Why have people fallen in love with this podcast?
It’s been compared to The Sopranos. Before its debut, it ranked No. 1 on iTunes. When its first season was over, fans couldn’t remember what people do who aren’t listening to it.It’s Serial, a true-crime procedural by the creators of This American Life. The podcast follows the story of Adnan Syed, who has been in prison for 15 years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
What can you steal from Serial?
Why is Serial so popular? The easy answer is, because it’s a mystery: Did he do it? Suspense is the best way to grab and keep audience attention.
But organizational communicators rarely write mysteries. So what secrets can you steal from Serial to make your messages as riveting as The Sopranos?
Juicy details, examples, analogies and other concrete, colorful elements keep listeners captivated. That’s because details drive stories. As The Poynter Institute’s editorial guru Roy Peter Clark counsels: “Get the name of the dog.”
Use these examples from the first episode of Serial to inspire your own messages that glue readers to their seats:
1. Write to the reader.
Adnan’s story boils down to 21 minutes after school one day in 1999. Sarah Koenig, host of the new series, says:
“Before I get into why I’ve been doing this, I just want to point out something I’d never really thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it’s really hard to account for your time, in a detailed way, I mean.
“Can you remember?
“How’d you get to work last Wednesday, for instance? Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure?
“Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what did you buy? Who did you talk to? The entire day, name every person you talked to. It’s hard.
“Now imagine you have to account for a day that happened six weeks back. Because that’s the situation in the story I’m working on in which a bunch of teenagers had to recall a day six weeks earlier. And it was 1999, so they had to do it without the benefit of texts or Facebook or Instagram.”
Want people to pay attention? Place your audience members in the situation your protagonist finds himself in. Write to and about “you.”
2. Prove your assertions with facts.
Just in case having the audience members think about their own experiences doesn’t do the job, prove your point with concrete details. Koenig does this by asking some teenagers to remember one recent day.
Sarah Koenig: Do you remember what you did on that Friday?
Tyler: No. Not at all. I can’t remember anything.
Sarah Koenig: Wait, nothing?
Tyler: No. I can’t remember anything that far back. I’m pretty sure I was in school. I think — no?
Sarah Koenig: That’s Tyler. He’s 18. I asked my nephew Sam. He’s 18, too.
Sam: Not a clue. In school, probably. I would be in school. Actually, I think I worked that day. Yeah, I worked that day. And I went to school. That was about it.
Sarah Koenig: Actually, on second thought?
Sam: I don’t think I went to school that day.
Sarah Koenig: You don’t think you went.
Sam: Yeah, no, I didn’t. I definitely didn’t.
Sarah Koenig: Here’s Sam’s friend Elliot. He seemed to have better recall.
Elliot: Actually, I may have gone to the movies that night later.
Sarah Koenig: Do you remember what you saw?
Elliot: Now that I’m thinking. I’m sorry? Yeah, I think I saw 22 Jump Street.
Sarah Koenig: OK. And did you go with friends?
Elliot: Yeah. I went with Sam and this kid Sean, Carter, a bunch of people.
Sarah Koenig: Wait, Sam, my nephew Sam?
Elliot: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah Koenig: Oh, OK. So Sam says he was at work.
Elliot: Oh, then it wasn’t that night, then.
Notice how much more space Koenig devotes to proving her assertions than to making them. In organizational communications, we tend to make broad claims and never prove them at all.
What if you focused on the evidence instead of on the assertions?
3. Pass the red pen-yellow highlighter test.
If you ran the red pen-yellow highlighter test on this transcript, you’d wind up with way more red (concrete details) than yellow (abstract claims). In organizational communications, far too often our messages are mostly yellow: more abstract claims than concrete details to back them up.
Check out some of the details in this episode:
“Her office takes up the corner of a much larger open space that I think is a Pakistani travel agency, though it’s hard to tell.
“It’s in this little strip mall. Across the parking lot, there’s a new Pakistani restaurant, an African evangelical church, an Indian clothing shop, a convenience store. On the sidewalk outside, I found a teeny weeny bag of marijuana.”
Doesn’t that teeny bag of weed on the sidewalk tell you everything you need to know about this neighborhood?
“He was an honor roll student, volunteer EMT. He was on the football team. He was a star runner on the track team. He was the homecoming king. He led prayers at the mosque. Everybody knew Adnan to be somebody who was going to do something really big.”
