Most of what hear about America these days outlines our frustrations – the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, middle class jobs fading away, hate-filled politics that prefers gridlock to compromise. What we know about America mostly comes from journalists who travel in herds, trailing politicians or camped out at big stories, pouncing on problems to repeat over and over. They offer up celebrity experts for solutions, the people who spend their busy days spouting opinions to cameras, while others in the shadows quietly make America work.
America survives and thrives because of all those names we don’t know, seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They don’t run for president or go on talk shows, but without them, the best of America would not exist. Bob Dotson has traveled more than four million miles, crisscrossing America practically non-stop for half a century, searching for people who are practically invisible, the ones who change our lives, but don’t take time to tweet and tell us about it.
His long-running series, “The American Story with Bob Dotson,” was a regular feature on the TODAY Show until his retirement on the 40th anniversary of the day he joined NBC. I met Bob in 1998 at the National Press Photographers Association workshop in Norman, Oklahoma. It was that day, I began a journey of telling stories. He taught me the passion and skill behind the interview, something I use everyday of my professional career.
Check Out Links Below:
- NBC News: Bob Dotson looks back at 40 years of American Stories
- Book: American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things
- Book: Make It Memorable: Writing and Packaging Visual News with Style
- Additional Music Reference: The Ants That Built A City On His Chest by Doctor Turtle is licensed under CC BY 4.0.
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Bobby Rettew: Intersection is brought to you by Social Health Institute, exploring new and innovative ways for hospitals and healthcare organizations to develop and enhance their social media and digital marketing strategies. Learn more at socialhealthinstitute.com.
Bob Dotson: You know when someone asks me my favorite story, I generally say, “The next one.”
Bobby Rettew: Welcome to Intersection. I’m Bobby Rettew storyteller.
Bob Dotson: Hi, this is Bob Dotson. You may not remember the name, but you might recognize my voice. For 40 years I was a correspondent on NBC and for 25 years I reported a segment on the Today Show called The American Story. I got the pleasure of traveling around this country almost four million miles, practically nonstop on NBC’s nickel and hang out with the kind of people you’d like to meet on vacation. They’re just ordinary people, but by gosh they have figured out ways to solve problems that we all face and that was quite a career.
Bobby Rettew: Most of what we hear about America these days outlines our frustrations. The widening gap between the haves and have nots, middle class jobs fading away, hate-filled politics that prefers gridlock to compromise. What we know about America mostly comes from journalists who travel in herds, trailing politicians or camped out at big stories, pouncing on problems to repeat over and over. They offer up celebrity experts for solutions, the people who spend their busy days spouting opinions to cameras while others in the shadows quietly make America work.
America survives and thrives because of all those names we don’t know, seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They don’t run for president or go on talk shows, but without them the best of America would not exist. These are the words of Bob Dotson, who has traveled more than four million miles, crisscrossing America practically nonstop for half a century, searching for people who are practically invisible, the ones who change our lives but don’t take time to tweet and tell us about it.
I met Bob in 1998 at the National Press Photographers’ Association workshop in Norman, Oklahoma. It was that day I began a journey of telling stories. He taught me the passion and the skill behind the interview, something I use every day of my professional career. Bob Dotson is one of the most honored storytellers of our time.
How did you get to NBC news? Did it just magically happen, one day you woke up and started working there? So tell us your path to NBC.
Bob Dotson: My path to the network started when I was eight years old. Now that seems kinda strange but I’ll tell you why. I used to spend summers in a small town called Hiawatha, Kansas with my grandparents, and after dinner we’d go out on the front porch and start rocking in the swing and my grandfather would start telling me stories. Now most older people will say I belong to the Kiwanis Club and I was in the 4th Infantry and about two minutes in you’re falling asleep, but my grandfather would always start his stories with something like this, “Did I ever tell you about my honeymoon?”
Of course even at eight, I was interested, but I said, “No.” He said, “Well, yeah,” he says, “you know your grandmother and I we were on a train going to Salt Lake City,” and I was kind of a snarky kid, so I said, “Why would you go on your honeymoon to Salt Lake City?” “I had a free ticket,” and he said, We were in the dining car and the conductor wobbles up to us and he said, ‘Are you Paul Bailey and do you live in a little tiny town in Kansas?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he says, ‘Well, I’m your oldest brother who you’ve never met.'”
