Posts tagged “this american life”

This American Life on selling your idea

Alex Blumberg has a podcast about his journey to start a podcast-related business. A recent episode of This American Life included an excerpt from this podcast (called StartUp), in which Blumberg is half-heartedly pitching his idea to investor Chris Sacca.

They talk for a while, and Alex is having difficulty in explaining his idea and what he’s asking for.

Alex Blumberg: So it’ll take a million and a half dollars, I think. And–
Chris Sacca: Take out the “I think.”
AB: Yeah. It’ll take a million and a half– I’m looking for a million and a half to $2 million in seed-stage funding.
CS: No, no, no, no, no.
AB: Yeah.
CS: You were looking for a very specific amount of money.
AB: I’m looking for– [LAUGHS NERVOUSLY]

Finally, Chris decides he’s just going to show Alex how to pitch his idea and he very masterfully riffs a confident and coherent bit of persuasion. It’s certainly worth listening to, but here’s the excerpt from the transcript.

Hey, look, can I get two minutes from you? So here’s the thing. You probably know me, producer of This American Life, been doing it for 15 years. You know it’s the most successful radio show, top of the podcasts in iTunes, et cetera.

So here’s the thing. I realize there’s a hunger for this kind of content out there and there’s none of this [BLEEP]. It’s just a bunch of jerk [BLEEP] podcasts. Nothing’s out there.

Advertisers are dying for it. Users are dying for it. And if you look at the macro environment, we’re seeing more and more podcast integrations into cars. People want this content. It’s a whole new button in the latest version of iOS.

So here’s the thing. Nobody else can make this [BLEEP]. I know how to make it better than anybody else in the world. And so I’ve already identified a few key areas where I know there’s hunger for the podcast. We’ve got the subject matter. We’re going to launch this [BLEEP]. I know there’s advertisers who want to get involved with it.

But here’s the unfair advantage I have. Because of what I’ve done in my past careers with This American Life and with Planet Money, people are actually willing to just straight-up pay for this stuff. And I’m not just talking about traditional subscriptions. I’m talking– we did this T-shirt experiment at Planet Money where we got $600,000 coming in, where people actually gave us money to buy a t-shirt with our logo on it as part of the content. It was integrated directly. And I know we can replicate that across these other platforms.

So here’s what we’re doing. We’re putting together a million and a half dollars. That’s going to buy us three, four guys who are going to launch these three podcasts in the next 12 months. We think very easily we could get to 300,000, 400,000 net subscribers across the whole thing.

With CPMs where they are in this market right now, I know on advertising alone, we could get to break even. But as we do more of this integration, we get people texting in to donate to this stuff, buying some of this product, doing some of these integrated episodes, I know that we’re going to have on our hands here something that will ultimately scale to be a network of 12, 15 podcasts. The audience is there. They want it. Nobody else can do it like we can. Are you in?

It’s so painful to hear Alex stumble and when Chris takes over, I felt a sense of relief and a certain excitement, to hear an idea presented in a way that was designed to engage and persuade. This is a valuable skill in many aspects of professional life, especially when we’re in the business of sharing ideas. The superlative example in this podcast is quite inspiring.

The relevant section starts at 19:21 in the embedded widget below.

The dangerous power held by the interviewer

A recent episode of This American Life tells a fascinating and horrifying story of a murder confession gone wrong. The story is a reflection from the retired detective who seems to have sincerely believed the woman in question to be guilty. He realizes in his reflection that he was open to hearing what fit his theory and dismissed information or cues that didn’t support his theory (this is known as confirmation bias). This is a real concern for people doing user research who have preconceived notions about people, their behavior, their desired solutions, etc. One tactic is to develop greater self-awareness and learn to hear your own biases and assumptions.

Even more disturbing in this story is how the suspect began to provide details of the crime that supposedly only the person who committed the crime would know. In fact, this woman who would want to clear her name, responded to the questioning by shifting to please her interrogator, looking to provide the “right” answers. While the police didn’t realize it, she was picking up clues from the documents they were showing her and presenting them back as if it was her own knowledge. She wasn’t trying to confess, she was trying to succeed in answering the questions, even though it was significantly against her own interests. This is also a crucial concern for user researchers, where participants will want to please them and will work hard to figure out what “pleasing” looks like. The way you ask questions (e.g,. “Do you like doing it this way or would you rather have it happen automatically when you enter the store?”) has a tremendous influence in how they are answered.

The New York Times offers this summary

He tells about a woman who confessed to killing a man. She knew insider things like that the victim was wearing his wedding ring when he died, and that his credit card had been used at a People’s drugstore and a Chinese takeout place. Case closed.

A few weeks go by, and it turns out the woman has a strong alibi. Charges are dropped.

Years later, with the case still officially open, Detective Trainum went back to the file because he still suspected that the woman had gotten away with murder. He discovered that he and the other detectives accidentally videotaped the whole interrogation — not just the confession. That’s when he found out how an innocent person could know unreleased details of the killing.

At one point during the interrogation, they were trying to get her to admit to using the dead guy’s credit cards, and said, isn’t that your signature on these slips? And they showed them to her. So she read the name of the drugstore and the restaurant.

At another moment, they showed her the crime scene photos. In one, the left hand of the corpse was prominent. You could see the wedding ring.

So they had accidentally fed her all the incriminating details that she returned to them in the confession.

The art of the interview

Here are two insightful takes on the art of interviewing, from two different sources.

First, Ira Glass is interviewed by Jacob Weisberg (the short video is embedded below). Glass explains how he helps people feel comfortable sharing with him by bringing himself into the conversation (a technique I’m not so keen on for user research, although I’ve seen some people be successful with it). He also reveals that what is edited out of the broadcast interviews are tons of clarification questions, where he’s following up to understand the sequence of events, or the different people involved in the story, etc.

Second, How to Listen makes a good case for the authentic personal elements that we ourselves bring to our interactions with interviewees.

Dr. Mason had a simple method of getting me to begin. He would lean slightly forward, all the while maintaining eye contact and then when he got my attention, he would nod. I will never forget that nod; it was a signal that he was with me and I could safely express myself about whatever was on my mind, but I realize now that he was controlling the conversation. A cursory nod encouraged. Elongated ups and downs, (and the raising of eyebrows!) symbolized agreement.

This is the first lesson for writers – or anyone – who conducts interviews: If you want someone to talk, you’ve got to know how to listen. And good listening is a surprisingly active process. The interviewee is your focus of attention; you are there to hear what he says and thinks, exclusively. When I say, “interviewing,” I am talking from the perspective of a narrative or creative nonfiction writer. Interviewing for news is somewhat different; reporters usually know, more or less, the information they need to unearth. The writer of narrative, by contrast, is often seeking the unknown – the story behind the facts. You won’t always know the story until you hear it; your job as an interviewer, often, is to keep your subject talking.

Well, thank you for joining us

For a little Friday Fun, here’s Mike Birbiglia‘s new short film from This American Life LIVE (if you are in the US, Canada, or Australia, I highly encourage you to find a screening near you for this next Tuesday; truly a wonderful entertainment and storytelling experience).

In this short and gently comedic film, Birbiglia pokes fun at some the norms of interviewing (and being interviewed).

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