Some people have superpowers, and Ira Glass's superpower just might be framing and introducing stories. We have been so awed by this superpower over the years that we finally decided to concatenate a bunch of Ira Glass intros, listen to all of them back-to-back, and see what kinds of lessons we could glean. We decided, in other words, to x-ray that uncanny knack he has for duct-taping us to every story This American Life presents.
This exercise is hard for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s like turning on the song of the siren and trying to not get hypnotized. While we were working on this, we had to remind ourselves, ‘No, we’re not here to listen to the stories. We’re here to listen to the introductions.’ Glass puts you right in that place where you care about what happens next... and then you have to listen to yet another introduction. The process is incredibly frustrating, and that’s because Glass is doing his job incredibly well.
Another reason the exercise is hard is there that Glass doesn’t use a formula—it’s not like the introduction to a sitcom or an NPR news show. He does, of course, use the structure of “'Act... Title of Story...” then give the name of the storyteller, as well as a couple other details—the location, maybe an important character or two, and the basic setup. But these are not the elements that get us hooked.
We noticed two elements occurring over and over in every introduction: a promise and a consistent sensibility.
Glass is a master of promising. Let’s focus on this aspect first: there’s a promise in nearly every sentence of every intro, which builds into one big promise, and the story is what ultimately delivers on that promise. Here’s one of the introductions, as an example, with our comments in bold:
Glass: “Act 1: Hasta la Vista Arnie. Scott Miller was not an experienced therapist back when everything you’re about to hear took place. (I’m about to tell you what he was.)
He was a beginner, a grad student, starting off at a local psychiatric hospital, when this patient came in. (I’m about to tell you more about the patient.)
A guy who had been doing ok, leading a more or less normal life, when one day, the guy snapped.” (Curious? Don’t worry, you’ll get details on what I mean by this.)
Scott Miller: “He would go on and on babbling about how he was the Terminator.” (Are you even more curious? Better listen to the story then...)
It’s a little like carrying a candle into a magical cave - every step shows you something that makes you want to take yet another step inside.
The other element, sensibility, is a bit more complicated to describe. It has to do with the kind of thing he promises: authentic, human-level drama. Listening to these, you get the sense that the discoveries Glass promises are the kind of things that he genuinely cares about. You see this sensibility in the foreword to Glass’ book, The New Kings of Nonfiction. Whenever he describes why a piece has been selected, these are the words that consistently appear: discovery, curiosity, empathy, transparency, human drama, and pleasure.
Here’s another example from the concatenation; this time our comments, in bold, attempt to pull out the sensibility that is inherent to the intro.
Glass: “Act 1: ‘I’m the Decider.’ You know there are all kinds of situations where we step in as reluctant proxies. (It’s good to help other people, even though sometimes it’s not convenient.)
As a favor to friends and family, taking over a chore that they don’t want to do, taking their kids or their pets off their hands for a while. (It’s good to help other people with their everyday responsibilities.)
Doing something because it’s the right thing to do and nobody else is stepping in. (Sometimes other people won’t step in to help when it’s needed, but it’s good if you do.)
That’s what happened to Davy Rothbart, more or less.” (Meet our story’s main character, who is about to do a good thing, by stepping in to help somebody.)
This story is about Davy Rothbart trying and failing to help a friend. But notice that Glass’ intro doesn’t give away the main character’s ultimate failure in the intro, but focuses instead on his sense of duty, which is the positive vein of the story, and the thing we can all relate to.
So there is no formula per se, but there is the perpetuation of promise, and more promise, and more promise. Alongside a genuine appreciation for the generous, altruistic side of human nature.
We can all mimic this, of course, in our own ways. You don’t have to be passionate about the same things Ira Glass is. Take the energy of what you love about your story, and exude that in your introduction. Your listeners will identify with your enthusiasm, disbelief, and joy. Then don’t reveal too much, just promise us that what’s coming next is worth sticking around for.
Host intros pulled from the following This American Life episodes:
159 Mother’s Day
263 Desperate Measures
319 And the Call Was Coming from the Basement
327 By Proxy
480 Animal Sacrifice
495 Hot in My Backyard