Back in college at good old Drake University (JO 92… T-Ders will understand), I had some pretty fantastic journalism professors. There was, of course, the legendary Bob-Woodward-Not-That-Bob-Woodward, who, though he worked in Washington, D.C., during the Watergate era, did not, in fact, do any of the reporting that brought down a president.
More important to me than Woodward was Michael Perkins, a bow-tie-wearing, tall, handsome man who, more than anyone else (including myself), believed in my ability to become a good storyteller.
Back then, oh, yes, I told stories, but I don’t think I was a storyteller. Professor Perkins helped me find my voice. That is so important in the transition from telling stories to being a storyteller.
It’s not that a storyteller’s stories all sound the same. I hope mine don’t, and I don’t think they do. But I think every storyteller should strive to develop themselves such that, if a regular reader is handed three random stories — one of which is yours — that person should be able to pick out your work.
The biggest thing Professor Perkins did for me that helped in my transition was to tell me to stop preparing for my interviews. As you might imagine, I was more than a bit surprised when he gave me this piece of advice.
“John,” he said. “You think too much. You’re focused too much on your questions, on the facts you’ve learned in your prep, and you’re not listening for the story.”
Listening for the story.
I wrote a story the other day about Robert. Here’s the truth: When I started the interview, I knew nothing about why I was talking with Robert. I vaguely remembered that at some point he had posted something on our Facebook page that talked about how grateful he was to Shriners Hospitals for changing the course of his life and that I had contacted him to see if he wanted to share his story. We arranged a Zoom, and then I had to push it back a week. Longhaul COVID sucks, and the brain fog that is a part of it is a big reason why I had no idea exactly why I was talking to Robert at the start of our Zoom.
The pre-Professor-Perkins John would have been freaking out. That John had to have a list of questions, had to know what the story was before the main source started talking, or at least have a good idea of the few different ways it could go.
So there I’d sit, with my reporters notebook on my lap with a list of a bazillion questions. Oh, it’s not like I simply went down my list. I wasn’t that bad. I listened, I engaged, I would go down the paths the interview took me, but there was always The List.
Today, the biggest piece of advice I would give to a would-be storyteller who feels stuck in his or her development is to try to do an interview with the main source of a story when you have absolutely no idea who they are and what they have to say. Forget all about preparing. No Google searches. No LinkedIn stalking. Nothing.
Just show up.
After Robert and I exchanged pleasantries, I asked him where I was talking with him from, and he told me Spokane, Wash. We talked about the weather. That ended up in the story to help bring the reader in with some sensory words. And then I asked the only question any storyteller needs to have in his or her back pocket:
“Tell me what I need to know.”
The thing is, that’s not even a question! Rather, it’s an invitation. It tells your subject, “I’m here. I’m interested. Tell me your story.”
So Robert did. And I listened.
I listened for the story.
It took awhile to come. When I first switched to the “Don’t Prepare to Do Your Job At All” method of storytelling, this would have terrified me. “I’m wasting his time!” “There’s no story here!” “Eject! Eject! Eject!”
But the reality is, everybody has a story. In fact, everybody has lots of stories. If you let them talk, if you listen, you’ll find them.
Out of the blue, Robert switched to talking about his move to Houston in 2000 and how he took up country line dancing. He told me that his mom laughed at him when she told her about his new hobby, but that he had taken it up to help him deal with her impending death.
She had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His dad had died when he was a teen. The thought of losing his mom was almost unbearable. So he danced.
This is where all the other stuff Robert had been talking about came into play. He had told me all about his Shriners Hospital journey, how he had come into the hospital as an 8-week-old in 1969 after being born with a hip defect, how he had spent most of the first two years of his life as a patient, much of that in a body cast.
“Wasn’t that the story?” you might ask.
Sure, it’s a story, but when he was telling me all of that, I knew it wasn’t the story.
How did I know? I’ll go back to what Professor Perkins said to me the day he told me to stop preparing for my interviews. “You have intuition, John. If you stop preparing and start listening for the story, you’ll find it.”
The reality was, if Robert hadn’t come to Shriners Hospital as an 8-week-old boy, if our doctors hadn’t fixed his hip, if he hadn’t gone through all that time in a body cast and the painful rehab that followed, Robert wouldn’t have been able to dance. Robert wouldn’t have been able to cope with the inevitability of his mom’s death.
That was the story.
It was really hard to stop preparing for interviews, and I admit, I cheated and would sometimes still come up with my list of questions. But I found myself looking back at them less and less while listening more and more. And somehow, just by letting people talk, by being present, by opening myself up and engaging with them … the story came. It always came.
It’s true: If you ask me five minutes before an interview what the story is going to be about, I might not be as totally clueless as I was before I talked with Robert, but most of the time I have very little idea and can, at best, give you some vague response.
I just sort of… wing it. And I think that, if there is an afterlife, Professor Perkins is smiling when I do so.
You see, Professor Perkins died on Aug. 14, 2003. He had left Drake awhile before that and was a professor at BYU. His family was so, so important to him, and he loved the outdoors. He was on a family rafting trip when there was an accident. Professor Perkins drowned. I cried when I heard the news.
So I guess maybe, even though it might not be the best way to go about my job, I do it because of who Professor Perkins was, because of how he saw me and helped me find my voice, how he molded me, shaped me, turned me from a person who told stories into a storyteller.
So yeah. Give it a try. Wing it. It might be terrifying. But it could really be worth it.