5 lessons in storytelling from Serial

The podcast focuses on a step-by-step look back at a 1999 murder case. Executive producer Julie Snyder and host Sarah Koenig offered their insights into its phenomenal success.

Serial host Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder recently spoke at The Connecticut Forum, which hosts unscripted panel discussions featuring subject experts and celebrities.

Serial is a podcast spin-off of “This American Life” and is the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history. It covers the 1999 murder case of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee, focusing on the conviction of her 17-year-old boyfriend, Adnan Syed.

Here are outstanding quotable lessons from a night filled with storytelling inspiration:

The most grueling edits tend to be on the stories that are the most mediocre. The most work goes into saving a weak idea. —Julie Snyder

Snyder and Koenig talked at length about a question they’re often asked about the podcast: Why did it take off the way it did? Their answer was that when a good idea is really good, it tends to be easy, because it can speak for itself.

Snyder’s quote above should remind marketers and creative professionals that perhaps if an idea isn’t working, there’s a reason. The best ideas are both simple and meaningful.

Related: Download this free white paper to learn how to tell compelling stories that navigate through the noise, boost your brand and drive sales.

Women are more comfortable expressing their uncertainty, but they’re also knocked for it. It’s a ballsy thing to be honest in your reporting and not to pretend you know everything. —Julie Snyder

Snyder’s comment referred to the Serial approach to storytelling, which relied on sophisticated, in-depth reporting yet allowed the host, Koenig, to share her questions and doubts. There was no pretense of expertise, and they never promised answers. Instead, they brought the audience along on their journey and openly presented the information they had, allowing the audience to explore and interpret.

This is an especially relevant lesson for all online content creators who are bombarded with messages such as, “Showcase your expertise!” or, “Be a thought leader!” Translated to the business world: You can still be an honest, trustworthy storyteller and admit that you don’t have all the answers.

Artistry is OK in reporting if you stick to the truth. —Julie Snyder

A question the Serial team asked itself during the reporting process was, “Is it OK to make a nonfiction story as entertaining as television?”

Their answer: Yes, if it is truthful. Journalism (and all nonfiction content) can be escapist entertainment if it helps individuals open their minds to new issues or ideas.

We shouldn’t ignore real life. We should try to reflect life the way it is. We should look for details and stories that show people for who they really are and not reduce people to caricatures. —Julie Snyder

This quote is in reference to the infamous MailChimp sponsor ad that played at the beginning of each Serial episode. In the ad, a woman mispronounces the sponsor’s name, and the resulting “Mail…Kimp?” has exploded into a delightful Internet meme. Even MailChimp got in on the #MailKimp phenomenon:

A photo posted by MailChimp (@mailchimp) on Dec 11, 2014 at 7:22am PST

The takeaway: Real life isn’t polished. People make mistakes. People mispronounce email marketing service providers. That’s OK, and it’s OK to reflect this imperfect life in our storytelling.

People do have patience for journalism that takes its time. —Sarah Koenig

If nothing else, Serial proves that people still connect to good old-fashioned storytelling—and that tweets and Buzzfeed and Vines have not reduced the American public’s attention span to that of a goldfish. By February 2015, this series of 12 hour-long podcasts on a crime committed 16 years ago had been downloaded more than 68 million times.

Take that, 140 characters.

A version of this article originally appeared on Cursive Content Marketing.

(Photo by Nick Caito, courtesy of The Connecticut Forum.)


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