Drowning Puppies (updated)

There was a really great interview with Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life on Fresh Air the other day. (Listen to the show here). It’s an example from a very different field of the challenge of prioritizing and editing ideas so that only the strongest and most relevant ones are pursued, and how one has to make sure one is applying the right perspective in making the prioritization.

What prompted the interview was This American Life is now going to be on TV as well, in a series produced for the Showtime cable channel. It was fascinating to hear Glass talk about the differences of what works on TV vs radio. He described one story that they’d shot for the TV show but ran a version of it on the radio show also, as they weren’t sure at that point whether the TV series would actually fly. The two spots had to be edited quite differently and what worked in one didn’t work in the other.

The story they were telling with the spot was about a farmer who had had a clone made of his favorite bull before the bull died. In itself, moderately interesting. But then this happened: The clone of the beloved bull then tried to kill the farmer.

On the radio version they had one of their producers describe seeing the bull attack the farmer. It was an emotionally charged sound clip, not just because of what she was talking about (the bull throwing the farmer up in the air and trying to trample him) but also because of her intense tone and shaky voice. As Glass put it, it was the emotional peak of the story.

However, when it came to editing the TV version of the same story they had to leave the clip out. Why? Because the look of the producer - New York twentysomething with piercings and streaked hair coloring - was felt to be too much of a distraction. They thought that people would just feel like she was a city slicker who was too soft and didn’t understand the roughness of farm life.

It was very difficult for Ira Glass to not use it, because his whole career had been based on finding great pieces of tape and then thinking of ways to use them, and here was an example where he had to go against every instinct and not use it. He had to understand the context and obey it.

Hearing Glass reminded me of Code Name Ginger, the book written about Dean Kamen and the development of the Segway transporter. It’s a really interesting book and gives a good inside account of a product development process (and the peripheral effects of the dot com buzz bubble). The team working on it was prolific at coming up with ideas and they rapidly had more than they could reasonably develop. They had a phrase for the process of prioritizing and editing ideas: You have to drown some puppies.

Now of course this is a horrible image, but it effectively communicates that ideas (concepts, innovations) are like puppies: they bounce around and are happy and full of hope and energy, and you have an emotional attachement to them, but the fact is that you can’t “feed” them all. You have to pick the strongest and kill the others. Making that decision requires a clear-eyed understanding of your goals, the context you’re working in (who you’re designing for, competition, cultural trends, business factors, brand fit, etc.).

Sometimes that requires painful choices, as Ira Glass discovered.

(Update: Just saw that Ira Glass has a video on storytelling which is, well, terrific. Thanks xblog