What Makes a Great Story from the Founder of StoryCorps

Audio is an intimate and authentic medium—a powerful combination for telling emotional stories.

Cross-posted with permission from The Communications Network. 

Key Takeaways

  • Authenticity is the mark of a great story.
  • Audio is an intimate medium, perfectly suited for emotional stories. 
  • Good listening is essential for an interviewer—and it allows us to find beauty in the people around us.

At the #ComNet14 in Philadelphia, I sat down to chat with Dave Isay, founder and president of StoryCorps, which collects, shares and preserves people’s recorded stories.

If you’ve listened to these stories on public radio or by podcast, you’ll understand why I wanted to get Dave’s take on storytelling: StoryCorps’ audio recordings are intimate and authentic—a powerful combination that can break your heart or change your mind about how the world works. They’re a constant reminder to communications professionals like myself that good storytelling matters.

Dave, what makes a great story?

A great story is one where you’ve captured something that feels authentic. That’s the gold standard. If you’ve captured something in your documentary or storytelling work that feels like it’s real and hasn’t been altered in any way, that’s good. In fact, it’s a kind of miracle of communications.

StoryCorps has recorded more than 50,000 interviews. Which stories have stayed with you the most?

We try to make an impact every week and I love all the stories. But there are a couple where the power of the voice sticks with me. I was at our gala last night and we played the episode with Drew Pham, an army captain, talking to his wife about his tour of duty in Afghanistan, and there’s just something about the power of his voice. Then there’s a story by a guy named Hector Black, where he talks about how his daughter was murdered, how he came to terms with her death, and then began to understand the person who murdered his daughter. And again, the power of the human voice just sucks you in.

What sets audio storytelling apart from other media?

The beauty of an authentic audio story—and I love audio—is that when you’re listening in your car or on your headphones, it’s as if that person is whispering in your ear. It’s very intimate. You’re right there. A story authentically told is like an adrenaline shot to the heart. I don’t think there’s any better way of telling emotional stories.

How has your work changed you as a listener?

I used to give speeches at journalism schools and I used to title the speech, “Don’t be an asshole.” That’s basically all it takes. You have to be honest, and open, and listen. Honestly, my wife says I’m the worst listener on the planet, and sometimes I can be. Now I run this company, so I don’t do any of these interviews, but I hire people who are extraordinarily good listeners. In fact, it’s important for all of us to stop sometimes, listen, and be present.

What has StoryCorps taught you?

StoryCorps, over the past 11 years, has made me more hopeful. You hear in these thousands and thousands and thousands of interviews—with regular people—the stories that generally don’t get told. Those are the stories we tell. And you know, if we all take the time to listen, we’ll find poetry and grace and beauty in the people around us. Obviously statistics are incredibly important—that’s certainly true for foundations—but it’s stories that are going to change people’s hearts and minds. So we all have to pay more attention to authentic storytelling.

What’s next for StoryCorps?

People who are in the communities we serve know about StoryCorps. People who listen to public radio know about us. But everybody else doesn’t. So we have a long, long way to go. We’re maybe 1 percent of the way to fulfilling our dream—which is to touch the lives of every American. We are focused on making sure this stuff gets out much farther and wider to all sorts of people. And I’m particularly interested in reaching people who might not understand the importance of StoryCorps—not preaching to the converted. To me, part of the power of StoryCorps is that it transcends politics. Even though this idea that every life matters is very political, this is just people talking to each other and telling the truth. The potential power to create change through these kinds of stories is breathtaking. But we’re just getting started.