Ira Glass on Storytelling

Ira Glass, the public radio icon behind “This American Life,” spills the beans on the art of storytelling.

You’ve got to churn out a ton of work, kill your darlings, and talk like a human.

But if you can embrace the suck and keep grinding, you might just stumble upon something special.

It’s the best per-minute value on the topic of storytelling I’ve seen.

And the best part: you can watch it all for free on YouTube!

Thanks to Josh Spector for reminding me how important these videos are for Creators.

Part 1: Beginner’s Taste-Quality Gap and Story Building-Blocks


When you’re a beginner, there is a gap between your good taste and the quality of your work.

Your work disappoints you because it’s not as good as your ambitions.

This “taste-quality gap” is totally normal. The only way to close it is to produce a large volume of work.

It can take years to close this gap. Glass admits it took him longer than anyone he knows.


Tip 1: The two basic building blocks of a good story are:

  • 1) the anecdote – a sequence of actions where one thing leads to the next, and
  • 2) moments of reflection where you say something about why the story matters. A compelling story flips back and forth between these two.

Tip 2: Raise questions in the listener’s minds early…with a promise to answer the question later. For example, the main character wakes up and it’s “unearthly quiet” (later, you should answer the question why it’s so quiet).

Tip 3: Don’t be predictable (that’s the same as boring)

Tip 4: Set yourself deadlines and churn out work so you can improve.

Part 2: Finding Stories, Abandoning Crap, Embracing Failure


Finding decent stories is a huge challenge that takes up more time than producing the stories.

Even a team of experienced professionals spends over half their time looking for stories. They still abandon a third to half of what they try.

The art of storytelling requites you to kill weak stories. Creative work naturally wants to be bad. It takes constant, aggressive propping up at every stage for you to make it good.


  • Tip 1: Be ruthless about eliminating the boring parts.
  • Tip 2: Failure is an essential part of success. You need to produce a high volume of work. This gives you more chances to get lucky and find compelling stories.

Part 3:Anecdotes, Insights, Raising & Answering Questions


Two common errors in storytelling are:

Having an amazing anecdote that doesn’t actually mean anything.

Having a boring story but really great insights about it.

You need both a compelling anecdote and an interesting insight working together.

Tip: From the very beginning, constantly raise questions and then answer them. This keeps people engaged. The shape of the story throws out questions and answers them along the way.

Part 4: Authentic Voice, Depicting Interesting Character Interactions


Two mistakes beginners often make are:

Imitating the style of professional broadcasters instead of talking like a normal person.

Focusing too much on themselves rather than other interesting characters.

Everything is more compelling the more it sounds like authentic human speech. Your natural voice is better than a stiff imitation of professional broadcasters.


  • Tip 1: For most documentary-style stories, show the main character interacting with other people. Don’t just have them talking about themselves.
  • Tip 2: Even in a first-person story, what’s interesting is seeing how you interact with and depict the other people in your life. You need that interplay of characters to create drama. It also helps you avoid self-absorption in your storytelling.

Ira Glass Quotes on Storytelling

Here are my favorite Ira Glass quotes from the videos:

  • “If you’re watching this video, somebody wants to make videos…all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.” (Part 1)
  • “Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.” (Part 1)
  • “Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be.” (Part 1)
  • “It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap [between your taste and the quality of your work].” (Part 1)
  • “You’re going to take tons of stories and you’re going to abandon a lot of them…you’re gonna go out and get the tape and it’s not gonna be as good as you thought.” (Part 2)
  • “Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” (Part 2)
  • “…you have to be…like a killer about like getting rid of the boring parts and going right to the parts that are like getting to your heart” (Part 2)
  • “There are two building blocks to a story: the anecdote, and the moment of reflection.” (Part 3)
  • “From the start of the story, you want to be raising questions and answering them along the way.” (Part 3)
  • “What’s interesting is seeing [characters] interact with other people…it’s people interacting and conflicting and getting along and liking each other and hating each other…you want all the things that happen between people.” (Part 4)
  • “You want to talk like yourself…the more you talk like a human being, like yourself, the more compelling it will be.” (Part 4)

Thanks for reading!

Rob Kelly

Chief Maniac, Daily Doc