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February 11, 2011

Compelling business stories, a lesson from Ira Glass

Ira glass This weekend I got to see a talk at Harvard by the estimable Ira Glass of NPR's "This American Life." If you've ever heard the show, you know it's "can't turn it off and get out of the car" radio.

Ira not only told stories, he told how he tells a good story, This-American-Life style. As he put it, in a story, you have to tell the sequence (or better yet, get the subject to tell the sequence). First this happened, then this, then that, then this. Every storyteller knows this (sounds so simple). What Ira added is that after the story is told, he drops in some insight or greater lesson. It's the sequence -- first this, then that -- and then "a thought" that makes the stories more than stories. It makes them stick with you.

Ira described how he thought he had invented a new kind of storytelling, but saw his childhood Rabbi, the (now deceased) Seymour Essrog, give a sermon with the same structure. In fact, as Ira describes at 3:25 in this video, all great sermons have this structure.

This struck me right between the eyes, since it is structure we used in Groundswell and Empowered. We tell a story, then we dolly back for the long view, and tell you what it means, how to interpret it. Many business books tell stories. Many have insights. But the ones that tell the story well, then layer the insight on top, are the ones you remember. So if you want to write a good business book, just copy that.

Does this mean I write business sermons?

Of course, it takes months of research, too . . .



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