Shaking Up Storytelling Formulas

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I think Planet Money overdid it. In an effort to be creative and help make the uninteresting interesting, they went too far. And that’s a good thing. As Robert Smith, a reporter for Planet Money, told me on this episode of HowSound, “It’s almost just better. . .to fail in that way rather than fail in the ‘Oh, it was okay. It was a little dull but it was clear. It was understandable.’”

The Planet Money story in question is “Messy Nobel,” a story about the 2016 Nobel Prize in economics. Robert and the team at Planet Money planned, as always, to report on the prize. But when it was awarded to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom for their contributions to “contract theory” back in the 1980s, they worried the subject was too complicated, dry, and arcane to report on for radio. In fact, they nearly skipped it altogether. Said Robert, “We thought this may not actually work and we’ll have to throw the whole thing away.” But then he came up with a really weird idea and they decided to give it a try.

In short, they told the story employing “Oblique Strategies” to insert randomness and shake up the storytelling — an approach I’ve not heard of before. I’ll explain their use of “chance” in greater detail in this episode.

In the end, using “Oblique Strategies” made the story of “contract theory” and the Nobel award more interesting, to be sure. But it also made it hard to follow. In addition to explaining the theory and why it was important to the field of economics, Robert and his co-host Jacob Goldstein, also had to explain “Oblique Strategies” which is pretty arcane in its own right. While listening to “Messy Nobel,” I occasionally lost track of what I was supposed to focus on.

That said, Planet Money didn’t fail. Not by a long shot. Indeed, Robert and Jacob stumbled across a storytelling technique that gave an esoteric topic the shot in the arm it badly needed.

For Robert, someone who could practically file a Planet Money story in his sleep using a rather formulaic approach, “Oblique Strategies” was a form of radio storytelling therapy. “I mean, for people just starting in radio and audio everything feels new,” he said. “Everything feels random and oblique and exciting and that’s great. Like, I miss that. And when you’ve done it a while. . . it’s easy to just get stuck in the same rut. And, so, you know, it’s something for people who have done this for a while to consciously think: How do I become a new producer again? How do I see things differently? How do I not judge stories so quickly? How do I not call the same people and use the same structure and the same words over and over again? Like, you have to rediscover the fun!”

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  • Chris Hall

    1.29.17

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    When I first heard this on Planet Money, I was all “this is weird.” It’s great to hear Robert Smith explain this and put this story in context. And he’s totally right about how everything is new and exciting to newbies. I’ve only produced a handful of stories so far for my own podcast, and it’s all new, scary, and exciting. Every last bit.

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