Bobby Rettew: Oh my gosh.
Bob Dotson: My grandfather was the last of 10 kids, so this guy must have been like in his 20s right, and he went West after the Civil War as many people did, he tried to get a job on a railroad up in North Dakota and that was the Great Northern Railroad. Well, the kinds of families that were getting jobs all had Norwegian or Swedish surnames, so he changed his name from Bailey to Bailison, so he could get the job, and in those days if you didn’t have property and most people didn’t and your parents sent you a letter, it went to general delivery and of course the last known town where this guy lived, the postmaster knew a Bailison, but he didn’t know any Bailey so it all just went into the dead letter file, so he didn’t pay any attention to it.
Anyway, I have a postcard that I have over my desk and it shows my grandfather and grandmother and this older brother floating on their backs in the great Salt Lake, you know with the hats and the spaghetti string swimsuits and it must have been the first tweet of the 20th century because it was a postcard back to the mother and all it says is, “Ma, We found Vance. More later.”
So if you grow up on a front porch with a storyteller like that, you’re more interested than just who, what, when where and why. You’re interested in a yarn, spin me a yarn. My grandfather used to say, “When you tell me a story pretend like you’re standing at fence talking to your neighbor and lean over and make me interested in it even if I don’t think I am.” So that’s where it started.
I go to Oklahoma. My first job was with NBC affiliate down there. So my entire career was with NBC, which is amazing for somebody in television news because usually you make more money if you move someplace else, but like I said earlier, I had the world’s best job, I knew it early on, and so I just figured I would do it over and over again.
So I was down there doing documentaries because in the 1960s a lot of people didn’t want to do reporting. They thought they had all the answers and if you just give them an hour-and-a-half they can do a documentary. So I had been doing a documentary up near Oklahoma State University and the fire chief called me one day and said, “We’re tearing down the fire station and we found a bunch of film up in the attic and I’m not sure what it is. Would you come take a look?” So I did and I said, “Well, first of all, it’s nitrate based, which is highly explosive. So that’s probably, whoever shot it put it up there because if it blew up, you’d guys would be close.”
Bobby Rettew: That’s awesome.
Bob Dotson: After that, they started very gingerly taking it out, but I got a bunch of money from the two big universities in Oklahoma and a history center and our local station and we very gingerly took it out to Los Angeles to see what we could find. It was shot by an early day [pathay 00:06:29] newsreel photographer named Benny Kent and he was enough of a storyteller, he shot stuff in addition to what he would sell to New York because he just thought it’d be an interesting story.
So he has women’s history, without women parading around just in swimming suits, which is what they did in the 1920s if they were on film. He had Native Americans in three piece suits and not wearing feathers. He had 28 all African American towns that were founded by ex-slaves. All of these treasure trove, right?
So I trenched around the country, around the state and said, “Anybody recognize anyone in here?” Well, of course, they did, and it was like Bass Reeves, who was the first Black federal marshal and this, that and the other and people would add their memories. I ended up doing an hour-and-a-half documentary. It won every award in the world. It became the first documentary to win on the local station, a national Emmy and NBC came calling.
But this is the interesting thing. I get a job and I think, “Gosh, I must be something,” and so I go to work at the Today Show, do my first story and the boss says, “Well, I’m only gonna give you a minute 10,” and I’ve been working on 90 minutes, right? A minute 10. Well everybody my age was all arguing about, “Well, I need a minute 15, I’ve got the second coming of Christ and I need two minutes,” and of course the boss would always say, “Well, great, but after a minute 10 you’re done.” The only thing on the Today Show back in the ’60s that ran at that length was a live interview on set.
So anyway, I figured I can beat these guys. I decided to use all the storytelling techniques that I could remember doing documentary and I would every story, no matter what it was, in 59 seconds, not a minute, not a minute 10, not 58 seconds, 59 seconds, and I’d do that for entire calendar year. So every morning when everyone else was calling up asking for more time, the boss knew that he could give them the 11 seconds that I had, you know? Okay.
