Modern Family Teaches How to Tell Stories
by Tracy Johnson
Don’t you love it when great TV shows teach you how to be a better radio personality? I hope you saw the “Five Minute” episode of Modern Family. There’s a short segment that is a perfect example of how to tell stories, and how storytellers can get off track.
Watch this scene as Jay and Gloria get into an argument. As you do, listen for tips to be a better entertainer by applying storytelling techniques.
How This Scene Teaches Storytelling
You may want to watch this clip again, pausing it at times while reading the analysis below. There’s a lot to take in during in this short five-minute segment.
Details Build Character
The scene is only five minutes, but we learn something about each character.
Why? Dialogue provides hints that help us get to know them well. And when we get to know them, we become invested in their character.
For example, we learn that Manny is about to leave for college, but is naive in what college is all about. He can’t wait to show off his cappuccino machine! In a few seconds, there’s a punchline with character definition.
Jay is a cranky old man with a heart. He is impatient and little time for anyone who wastes his time. And Gloria? She’s a lovely, distractible woman competing for attention. She’s doing her best to fit into a culture that doesn’t understand her.
Listen And Respond
When a story is told, the improv skill of listen and respond is key to success. When the flow is disrupted, the storyteller can become frustrated or distracted. It can also be confusing for the audience.
In this scene, Gloria is angry when Jay interrupts her story after she gave away the ending. He fails to support her with “Yes and….“. However, in the context of there story being told in the scene, this creates conflict. That’s a good thing for the show.
On the air, your supporting cast plays a key role in successful storytelling. Active participation is critical. When a storyteller struggles, partners can pick them up by asking a question at the right time. Or, repeating an important point can amplify an upcoming payoff.
In the scene, it seems that Jay means well, but in “trying to save” Gloria, cuts her off and shifts the spotlight. And, by fast-forwarding to the end, could have diluted the impact of her story. As part of the supporting cast, don’t try to upstage the storyteller. Help them shine.
I see myself in Jay. He’s still annoyed at her use of “a sea of unnecessary details.” Details are key to the story, but only when they help move the story forward and build anticipation for what comes next.
Jay is right when he insists,
Stories should be short and simple. Don’t tell me anything I don’t need to know.
That keeps it tight and focused. Good details are priceless. Meaningless details are death.
Taking You on a Journey
Yet Gloria has a strong counter to Jay’s claim.
I am taking you on a journey. I’m not teaching you to build a book case.
Some personalities are technical in presentation and content. Focusing on facts and information may be accurate, but it’s not interesting.
Stories that come across as mechanical aren’t nearly as compelling.
Some shows are so focused on executing their prepared segment they miss the spontaneity of a well-told story.
There’s plenty of friction between Jay and Gloria.
Jay tries to explain the difference in being colorful and taking side trips or detours. But Gloria isn’t buying it. As they squabble, the audience can feel the tension and identify with similar issues. As the tension builds, we’re left waiting to discover the outcome.
Involve All Performers
Most of the conversation is between two of the characters. While Manny isn’t as involved, Jay brings him into the storyline by asking him a question by name.
Manny participates with a quick comment. He doesn’t compete for attention or try to hijack the storyline.
Instead, he supports the scene by saying, “I like mom’s stories”. This comment adds fuel to the fire, increasing the friction. He’s playing the role of instigator, advancing the drama.
Imagine the difference if he said,
Well, I can see it both ways. On the one hand, mom can go on and on. But still, I like her stories. I remember when she told me the one about….
Making strong, powerful statements is an important part of performance.
Note: Name-tagging Manny is an effective technique, and even more important for radio.
There are two stories happening in this scene. Jay & Gloria’s fight and Manny trying to find a parking spot. Several times in the scene, Manny goes off-topic with his comment. But it never slows the pace of the scene.
Jay and Gloria acknowledge Manny’s distraction, but the storyline doesn’t detour.
It’s effective scripting for television. But for radio performers, this could be a problem. Your audience is blind. In Modern Family’s case, this technique works. On the radio, this could be a problem.
But the key point is this: When a comment takes you off course, stay focused. Don’t chase the break go down a rabbit hole.
It’s The Story, Not the Topic
It’s interesting that the argument lasts about 2:15 before we find out what Gloria’s story was about.
Why? Simple. The topic is Gloria’s story, but the story is the emotional intrigue of their dispute. That’s a great lesson for radio personalities. Many tend to present facts and information. But the connection is in emotions.
Stories are not topics. Stories are found inside the topic.
As Gloria re-tells her story, Jay stops her:
Stop. Right there you said you thought you saw Sandra Bullock. I already know the ending. It wasn’t her. End of story.
Gloria hadn’t identified the payoff of her story, but she hit the payoff. All the drama was gone.
When we hit the punchline too quickly, there’s nothing left. There’s no suspense, anticipation and expectation. The story loses momentum.
If the punchline hadn’t been revealed, the next part of the story would be terrific. But since we know it wasn’t Sandra Bullock already, it’s part of the “sea of meaningless details”. As a result, Gloria’s description of following the woman around the store was a fail.
Holding Their Attention
Even Manny, who loves her stories, stops paying attention. And he admits it. Listener attention is a precious commodity. Once they mentally tune out, it’s very difficult to get it back.
As Gloria continues with details, Jay explodes, “Nobody cares about your sunglasses. Just get to the end!”.
Imagine your audience saying that when your breaks start to wander aimlessly.
Listen to how Jay tells his story, starting at 4:19.
It’s colorful. He pauses at the right moments for impact. He adds details and emotion. And saves the reveal for the end.
And there’s a punchline. Manny has an emotional reaction: “That was really moving.”. And Jay ties the bow on it, “That’s how to tell a story.”
And fade to black. They get out at a high point.
How To Tell Stories Conclusion
Television is different than radio, of course. But the storytelling principles apply to all forms of communication. This scene demonstrates the guidelines we coach with clients.
But perhaps most important of all is how much content and personality fits into five minutes. Compare this segment with stories on your show. How are you doing?
Special thanks to Insiders Member Corey Tremere for calling my attention to this episode.
Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.