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Lessons from Planet Money on telling a great story

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

NPR's Planet Money (created by our own Adam Davidson) pioneered a more engaging approach to business storytelling. One of the original reporters, the brilliant Chana Joffe-Walt explained the secrets behind Planet Money's approach.

The Tricks of Planet Money

This is from an essay Chana wrote on the wonderful audio storytelling site, Transom. Read the full original version of this essay.

I want to write about producing a particular type of story that I’ve been calling the Idea Story. An Idea Story is often known by other names such as: complicated, confusing or boring. That’s because Idea Stories tend to be an investigation of a question (“…that got our reporters wondering, why is gold worth anything?“). An Idea Story can also be an explanation of something. (“…and to find out what exactly isquantitative easing,’ we turn to…”).

The problem with Idea Stories is that they lack many of the elements that we know make great radio – characters, stuff happening to the characters and scenes that you can picture. You know, Story Stories. Idea Stories fail in a lot of these areas.

That said, this is the kind of piece that when done right can be hugely satisfying to listen to. When Idea Stories are good, people will thank you for explaining something they’ve heard second referenced in the news and never quite understood. There are lots of “whoa” moments in successful Idea Stories that explore a big fundamental question in a way that shifts your perspective.

Which is all to say it can be worth the work to take these character-less, narrative-less, complicated Idea Stories and make them feel like Story Stories. This involves a lot of dress up.

Here are five tricks we all use all the time:

Trick #1: Sign-Post

A complicated story should have a script that reads like a map with a very detailed route laid out for the listener. It should state the purpose of the story upfront, remind you of the destination throughout and loudly announce each and every turn before it happens.

Let’s start with the opening. Idea Stories need a statement of purpose. Most Story Stories benefit from this too but Idea Stories can’t live without it. You are asking listeners to follow some complicated explanation or theoretical idea on the radio. People zone out for 15 seconds here and there. There is no rewind. The destination (your question or idea) is what is driving the entire piece, so you need to state it early and repeat it many times. We will often spend half of an edit on the exact words that should follow “on the show today…”

For example, David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein began a recent Idea Story podcast with a question:

David Kestenbaum: Today on the show…we want to try to answer the question ‘why gold?’ Why it’s served as money for millennia. David Kestenbaum: We go through the entire periodic table of the elements. And try to answer that question.

From the beginning you know the question (red). Then they do you another service. They tell you how they’re going to go about answering it (orange). This is a sign-post. You have already been handed a map, this is the phrase that lets you know where we are going next.

Jacob and David take us through the periodic table of elements with a very charming chemist who nixes element after element explaining why each one would make lousy money. We are on this journey with David and Jacob and we are told (with a sign-post) every time we move from one group of elements to another:

Jacob Goldstein: So we pull out the periodic table of the elements. And we start on the far right.

The chemist, Sanat Kumar, ticks off a few, then:

David Kestenbaum: OK so if you are playing at home. You can cross out the rightmost column: Helium, down through Radon. Jacob Goldstein: Big jump now. Rightmost to left mostly. Sanat swings now to the leftmost column of the periodic table.

In fact this piece is so good at stating the mission and sign-posting each transition, I’m just going to post the whole script below..

Trick #1A: Underlining and Foreshadowing

There are two more things sign-posts are really good at: underlining and foreshadowing.

A few weeks ago I turned in a piece about a trade war between Brazilian and US cotton farmers. It was a complicated, multi-step story with multiple twists and turns that eventually (20 minutes in) built to an outrageous agreement between the two countries. There was a good pay off at the end of the story but you had to stick with it a while to get there.

I tried to foreshadow this exciting twist with an opening that lay out everything that was about to happen:

Chana: Today’s show… how to buy four bales of cotton. And this story has it all. It turns out the search for cotton lands you right in the middle of a decade old international conflict. There’s an underdog named Pedro who took on the world’s largest superpower. There’s quiet money transfers, retaliation and a 147 million dollar bribe.

Planet Money Master Editor Alex Blumberg heard this piece once and tucked in 3 sentences throughout the script that gracefully plead “keep listening!”

One third of the way in is sign-post #1:

Chana: The reason Dahlin is so obsessed with Brazil, brought it up 3 times without being asked… there’s a back-story.

Sign-post #2, halfway through the piece:

Chana: If you’re Brazil there is only one option left. Retaliation. Not everyday lashing out retaliation, but a permitted, controlled retaliation process. And if you want to understand the bizarre state of global trade, just watch what happens next.

And to set up that final outrageous US/Brazil agreement:

Chana: Days after the Retaliation Master sent his list, the US sent a delegation to Brazil to negotiate. And here is where our story takes it last and final twist.

These three short phrases tell you where you are in the story and that it’ll be worth your while to keep listening.

Sign-posting can also be useful in telling listeners “here is where you should pay attention” or “this is where the lesson is.” Again Alex accomplished this in the same piece by throwing in a couple more lines:

Chana: This is the crazy thing about the WTO. It has a formal process, it has high powered lawyers and judges and 153 member countries. Countries bring major international disputes to its doors. The WTO comes out with a ruling and then…..that’s it. Nothing. If everyone wants to obey the ruling, that’s cool. If not, that’s OK too.

Imagine that graf as I originally wrote it, without that first line. I am just talking at you about the WTO process. I am hoping that you get that it’s bizarre. Alex’s line just tells people: hey this is weird.

You can do this in tape too. I interviewed an American lobbyist for the Brazil WTO story. Out of nowhere in the interview he starts thanking various officials for their work on this issue. At first I was annoyed because it sounded like (probably was) a boring prepared speech that I’d have to cut. Then I realized the whole reason I wanted to talk to him was to hear about him lobbying politicians. Here he was lobbying American politicians in the middle of our interview! So I made sure to point out what was happening:

Hear the story and read the rest of Chana's essay at Transom.

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