Use nouns and verbs to describe people — not adjectives and adverbs. He wasn’t just “nice, active in school and church.” Koenig delivers six specific details in 48 words.
“Adnan’s in a maximum security prison in western Maryland. He calls me at my request about twice a week. He talks to me from a bank of eight pay phones in the rec hall, a pretty large room where other guys are sitting at tables with metal seats attached to them playing chess or cards or using the microwave or watching TV.”
Not just “a bank” of pay phones. The other guys aren’t just hanging out.
“Rabia hadn’t sat through the whole trial. So the first time she fully understood that the case came down to those 21 minutes was during closing arguments, when the prosecutor brought out a dummy’s head and strangled it in front of the jury. That evening, after the verdict, Rabia went to see Adnan in lockup.”
If the prosecutor strangles a dummy in front of the jury, you want to capture that in your piece!
“So there are conceivable strategic reasons why Christina Gutierrez might not have wanted to put Asia McLean on the stand. But what is inconceivable, they all said, is to not ever contact Asia McLean, to never make the call, never check it out, never find out if her story helps or hurts your case. That makes no sense whatsoever. That is not a strategy. That is a screw-up.”
5. Write the way you speak.
This American Life has built its brand in part on Ira Glass’ persona. He’s your smartest, funniest friend — the guy who can make the most technical aspects of the housing crisis entertaining and understandable.
“A maintenance guy who said he’d stopped to take a leak on his way to work discovered her there. He’d noticed a bit of her black hair poking out of a shallow grave.
“The cause of death was manual strangulation, meaning someone did it with their hands.”
We listeners know what “manual strangulation” is. But it’s more visual and colloquial to add the definition.
“I went to go see Rabia. She was surrounded by paper — files, loose stacks, binders, some crappy looking boxes — all court documents and attorney’s files from Adnan’s case. Some of the papers were warped and discolored.”
People say “crappy.” Why not say it here?
“Baltimore County is like this, at least on the west side. It’s where a lot of middle class and working class people go, many immigrants included, to get their kids out of the badass city. Though the badass city is close by.
“Rabia is 40. She’s short, and she’s got a beautiful round face framed by hijab. She’s adorable looking, but you definitely shouldn’t mess with her. She’s very smart and very tough, and she could crush you.”
People say “badass.” Why not say it here?
“Adnan says now that he does in fact remember seeing Asia in the library. The thing he remembers about it is so high school. Asia used to go out with Adnan’s friend Justin. And Justin had confided that Asia was a proper young lady. In other words, Justin wasn’t getting any.”
I love that “so high school.” Please repeat with a Valley Girl accent.
Adnan’s family hired a new attorney, who filed a petition in court based on the Asia affidavit. His argument was that Adnan’s trial could have turned out differently if Gutierrez had checked out Asia’s story. And so Adnan should get some form of what’s called post-conviction relief.
When introducing jargon, don’t just let it roll off your tongue (or pen). Acknowledge that it’s not a phrase we use everyday by saying “what’s called” or “which the lawyers call.”
6. Make it meaningful with metaphor.
Analogies are shortcuts to understanding. Bring your message to life and help readers instantly “see” your points through metaphor.
“I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mash-up — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven.”
Love that “Shakespearean mash-up.” And check out those juicy, juicy descriptions. Who wouldn’t want to hear about “secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched … and a final act of murderous revenge”?
“And the second thing, which you can’t miss about Adnan, is that he has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.”
“Like a dairy cow” helps me see, but it’s Koenig’s riff on herself here that sets up the whole serial: You’re gonna think he done it, then you’re gonna think he didn’t.
“Adnan’s trial was a long ordeal. Jay was on the stand for something like five days. A cell-phone expert testified for two days, a lifetime when you’re discussing cell tower technology. There were absences, and some bad weather closed the courts. So it was six weeks before both sides rested.”
But the jury? They moved like lightning. After just a few hours, including a lunch break, they convicted Adnan of first-degree murder. Rabia Chaudry was there in the courtroom when it happened. She says his mother was crying. She was crying.
I like lifetime … lightning. It’s balance as well as metaphor.
What techniques can you steal from Serial to make your messages as riveting as The Sopranos?