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5 Quotable Storytelling Lessons from Serial’s Sarah Koenig & Julie Snyder

5 Quotable Storytelling Lessons from Serial’s Sarah Koenig & Julie Snyder
It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to hang with amazing women storytellers while listening to other amazing women storytellers share what makes them so amazing at storytelling.
So when you have that opportunity, you take it, dammit.
Which is exactly what I did a few weeks ago, when my gal Rachael invited me to go see Serial’s Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder speak at The Connecticut Forum.
Quick catch-up:

  • Serial = a podcast spin-off of This American Life, and the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history. For the 12 episodes of Season One, host Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder took listeners through their in-depth reporting of the 1999 murder case of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee, which focused on the (rightful? wrongful?) conviction of her 17-year-old boyfriend Adnan Syed.
  • The Connecticut Forum = an organization that hosts live, unscripted panel discussions among renowned experts and celebrities. (Side note: You need to check out their upcoming season.)
  • Rachael = owner of fabulous video studio Conjoined Creative and fellow solopreneur-on-fire.

Thanks to Rachael’s sick husband (sorry Dan!) and some last-minute babysitting magic (thanks Mom!), I was able to attend this nearly sold-out event. And I’m so glad I did.

The Connecticut Forum: Serial. Photo: Sarah Koenig, Emily Cretella, Rachael Shaw, Julie Snyder

Our meet-and-greet prom photo: Sarah Koenig, Emily Cretella (me!), Rachael Shaw, Julie Snyder (The Connecticut Forum/Nick Caito)

Because while I was initially interested in the Forum as a slightly obsessed Serial fan (I mean, what about the Nisha call?), I was more interested in gaining some tips and inspiration from these storytelling masters.
The result: two fabulous hours of frantic scribbling on the back of the program book as Sarah and Julie provided an enthralling behind-the-scenes look at the making of the groundbreaking podcast.
Here are my favorite 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

Julie and Sarah talked at length about one of the main questions they receive about the podcast, which is: 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.
Julie’s quote above should remind marketers and creative professionals that perhaps if an idea isn’t working, it isn’t working for a reason. The best ideas are those that are both simple and meaningful.

The Connecticut Forum: Serial. Photo: Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder

Julie Snyder & Sarah Koenig. (The Connecticut Forum/Nick Caito)

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

Julie’s comment referred to the Serial approach to storytelling, which relied on sophisticated, in-depth reporting yet allowed the host, Sarah, 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.

The Connecticut Forum: Serial. Photo: Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder

Julie Snyder & Sarah Koenig. (The Connecticut Forum/Nick Caito)

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.

The Connecticut Forum: Serial. Photo: Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder

Julie Snyder & Sarah Koenig. (The Connecticut Forum/Nick Caito)

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

The takeaway: Real life isn’t polished. People make mistakes. People mispronounce email marketing service providers. And 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.

The Connecticut Forum: Serial. Photo: Sarah Koenig, Emily Cretella, Rachael Shaw, Julie Snyder

Me in my awkward fan-girl pose as Rachael chats casually with Sarah & Julie. (The Connecticut Forum/Nick Caito)

Want more Serial storytelling lessons? Read: “What the Success of Serial Can Teach Brands About Building An Obsessed Audience.” And if you liked this article, go ahead and sign up below to get weekly tips that will help YOU tell a better story.
Photography by Nick Caito, courtesy of The Connecticut Forum.


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