I’ve listened to hundreds of podcasts, and I can count on one hand the ones that have brought tears to my eyes.
The first time I listened to This American Life’s ‘Kid Logic’ was back in February. I was walking around Stanford, streaming it on my iPhone. The first piece, called “Baby Scientists with Faulty Data,” is all about how kids use their own brands of “logic” to come to scientific conclusions. For instance, an African American woman talks about the first time she saw white people, and how she assumed they must be ghosts.
In the last four minutes of the segment (starting at 13:11), Jack Hitt recounts the time he told his four-year-old daughter about Jesus. Now, it isn’t every day that I hear about Jesus, Christianity, or any religion on the radio or on TV. And on the rare occasion I do, religion is often cast in a tentative, skeptical light. As a religious person, I’m used to bracing myself for the moment in radio pieces in which religious beliefs are undercut.
But that’s not what happened here. In fact, if anything, the opposite happened. By the time Hitt finished his story, I noticed tears welling up in my eyes. I was touched. I was surprised. I felt like this little short segment was a personal shout out to listeners who believe in Jesus, like me. This level of surprise is part of what made me cry, but later I realized that the surprise in this story is functioning on other levels too, namely at the level of character.
Here’s a quick synopsis of the story. Hitt tells his daughter the story of Jesus, and when he subsequently tells her about Martin Luther King, Jr., he explains that King’s message was “You should treat everybody the same, no matter what they look like.” His daughter replies, “Well, that’s what Jesus said.” Hitt pauses to consider what his daughter said, and (spoiler alert!) after a minute she looks up at him and asks, “Did they kill him [King], too?”
A few weeks later I ran into Anish, a friend of mine who is an atheist. We both love This American Life. He told me, “I heard something on This American Life recently that was one of the most moving pieces in radio that I’ve heard in a long time.” I flipped through my mental catalogue of shows in an effort to try to guess which episode he was referring to. His answer caught me off guard — the piece he found moving? “The one where the little girl talks to her dad about Jesus.”
As I chatted with Anish, I realized that the reason this piece moved me and Anish had little to do with our religious beliefs, and a lot more to do with Hitt’s narrative technique. In less than 4 minutes, Hitt had managed to tell a story that was at once believable, yet very surprising. But what gives this surprise such emotional weight?
A surprise happens when expectations are created, then inverted. The surprise in this story functions primarily at the level of character construction. There is something so innocent, and so unadulterated about a little child making this connection between Jesus and King-- but there is also something so unexpected about the connection too.
One of the reasons the exchange between Hitt and his daughter is so moving is that his daughter is only four-years-old. Hitt makes sure to emphasize this fact throughout the piece – he does everything from speaking in an excited, childlike voice when he narrates her parts, to pointing out that her pre-school celebrates MLK Day. Hitt never says, “I thought she was too young to draw insightful connections,” but from the way he presents her, we, as listeners, subconsciously make that assumption. We don’t expect Hitt’s daughter to be able to make those deep connections between Jesus and King, so we are completely floored when she does.
I believe that Hitt was genuinely surprised by his daughter’s observation, but notice that he doesn’t say, “I was surprised.” Instead, he shows his surprise by painting an innocent, charming picture his young daughter, and surprising us with a few well-crafted lines of dialogue.
If you want to surprise your audience (and perhaps make them reach for a tissue), try it through characterization: create a set of expectations about your character, then turn those expectations in-side-out.
This American Life, “Baby Scientists with Faulty Data”
Jack Hitt piece begins at 13:11 (4 min)