Lessons from Ira Glass

From “How to Tell a Story” to “How to Drive Across the Country While Learning to Speak Spanish,” This American Life host Ira Glass shares his lessons learned.


“It’s normal to be bad before you’re good,” a sentiment that’s even more reassuring because it came from the mouth of renowned This American Life radio show host Ira Glass.

With the attention of a packed crowd at the intimate Rialto Theater on June 24, Glass enlightened the audience with “Seven Things I’ve Learned.” Throughout his career at National Public Radio — creating more than 20 years’ worth of content for This American Life — Glass has slowly mastered the art of constructing meaningful stories. During his Tacoma visit, however, he focused on dissecting those decades, replaying the years spent finessing his craft.

In his first lesson, “How to Tell a Story,” Glass argued that it is not always the content of a story that matters — banal events can become encapsulating stories, so long as they are told with narrative anticipation and forward motion.

One of his favorite stories, for example, is a This American Life episode about a Jeep dealership on Long Island and their attempt to reach a monthly sales goal. Within the first minute of the story, listeners are completely immersed in the trials and tribulations of these car-selling strangers.

Part of what keeps Glass’s listeners on the edge of their seats is the way in which his stories drive toward something much bigger than plot; the narrative always zooms out to say something about who the characters truly are, and how they see the world. But it’s not always so easy to turn a seemingly boring story into one that encapsulates an audience – it took years for Glass to figure out how to tell a story like this.

“I was bad for a really long time,” Glass said before playing a rather kitschy clip from his early years at NPR when he visited an Oreo production factory. Audio of his awkward, 20-something self came over the air, describing the events at the factory with lackluster detail. The most glaring criticism he has of his early work is the unnatural word choice and lack of flow. He advises writers with similar problems to “write how you think; write how you talk.”

Glass has toured the country within this scheme of “Seven Things” on and off for several years, but the content of these lessons changes with time and relevance. Here are the highlights from the event:

How to Tell a Story

All you need is characters, forward motion, and a big picture.

How to Interview Kids

To journalists who feel like they get nothing out of their interviews with kids, Glass says they are just asking the wrong questions. He describes the experience of writing a story about Joseph “Joe No Love” Kendrick, a 14-year-old who refused to believe in love because of the dozens of middle school relationships he witnessed fail. Glass asked some of his classmates if there was much drama between boys and girls at school, resulting in hours of response content.

It’s Normal to be Bad Before You’re Good

Creative skills often require years to refine. Not everyone was a childhood writing prodigy — not even Glass.

How to Drive Across the Country While Learning to Speak Spanish

This anecdotal lesson described a story Glass wrote about Dan Curry, a guy who drove across the country with 16 hours of Spanish language lessons on CD. Three days into his trip, Glass called him. Curry still hadn’t learned that “salsa” meant “sauce.”

Failure is Success

As with many of his broadcasted stories, Glass’s talk balanced humor with heartache. He hit a somber note when telling a personal story about the recent separation from his wife, and their dog’s confused position in the middle of it all. Glass encouraged the audience to take their failures as opportunities for growth and encouraged writers to process their failures through storytelling.

Try Stuff

Whether it’s making a news story into a musical written by Lin Manuel Miranda or performing alongside a touring dance company, Glass assured the audience that it’s often worth it to step out of your comfort zone.

It’s War

In his final “Thing,” Glass candidly discussed the state of news media and the threat of misleading, non-factual information which plagues the internet. He finds comfort, however, in the talent and strength of today’s investigative journalists. Glass believes the best thing we can do is keep telling good stories — fact-based ones.

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