Meantime, I went out with really good camera people and said, “Can I borrow your camera,” and they reluctantly let me do it and then I’d come back and I would go to a really good editor and I’d say, “I’ve edited this thing down to what I think might word. How can I improve it?” and I kept working and finding a story that might actually run more than a minute 10, and I polished it, had it all edited up and had it my back pocket. I met the boss in an elevator, gave him my 15 second elevator pitch, which is, “I think I found a story that might run a little longer,” and I said, “Could I get two minutes?” I told him what the story was and he said, “I will give you five.”
Years later I asked him why because I had five minutes on the Today Show from 1977 until I retired in 2015 and that was a lot of different changes. When everyone was going down to two seconds and tweets and this, that and the other, they still gave me five. Years later he says, “I figure if you had the discipline to tell a story well in 59 seconds with a beginning, middle and ending, maybe a cliffhanger, maybe some surprised, maybe you’d be able to increase your audience and not just report to the audience that already understands, that if I gave you five minutes you’d write a novel and you wouldn’t just say, ‘Okay, I need five minutes ’cause I want my standup to go a little longer.'” That’s the reporter on camera thing or maybe the interview the governor to run 13 seconds when it really only needs to run eight ’cause he didn’t say anything today, that sort of stuff.
So I learned a valuable lesson that no matter whether you’re writing a long book, which I’ve done, or done documentaries, which are an hour or more or you’ve got 59 seconds, you can tell story. Some of the things we all remember to this day and well placed country western lyrics like, “Honey, the gutter ain’t a step up from you.” If it says a story really well, it says it in just a few words. So this whole argument about the … you know, everything is changing today because of Twitter and Facebook, it really isn’t. It’s just a different way of developing your communication and your message, but you can’t tell me that country western lyricists and Japanese poets haven’t been writing very effectively at that length for thousands of years.
So that’s what I did. I just figured I would focus my entire career on being able to bring all those tools of storytelling to seemingly ordinary people who have done something significant, it’s not good news with Jerry Falwell, it’s just investigative reporting but on people who have seldom ever investigated, which is us because we might have actually solved something. So that was the focus of my career.
Bobby Rettew: I remember meeting you in 1998 at the NPPA workshop. For most people that don’t know what NPPA is, it’s the National Press Photographers’ Association and remember sitting in Oklahoma City at Norman … well Norman, not Oklahoma City, but in Norman, and you spoke and one of the most powerful things I remember is you talking about the power of the interview and you showed this clip and I think it was probably a situation where, if I remember correctly, it was a breaking news thing or something was going on, but basically you talked about how sometimes you just gotta bite your lip and let people talk. I’ve always been enthralled and tried to apply what you taught that day in everything I do. I would love for you to talk about the power of the interview and how you really see that as an opportunity to expose people into a different way of looking inside of their lives and letting them tell the stories as opposed to us trying to tell it.
Bob Dotson: I’ve notice over my career that people always answer questions that you ask in three parts. They give you the answer they think you’ve asked for, and then they explain their answer. If you wait just a bit before you jump in, people get nervous because filling the silence, they figure, “Well I haven’t really explained it well enough,” and so you stop talking, don’t jump in with the next question and then just a beat they go, “Well that’s where I killed my wife.” Well, you were there because they were illegally parking on Main Street and suddenly they’re telling you they’ve created murder. Well, that’s the point. When you’re dealing someone, it’s not just to try to find information to put into your story, but also to go deeper into a story because most people they’ve been watching television and reading newspapers and books and stuff for years. They know exactly what you want they think.
For instance, if there’s a tornado that comes through last night, the next day somebody is always gonna talk about how it sounded like a freight train. The problem is all that’s cliché and we’ve heard it 1,000 times before and people click away from that. I always assume when I go into an interview that the people I’m going to be telling this information to don’t care at all. Now most storytellers go in the other way. They think, “Oh, what I’m doing, you know I’m close to the president,” or “I’m close to this great sports figure,” so just by being close to them it’s very, very important, but you’re assuming that people have any interest in it.
