Exaggeration Is a Key to a Great Story
by Tracy Johnson
Jeff & Jer were great storytellers. They shared their lives on the air every single day. How did they do it? By understanding story anatomy, and through creative exaggeration.
Jeff Elliott shared some of the secrets behind how the show turns seemingly ordinary events from their lives into share-able, repeatable entertainment:
This is where the skills of an improv troupe is useful. They call it advancing the football; making sure you’re taking chances and playing with others so that unexpected moments arise. Never blocking the advancement of the bit. You can block the bit by your attitude or mood, by cheap, easy punch lines, or by lack of investment in the game at hand.
The game, of course, is creating drama. That means everyone on the show must block distractions and come into the room focused and prepared. And, ready to play and exaggerate.
Magical Moments Through Exaggeration
Magical moments come from cracking up the entire room up with an unexpected, honest reaction, or relating something personal they’ve never heard before.
It happens when you are bold enough to ask questions of a guest that lead to answers which become quotable in other media.
They happen when you train yourself to constantly think, “How can I make this bit larger? How can I say or do something that will make it bigger, memorable to the listener?”
In other words, breaks become memorable when you advance from ordinary to extraordinary through exaggeration.
These moments can be funny, outrageous and over-the-top, but they might also be sensitive and personal. Jeff talked about how their show reaches listeners through many emotions,
It might come in a warm and fuzzy way, by personally investing in a caller’s situation. Or it could come in standing up for something about which you feel strongly, or from being present enough to actually listen and respond to callers and other cast members.
The magic happens when you’re alert enough to catch something that can be repeated or replayed to generate buzz by stepping on the gas and making it larger than life.
Exaggeration With Structure
Another important element is building a segment from Hook to Payoff, which requires preparation and takes a certain amount of discipline. Jeff says:
We had to learn to delay the payoff. Dropping listener bread crumbs makes it bigger. It’s another form of exaggeration.
If the material is strong enough, we can create a cliff-hanger to lure an audience across a stop set, to another hour, or serialize it to the next day, or in some cases even throughout the week.
We learned to advance a bit to just the right moment where people have to know the outcome, then find a way to bounce it to the next break or next day. This creates drama in a big way.
Exaggeration Impacts Ratings
PPM programming tactics have reduced the amount of time personalities have to develop content, and the natural response from many shows has been to eliminate entertainment.
That’s a fundamental mistake that needs to be corrected. We can’t sacrifice dramatic moments for the mechanical tactics that seem to work in PPM. And it makes exaggeration even more critical.
Elliott understands that an adjustment is necessary but it does not remove the responsibility to entertain.
We are very cognizant of the conventions of PPM. For the first time in our careers we are not just stream of consciousness, but are committed to a clock, to structure.
That seems to positively impact the meters, and it forces us to create these moments within that structure. That can be done, but we also have to realize that there will be moments that demand we just ride the bit; let it breathe and grow when we see a didja hear moment coming.
And those moments are usually the result of an exaggerated or embellished story.
If these moments cost us a meter for a quarter hour that day, they are worth it for the long-term image and relevance of the show.
The Risk Of Staying The Same
Why not keep doing it the way you always have? After all, it’s worked in the past, it’s easier, and doesn’t demand as much time or attention. Simple: Because of the rewards.
Here’s Elliott again talking about the satisfaction of making a difference in listener’s lives:
This kind of radio is truly exhausting. The best show prep is probably a good night’s sleep and an attitude of fun and playfulness in the studio.
The reward, other than ratings and bonus checks is a wonderful feeling while driving home after a show (not a shift) where you just know that you rode the show, rather than the show riding you.
You created radio that had tremendous momentum, and impacted lives. You made a difference. And often, this means we have to exaggerate, but never lie.
I remember being 16, filling in on the morning show in my hometown, and getting to the school office to sign in late. The school secretary commented about something I said that morning about a news anchor’s new glasses. She told the other secretary about it.
It felt great. And it still does.
Well said Jeff. It’s no accident you’re in the Hall of Fame.