A few weeks ago, my dad and I drove from Spotsylvania all the way south to Orlando. It was a 13 or 14 hour drive, and we listened to radio dramas most of the way down. We make this drive every year or so to visit family – I’m the only one left who isn’t in the “airplane or bust” party. I like the road trip, and I like the radio shows! I always loved the cadence of their speech… the transatlantic accent that made people sound so sophisticated, or the quick and uniform “get-the-message-out-like-it’s-a-telegraph” way that men or women would read as newscasters. I thought that this week, if I was going to record something, I’d want to try to sound like one of those fancy radio people! But Ira Glass told me it’s probably not the best idea.
Ira’s advice is great – he lays down the do’s and don’ts of how to be the best storyteller you can be, and one of the most important points I think he makes is to sound like yourself. This issue comes up in the third video, in which he discusses good taste. He plays a recording of a story he told in his eighth year in radio, and even if someone wasn’t watching the video itself but only listening, they’d know he was embarrassed! He pauses the audio a few times and chuckles at himself, then gives explanations for what young Ira had been doing wrong. In this case, not only was the story poorly told, but Ira was not speaking with his own voice. It didn’t sound like the personal, amicable conversation we expect from an NPR show now, but more like a stilted newscast that the reporter was reading for the first time. “Like, what am I talking about? I don’t even understand… like, I wrote this; I don’t even understand what it is!” he laughs after listening to himself for about 10 seconds. Then he gives criticism – for example, “you don’t underline every third word for emphasis because it sounds really unnatural.” The comments he made throughout the recording of himself were done in his own natural speaking voice, and the natural speaking voice is one that people are more inclined to follow. He sounds more personable, and, well… like a person.
The importance of the cadence of a person’s voice and the content of their storytelling is even more evident by Jad Abumrad. In radio, all you have is sound. Telling a good story, therefore, requires some cooperation between the storyteller and the listener. The storyteller can provide the framework, saying that the sun cast a peachy color like a fox’s belly, but it’s the listener that decides what that picture looks like. He gave the description, but I’m the one that painted the picture. Thinking back to Ira’s conversation about the way we speak – would this co-authoring even be possible if Jad’s style of speaking was stilted, confrontational, boring, or hard to follow?
“The power of this medium is rooted in the human voice,” he notes. I think that it’s more than the co-authoring of the story that creates empathy, but it’s the relatability and overall humanness of the person’s voice that lets that empathy be created and recreated in the first place. If I heard Ira’s old story about the corn and sorghum I’d definitely space out, even though there is a good reason to tell it. It was just plain old hard to listen to. When he retells it in his own natural cadence, it becomes more compelling.
Ira’s storytelling improved with the more stories he told. As a storyteller, I’ll probably end up telling a lot of corn and sorghum stories, and then after a while I’ll figure out how to tell some really good ones. For me, it’s important that I get over the fear that my abilities will never reach my tastes and embracing that fearful gut churning feeling and instead looking at it as a way to tell me that I’m going in the right direction.