I go in thinking there is no interest, so I start looking for the universal connections and I ask questions about emotion and family and motivation. It could be a simple question like … If you’re in the middle of a tornado you go like, “Well, what’s next?” instead of saying, “How do you feel?” Who cares how they feel. We know exactly how they feel, so we do care, but that’s not storytelling. Storytelling is to say, “What’s next?” And not accept the first or the second part of the answer. Remember, they give you the answer they think you’ve asked for, then they explain their answer, just like I’m doing now and then if you wait just a beat or two, let them fill the silence, I call it the rule of threes, that if you let them fill the silence they’ll come back with a part of the story you don’t know well to ask about and that’s generally the story that makes it into your piece or the letter you’re writing to your grandmother or whatever.
There’s two things in life I think you really need to know how to … You need to know how to add, so you can figure out how much they’re paying you and how much you got to spend and the other one is how to tell what you love or what you have to do to someone who has no background in that. So you don’t have to be a journalist to learn the art of storytelling and so it’s very, very important. I mean journalists basically take complicated subjects or try to and put it into people talk and don’t we all try to do that? If we try to explain something we’re trying to do or … we’re already into it so we’ve got a whole lot more information and interest than the people who are listening or reading, but that’s the transformation and if you can do that, you start to gather a crowd and that’s the most important thing.
Bobby Rettew: I loved your metaphor about being at the chain link fence having a conversation. Talk about using that metaphor in everything you did, that relational piece.
Bob Dotson: Well, when I showed up on a story people though Matt Lauer was coming or Tom Brokaw or somebody. So they were always disappointed when I walked in the door and I used that because I’m nobody, I’m just a storyteller and once you take away all of that hoo-ha that people expect, even if you’ve got cameras or you’ve got things to set up … I told everybody I worked with, “Just pretend like it’s your great aunt and if your microphone falls over, don’t sit there and complain about how you ran out of batteries, just change the dang battery because they’re all gonna start getting scared that you’re there with all this stuff and suddenly they’re the center of attention.
So what I did was I kinda like the guy that worked in the hardware store. I just showed up and I would start to ask questions that would get them over to the topic. You know rather than come in and say, “There was a tornado last night and you lost everything. How do you feel?” I remember a lesson I learned from an NBC cameraman named Scottie Burner. We were trying to figure out where the son of the Shah of Iran was, he was supposed to be at Lackland Air Force Base and the Shah of Iran was dying and everyone from the world of journalism was out there trying to get a quick soundbite with him about his dad.
Well of course they had him under wraps and they had him in a house outside the base. So we were all set up there for an hour or two and nothing happened. So all of the reporters went into to town and get lunch ’cause we were the least important people and the people taking the picture they all were set up hoping they could at least get a picture of him.
So I came back with my sack of McDonald’s for everybody and there was the press core standing around Scottie Burner, the NBC cameraman and I said, “Scottie, what’s going on?” He says, “Well, I got an interview with the Shah of Iran’s son. I got all the video. I fed it up to New York. It’s already been on the Today Show and I was the only one to get it.” I said, “Wait a minute. You’re here with 20 people, how did you get it?” and he said, “Well,” he says, “I just used the approach, which is the question which is not a question,” and I said, “Aw, come on, what are you talking about?”
He says, “Well,” he says, “Everybody’s camera was lined up on the house. My camera was too, but I decided I wouldn’t look at the house. We’d been looking at it for an hour. I looked down the street the other way and I figured if they saw him … you know, I had my finger on the button, I’d just turn the camera on and we’d get him, but meanwhile, I saw a young man walking down the street who didn’t look like he grew up in Lubbock, Texas.
So I took camera off the tripod and I wandered down the street and I didn’t walk up to him with the camera rolling, say, ‘I’m Scottier Burner, NBC Network tool, are you the Shah of Iran’s kid and if you are, how do you feel?’ I just noticed he was looking at flowers as he went along and I said, ‘Those are beautiful chrysanthemums,’ and the young man said, ‘Yep,’ he says, ‘Yep, flowers were my dad’s favorite,'” and Scottie said, “My dad loved chrysanthemums too.” Then Scottie said and it’s absolutely true, “My father passed away last year.” He didn’t say, “My dad passed away last year and I miss him because I’m looking at flowers. He just said, “My father passed away last year,” and stopped talking and turned his camera on.
