This American Conference: Production Tips from the NPR Playbook

Radio DaysThe folks at NPR (National Public Radio) sure know how to hook an audience and reel them in.

Whether it's tales from Ira Glass on This American Life, comedy from brothers Tom & Ray on Car Talk, or fascinating interviews by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, there's many a time when I arrive at my destination, only to sit in my car for 10 more minutes because I'm riveted. 

Sometimes, I think NPR is a glimpse of what life was like before TV. If only we could bottle up that recipe and use it to earn that kind of attention from our conference audiences. Perhaps we could.

As we strive to develop more compelling conference content - the kind of stuff that keeps audiences staying 10 minutes longer, here are a few lessons borrowed from NPR:

  1. Story Sequence and Momentum: Each one-hour broadcast of This American Life is divided into two, three or four acts (or stories), each supporting a central theme. On occasion, the story might be so involved, it commands the full hour. Host Ira Glass sets the stage for the hour and introduces each act. Stories are either told by the main character(s) or through interviews conducted by Glass and his team. You'll often hear supporting players chime in. These stories unfold masterfully, with each story leading into the next. I'd love to sit in on a one week production cycle for this show, if only to eavesdrop on the conversations that shape storytelling decisions.  

    Take-away for Meeting Planners: Imagine a 60-minute general session, composed of four acts with a moderator who escorts the audience through each segment. Now imagine a pitch black stage with a single spotlight on the speaker of the moment. Sometimes maybe even two spotlights, when storytelling toggles back and forth. Add vivid pictures sparingly. In the right hands, this session would be stunning and memorable.
  2. Music in Just the Right Places: Not non-stop annoying background noise. We're talking thoughtful music that ebbs and flows with the story. Sometimes even quirky or playful selections that ignite audience imaginations. Music also serves as a mental palate cleanser, helping the audience to segue from one story to the next. Nobody does music within the context of storytelling better than This American Life.

    Take-away for Meeting Planners: Maybe you'll splurge on a three-piece live combo. Or maybe a more budget-friendly choice, like royalty-free, needle-drop music. Whatever you choose, make sure it fits the narrative.
  3. A Dash of Humor: On Car Talk, the comedy and laughter carry listeners through the entire show, even those who don't really care about cars (like me). They end each show with their signature closing credits - so popular, they command a separate page on the Car Talk website. Car Talk staff credits include the esteemed law firm of Dewey, Cheetham & Howe and continue with entries like the Staff Gigolo, Spencer Cash. Each week, there are new entries, often sillier than the last batch.

    Take-away for Meeting Planners: Be careful here, but a little humor can go a long way. Imagine if you had a signature closer for each conference session like the Car Talk closing credits. It's a clever way to get your audience to stay for the coda.
  4. An Interested Interviewer: There's something about Terri Gross - the tone of her voice and the way she poses her questions that causes listeners to lean forward and listen more intently. I've heard her interview some fascinating people. I've also heard her interview a few wallflowers that needed a little coaxing to come out of their shell. She's a savvy interviewer who knows how to carry the interview along, while keeping the spotlight and attention on her guests.

    Take-away for Meeting Planners: All too often, we bring in a moderator for a panel discussion and things sound scripted. Moderators tend to run to extremes, either overshadowing the guests or disinterested in the topic. No easy tips here, except to recommend that you tune in to conversations going on in your community. Keep on the alert for people who ask great questions and prompt others to open up.

    Years ago, I was looking for just this type of person for a series of programs. I worked with a few agencies, but nobody they sent over fit the bill. Then one day, I tuned into a program on our local NPR station and there he was. Even better, he welcomed the opportunity for a little moonlighting income, with the approval of his station manager.

(photo by MarkAmsterdam via Flickr)

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