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Ira Glass Explains Storytelling

Last night, I finally watched season 2 of This American Life (the TV version), and it wrung me out good. I’m a longtime fan of the radio show, and I thought season 1 of the Showtime series was great, but even so, I was surprised by the truth and beauty of season 2. The finale, “John Smith,” is one of the most affecting and genuine films I’ve ever seen. It’s 17 E.T.s worth of humanity.

Here’s the trailer for season 2:

Anyway, during my great-TV hangover this morning, I was looking up This American Life stuff, and rediscovered Ira Glass’ explanation of the elements of great storytelling. This is more than two years old, so you might have seen it already, but I wanted it to be here.

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This American Life vs. Financial Jibber Jabber

This American Life recently broadcast the third installment in their fantastic series of shows explaining our current financial mess. All three episodes are available for free online:

  1. The Giant Pool of Money
  2. Another Frightening Show About the Economy
  3. Bad Bank

This article from the American Journalism Review notes that the series impressed even government big wigs. Montana Senator Max Baucus and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner apparently sang its praises during a congressional hearing last week. Baucus would like government officals to follow T.A.L.’s example and explain themselves better. Hear hear!

The article also quotes Alex Blumberg, the producer who spearheaded the series. This insight sure rings true to me:

Blumberg thinks part of the formula’s success is not getting caught up in the jargon. “We have outsider status. We are not a business program, and we were never a business program,” Blumberg says, admitting that before he started the project he was as ignorant as the next person about the intricacies of high finance.

“The one thing I do have expertise in is figuring out how to tell a story. All these storytelling tricks we have learned over the years we have brought to bear in the same way,” Blumberg says.

When you’re breaking down a difficult subject for a general audience, a non-expert storyteller is usually the best explainer for the job. If you’ve just learned something yourself, you’re better able to relate to the audience. You know what they know and don’t know, and where the most confusing hurdles are.

Dave found the story via @jayrosen_nyu, who is wondering why the established press isn’t capturing the market for good news explainers. Excellent question.

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Economic Meltdown Scapegoat #87: Jargon

It would be a huge stretch to blame our current economic troubles entirely on jargon, but it did play a part.

I’m thinking specifically about the mortgage bubble. I’ve brought three houses, and every time, I was overwhelmed by the unnecessarily cryptic language involved. The vast majority of people who buy and sell houses aren’t lawyers or mortgage brokers, yet all the paperwork seems designed to mystify any non-expert.

And of course, it partly is. If you can confuse somebody, it will be easier to talk them into giving you more money. The Truth in Lending Act requires lenders to provide the buyer with the terms of the loan, but, through the power of jargon, they can make that disclosure murky and intimidating. (If you’ve never been through the home-buying wringer, check out this glossary to see what I mean.)

In short, the baffling language of loans helped create an environment where many home buyers feel like they have no prayer of making sense of it all, so they just have to take an expert’s word for it. In most cases, the nearest experts are the mortgage broker and the real estate age, both of whom have (or rather, had) an economic incentive in buyers borrowing more money than is prudent.

You see similar problems in other industries. Crooked mechanics spew enough ominous car jargon that you just pay the bill to make it all go away. Mediocre programmers turn on the tech talk to explain away glitches to their non-techy clients and coworkers. Hurried doctors hurl perplexing medical terms to push you toward their preferred course of treatment.

Jargon isn’t inherently bad, of course. Among experts, it makes communication much more efficient. But more often than not, jargon that spills out into the world of non-experts is repressive. People use it as a tool to tip others off balance and make them feel small. And even if you’re not the devious sort, it’s easy to do this accidentally unless you check your jargon levels vigilantly.

(While on this subject of mortgages, let me be the zillionth explaining nerd to point to “The Giant Pool of Money” from This American Life)