kenyan long-distance runners

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring the art of the “reveal”

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Think about a time when you had a big surprise to tell someone.

When you finally saw that person, did you blurt out the surprise right away, or did you make the person wait a little bit?

Chances are, you did the latter. Sometimes, of course, we cannot contain ourselves, but mostly we — consciously or not — try to raise the level of anticipation before we share our big news. Perhaps we ask, “Are you ready?” Perhaps we drag out our words (“Iiiii juuuust waaaanted to tell youuuuuu I’M HAVING A BABY!”). And most likely, perhaps we provide a little prologue or story before our announcement.

At that point, we all become storytellers.

The “reveal” is a time-honored journalistic tradition, to the point that it can often seem lame or stale. (e.g. “What Johnny didn’t know was …”) But the best storytellers know exactly how to tease and build the moment to give their reveals the most punch.

Here are a two examples from last month that do just that (and one stunning photo gallery about fall foliage):

Cut and run (11/1/13, Radiolab): This entire segment from NPR’s Radiolab is tremendous, but I will tell you the moment when I truly appreciated the storytelling here:

I had listened to about five minutes of the story, which is essentially a lesson as to why Kenyan runners always dominate long-distance running. The show’s producers and reporters kept teasing out the answer, providing possible (and then debunked) explanations and expressing their own bewilderment, while keeping their real hypothesis in the distance. I was listening while sitting at my computer, and I realized at that moment that, if I really wanted to learn the answer, I could probably just Google it and be done.

But I didn’t want to Google it. I didn’t want to spoil the big reveal. I wanted to stay on the Radiolab ride, because the story until that point had been so interesting and well-told.

Turned out the reveal was pretty great — and also gruesome. Ladies and specifically gentlemen, please do not listen to the back half of this segment on an empty stomach.