Let me get this off my chest real quick: I am infatuated with Taylor Swift. I blame Netflix and its newly released documentary, Miss Americana, which has thrown me into an obsessive 24/7 binge of her music. More on this later.
Moving right along, let’s jump into the topic of Ira Glass and storytelling.
For those unfamiliar, Ira is an American public radio personality and the host and producer of the radio and television show This American Life.
In a video I watched years ago, “Ira Glass on Storytelling,” he discusses anecdotes as being one of the two basic building blocks of a story. He explains how compelling anecdotes can be and why they are a big reason we like the idea of the story so much.
“…What I’m telling you is the most boring possible fact pattern. And yet, there’s suspense in it. It feels like something’s going to happen. And the reason why is because—literally—it’s a sequence of events like ‘This guy is doing this thing. He’s moving from space to space.’”
“You can feel through its form—that when you have one thing leading to the next, leading to the next, you can feel inherently, that you’re on a train that has a destination.”
When I was nine years old, my parents went through a divorce. I was in the fourth grade and my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Terdich, watched me process the unraveling of my life through weekly journal submissions.
I wrote. I wrote deeply. I wrote about things and went to emotional levels that were far ahead of my age. I was nine. And I was depressed. The refuge I sought in writing became a pattern throughout my life and is a place that, to this day, I go to when I feel like I have something important to say.
Over the years, I have spent a lot of energy transitioning my negative thinking into a voice of positivity. I have found that it is far more rewarding to help people than it is to drag them into emotional quagmires I often find myself in.
One night, my former business partner and (current) friend, Brian Clark, encouraged me by saying, “People want hope. You need to channel your energy into providing hope for people and help them with your expertise.”
It was a sobering exchange we had, but one that altered the way I chose to move forward. It’s something that never escapes me and drives me every time I design or write something that I send to those subscribed to my newsletter.
Back to Taylor.
I am long known as being one of Sarah McLachlan’s biggest fans, but I admit that a proverbial changing-of-the-guard is taking place. Sarah will always be my first love, but there’s a new flame in my life—and it’s because of her storytelling.
Taylor Swift needs no introduction, but here’s what I know: Miss Americana left me gobsmacked and obliterated any preconceived notions I had about her.
I have watched the documentary more times than I’d care to admit, and each time, I find something new that’s worth writing about. I’ll save you from most of it, but for the sake of brevity (oops, too late), here was the biggest shock and takeaway for me:
Taylor Swift has writing or co-writing credit on all of her songs.
This means—in some capacity—each of her 90+ songs (more than six hours of music) has an element of story in it—her story. It means that every single time we hear one of her songs, we are, as Ira puts it, on a train that has a destination. As a creative, that speaks volumes to me about who she is.
In a brilliant article, Taylor Swift’s Self-Scrutiny in “Miss Americana,” Amanda Petrusich writes (about the documentary):
“Still, it is a consistent pleasure to watch Swift work and to behold the joy that spreads across her face as she puzzles through a verse or melody. Each time she completes a song, she appears to regard it with genuine wonder.”
So let me ask you this: When was the last time you ever looked at something you wrote with genuine wonder? When was the last time you beheld the joy of telling a story? When was the last time you conducted a train that anecdotally took someone somewhere?
In the documentary, there’s a scene where Taylor paints a picture for the “massive video” she wants to produce for the first released song called “ME!” She says, “…cause it’s not going to be a small one (the video).”
She then rhetorically asks everyone in the room:
“If you were to split open my imagination, what would come out of it?”
Friends, that is how compelling stories are written, and that is how you win over fans and create a name for yourself in the industry. This story of hers? Well, it has been viewed more than 300 million times on YouTube.
You see, anyone can write a technical how-to manual. Anyone can teach you how to hang a ceiling fan or how to fix a doorknob. And anyone can give their opinion on politics or the current state of world affairs. It’s not that difficult.
But it takes a real genius to dig deep into their soul and create something—a story—that recounts a lesson learned, through authenticity, filled with hope, and one that profoundly connects with the person reading (or in Taylor’s case listening to) it.
If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that email is a very special method of communication—one perfect for storytelling.
I love what my friend Elissa says about it:
“Inboxes are like front doors. They stand between our personal lives and the busy world outside. The email traffic beyond the threshold is often a chaotic stream of noise. It’s easy to avoid opening the door. But inboxes are how we enter each other’s lives. And how lovely is it to step outside in a moment of stillness and experience nothing but fresh air? That’s the kind of email we can get excited about.”
As entrepreneurs and small business owners, we have three responsibilities:
Tell our story. Build an audience. Grow our business.
It’s time we tell our story and capture the attention of anyone willing to listen. Sure, social media is essential, but according to Brian (Clark), email remains 40 times better at converting people than it. Just think about that for a minute.
And for those of you worried about my emotional wellbeing, thanks. I find total comfort in knowing that I am not the only middle-aged Taylor Swift fan.