And this young man [inaudible 00:18:20] and he went, “My dad,” soundbite, soundbite, soundbite, soundbite. “Well,” he said, “I wasn’t really still sure that this was the Shah of Iran’s son, except a couple of guards popped up over the hedges and went, “Oh, da-da-da-da-,” and they came running down the driveway and he says, “I turned around and I wasn’t gonna start arguing my first amendment freedom with guys who were carrying their second amendment freedoms. I just started taking extra pictures that I would need to tell the story and then as they were hustling this young man up the driveway I yelled to one of them, “Is that the Shah of Iran’s son?” and he said, “Yes,” and he says, “I went over and fed New York.” He did it by asking a question that was not a question.
Most people will speak more freely if you talk about what they’re comfortable talking about. So if you walk into a kitchen you talk about your grandmother’s recipe and let them talk about their recipe. You see what he did, he gradually moved it over to the topic of fathers without adding his own input into like so many people do today. It’s just let’s talk about flowers. My dad had flowers. His dad loved flowers. We found a common thing just like you would in regular conversation, you get it onto the topic without ever asking a direct question and you stop talking and then he goes so much deeper and in this case doesn’t run away from you and you’ve got it and of course he wasn’t hiding, he had NBC blazoned all over his camera.
He knew he was talking to a cameraman, but he didn’t just, “Wait a minute. Let me get you over here to the sun and let me move your microphone in a little closer.” He just made his shift, whatever he had to do in order to get the soundbite and he did it by asking this question that’s not a question and I have used that for a million years.
That goes along with the rules of threes, letting them fill the silence because all of your listeners probably have watched detective shows on TV and you know … a lot of my in-laws are all cops and they said, “You know, when we take someone into an interrogation room, we top talking at some point because the first person who says something is usually the perp and the perp will tell you someone you didn’t even know, but if you just keep asking questions over and over again, they either clam up or they tell you stuff that you might suspect that wouldn’t really tell you anything deeper about the story.” So he says, “Silence is the most important part.”
In fact, when I went home for Christmas … I’m talking about these cops … when I went home for Christmas they all put their pistols in a safe at my mother-in-law’s house. So I figured I had to get along with them, so I took out my reporter’s notebook and locked that in the safe too.
Bobby Rettew: That’s awesome.
Bob Dotson: Yeah, but you don’t have to be a reporter to use those tools. It’s an overworked cliché that most people only listen because they want to know where to jump in with their opinion and they’re not really listening to the other person. We know that in our political conversations these days, but if you want to be an effective storyteller, the most important thing is to listen and the reason for that is, you’ll figure out the part where you’re supposed to stop talking.
Bobby Rettew: I remember sitting at a dinner table with you in Charlotte, North Carolina and I wrote a letter saying there was really cool story in Charlotte to you about a gentleman name Ron Gadis and I didn’t think anybody would respond because I know network is busy. I was a little local television photojournalist and I thought it was a good story and I thought it deserved some more attention, but you wrote back and I was excited and I’ll never forget that night that you took me and Sara, and the Hotermans were with us, great, great photographers and camera people, they’re just awesome.
We sat there and I’ll never forget you talking about the onion and the power of peeling back layers. That has been inspirational to me and I’ve used that and thought through that and I’ve really tried to practice that. I would love for you to just share your vision of that and what that means and how you use it every day.
Bob Dotson: Well, a great story is a lot like an onion, not because it makes you cry, but because it has many layers and as you put together a story you have to put the layers in to grab attention because some people might love your story because it has beautiful pictures, a great [inaudible 00:22:35] shot, and some people might love it just because it’s a musical piece and his brother Joe, who’s the audio man, recorded some great music, and somebody else might like it just because it’s country western, and somebody else might this, might that, but all of these are layers into a story.
They’re like grace notes, to use little bit of different metaphor. If you hear your favorite song played, you get emotional every time because it reminds you of something in your life. If you hear it played at the Ramada Inn out on the interstate, you don’t like it as well. It has the same notes, but it doesn’t have the grace notes, it doesn’t have those little extra things, those hooks that will bring people into your audience.
