtesy of Rachel Hamburg 


Story 2: River Road

Stanford student Lucas Loredo talks to his father for the first time about the long process of recovery after Lucas’s mother passed away.

Featuring: Lucas Loredo, Carlos Loredo




Story 3: The Surfaces of Things

How do you help someone recover when they can’t remember who you are, or what you’re doing to help them? Nina Foushee brings us this story, from the Mental Health Ward of the Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital.

Written by: Nina Foushee

Producer: Sophia Paliza

Music: Waylon Thornton, Stella Wahlstrom, Dexter Britain, Johnny Ripper

Image via flickr



Story 4: Centaur

This poem, by Stanford Jones lecturer Greg Wrenn, features a character who takes the idea of “radical recovery” to the extreme. He’s tried all sorts of ways to become a new man, and he’s got one last idea left: stop being a man; stop being a human; become something else entirely.

Written by: Greg Wrenn

Producer: Rachel Hamburg



Story 5: Concession

Zubair Ahmed discusses the difficult transition when he and his family moved from the capital of Bangladesh to a small town in Texas. His recovery from that transition was kind of an accident. It involved a gift that he didn’t quite know he had, until he was getting requests from publishing houses.

Written by: Zubair Ahmed

Producer: Rachel Hamburg

Music: Podington Bear and John Voigt