Making facts smell good

The engine clicked quietly as it cooled. Cars rolled passed as I leaned my head against the window, but I wasn’t watching to the traffic. I was seeing the skyscrapers of New York City, hearing the bustle of its streets and the curving speech of its workers, feeling the tension of sand hogs as they dug under the rivers with compressed air to bring a city of millions its water.

The voices paused, and I forced myself to click off the radio. I sighed, sad to stop the story, but I was thirty minutes late for church. I turned off the car and stepped out.

Radiolab is a radio show from WNYC, a station in New York City, and I have a hard time expressing how brilliant and enjoyable this show is. The way they tell stories and in particular design the sound for the show blows my mind every time I listen to it. To quote Radiolab’s website:

Radiolab believes your ears are a portal to another world. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience. Big questions are investigated, tinkered with, and encouraged to grow. Bring your curiosity, and we’ll feed it with possibility.

As I drove to church that morning I listened to an episode about cities—cities!–and it was fascinating. I mean, they’re talking about cities! I have never once thought about why cities form, why people congregate to them, or how they stay alive. Yet there I was, sitting in my car, listening to a physicist talk about how fast people walk and how that related to any given city. Even after I got home from church I sat in my car again and listened to the last twenty minutes of the show, captivated.

What I think they do so well is this: they make the story audibly interesting and intriguing. It’s not just facts about how cities form. The story of course involves those facts, but the sound effects and music they use to illustrate the story keep me intrigued about what will happen next.

My point is, you can’t just have facts in a story. History class in high school was boring because who really wants to remember a bunch of random dates and names in other languages? But when you make the story of the facts about discovery, about mystery, about asking why something works, about getting at the living essence of the subject matter, then I’m intrigued. My curiosity is piqued.

To that story of mystery and discovery Radiolab adds sound that is intriguing to my ears. They move the story forward at a fast pace by intercutting interviews from this expert and that random person on the street, punctuating it with expertly crafted sound effects and serene moments of silence and gentle music. Audibly it’s not just voices droning on and on. There’s sound design that matches the facts of the story and, perhaps more importantly, also its emotion. Thus even if I don’t care much about what they’re talking about, my ears are intrigued by all the sounds and shifts in auditory emotion, and I stick with the story long enough to become intrigued by the subject. Like the smell of freshly baked cookies before the eating, the sound design of Radiolab keeps me listening.

The reality is, people don’t usually care enough to listen to facts. We are too busy, too impatient, and too self-focused to give time to something we don’t really care about. The facts I have to share could be the most shocking and important facts in the world, but how do I get people to stop and listen, to engage long enough with the story to actually start caring?

The key is engaging a person’s senses. Humans are curious by nature; we want to discover new things. We hear a sound so we investigate. We smell something delicious and we go looking. We see something beautiful and we’re content to stare for hours. As crafters of stories, we need to activate those senses.

With film, the senses we have to work with are sight and sound. (Though people tried, smell-o-vision never really worked.) If we want people to care about what we’re talking about as filmmakers, we have to keep it visually and audibly interesting. This is what Radiolab does so well on a sound level. They take facts about cities (did you know that each city has its own speed of walking, and by that pace you can know how big the city is?) and shape it into a journey of mystery and discovery, coupled with an auditory journey where sounds are audible descriptions of facts and emotions are punctuated by music. And suddenly I’m sitting in my car for twenty minutes fascinated by a question I have never once considered.

Now, I would argue that you can’t only engage the senses. If you don’t have facts and it’s solely sensual stimulation, there won’t be any depth to the story, no emotional content. The facts are what engage the heart, and for a story to be long-lasting, for it to impact someone’s life, you have to engage the heart.

Some people think that engaging the senses is enough, but the problem with that is you have to increase the stimulation over time. The Lumiere films enthralled people with a stationary shot of a train arriving. Movies like Transformers would have given those viewers a seizure. But over the years we’ve gotten used to things, so the sensual stimulation has had to increase. It must be more explosive, more violent, more sexual, more chaotic in order to keep an increasingly dulled audience engaged and coming back for more. The main reason Hollywood is pushing 3D is not because people are watching less movies, but because the stimulation they’ve used in the past isn’t working well enough and they need something new and exciting to draw the crowds.

Another example is infographics. Normally I wouldn’t care about statistics; bar graphs are the ultimate example of boring. But the facts are important, so people take those same facts and make them visually interesting. Suddenly I want to look at it because my sight is intrigued, and then I start caring about why sitting is bad for me.

The facts that engage the heart have to work in conjunction with sensual stimulation. It doesn’t matter if those are real-world facts or fictional ones that you made up. If you just have facts, I won’t listen long enough to care. But if you just have sensual stimulation, my heart won’t be engaged and you’ll have to constantly come up with new things and be more extreme visually and audibly to keep me interested.

After writing this blog post, I read back over it and realized the beginning was just facts. A random person reading this would glance at the first few paragraphs and see a description of a radio show and how I went to church this morning. Talk about boring. Why should they keep reading? So I had to rewrite the intro into something that invited the reader into my own journey of discovery.

Our role as crafters of stories is to fashion a journey of mystery and discovery and put it in a context that is visually and audibly interesting.

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2 thoughts on “Making facts smell good

  1. Debbye Beverett

    Hi Jesse…I’m Vanessa’s mom…I love to read your blogs, and even through the facts of your writing, I read on to the end because it’s engaging. I can only imagine how I might have enjoyed history or science more with a different approach. I’ll definitely have to check out Radiolab. You have me very curious! Keep writing…you have a gift for it!

  2. Jesse Koepke

    Thanks, Debbye! And definitely listen to Radiolab. Every episode I listen to, I’m blown away not only by the content but by how brilliant they are at putting the show together.

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