That’s the most difficult thing. If you’re a comedian, for instance, and can make a four-year-old laugh in New Jersey and a grandmother laugh in Western Kansas, you’ve figured out how to tell a story because what you’ve done is you’ve put in hooks that everybody can find an entryway into your subject matter. Most people don’t do that. They tell stories only to their own neighborhood, their own age group, but I always wanted to have a long career as a storyteller, so I remembered that metaphor of the onion. Try to find a story that has so many layers in it that people will want to know more constantly. Now there’s something, leads to something, leads to something. This is storytelling 101.
For instance, when I wrote the “American Story,” which is one of three books that I’ve written, it was the first one that was expected to make money and so the boss of the book publishing firm at Penguin Random House said, “Listen, I don’t care whether you can write. I figure you can if you’ve had a job for all these years. What I want to know is how you’re going to push the reader from page 1 to page 300.” Suddenly I realized he’s talking about the onion, right?
You know this is architecture, this is structure you’re dealing with, not just the fact that you’ve got this compelling subject matter and by god we ought to tell it ’cause all my friends love it. I mean I can’t tell you how many people have called me up and said, “You ought to do a story about sailboats,” and I said, “Okay, what’s the story?” “I don’t know, but I love sailboats. Don’t you love sailboats?” I said, “Yeah, I love sailboats,” I said, “Great, but what’s the story?” “I don’t know but I love sailboats.” That’s where most people get off, but in this case I’m figuring how can I take that and come into something that will expand the audience.
So for instance, every mystery writer will tell you that the end of chapter 1 is when the suspect has a knife in the air and then you don’t figure out who he stabbed until chapter 6. That’s architecture. In other words you don’t give away the story. You stretch it out, you have teases, you have foreshadowing, you have all the things that you fell asleep in English class and they have these highfalutin terms, but basically they work and they’ve worked for generations and that’s why. If you want to expand your audience for storytelling and aren’t we all in social media these days and we’re hoping that we have 8,000 clicks or 5,000 followers or whatever, well you get that primarily because hopefully you’ve come up with something and told in such a way that people want to know more.
Bobby Rettew: Now a quick break to give a quick shout out to the network that supports Intersection. Touchpoint Media, a collection of podcasts dedicated to discussions on all things healthcare, including digital marketing and online patient engagement strategies, CIO and technology strategies, the challenges of the online physician, the power of the e-patient and most importantly, the power of storytelling. To learn more, go touchpoint.health, that is touchpoint.health. Let’s rejoin the show.
Bobby Rettew: What is … and you’ve done so many stories, but what stories, maybe there’s one or two or three that have really touched you personally, like have really moved you in a way that many of the other stories haven’t?
Bob Dotson: Well, you know, when someone asks me my favorite story, I generally say, “The next one,” because I’ve done so many. Like I say 6,000 stories in the past 40 years, but I’ve gotta say that one of them really stands out to me in terms of how we can solve things.
There was a guy named James [Sudduth 00:26:56] who is a truck driver, came home from the Korean War, was carrying some stuff up to Detroit, Michigan and when he got to Detroit, he found out that the company he worked for had gone bankrupt. So he needed a job, he was in his 40s, he had three kids. He took a job as a janitor at the University of Michigan, Detroit, Medical Center and he sat there watching some of these young surgeons practicing on rats and stuff and he realized their tools were too big.
So he went home in his garage and created some of the first microsurgical tools. He came back and he presented them to the various professors and he said, “You might want to try that.” So he became more than a janitor. The professors would send students to him if they had a difficult time understanding a concept because he could put it into people talk, which is exactly what you’re talking about right now. He could put it into people talk and he would say things like, “It may be a rat, but if you’re using a scalpel, the rat would probably appreciate it if you went into the same hole and came out of the same hole and,” he says, “that’s true of everything.”
Okay. So he ended up as kind of an associate professor. He had never gone to medical school and if you graduate from the University of Michigan Medical School today in their surgery department, you get your name on a plaque with his face and the dean will say, “He was the finest surgical professor we ever had.”
Now here’s the kicker. I met him because I was having coffee in a little town I Mississippi and everybody said, “Oh, when were you born?” and I said, “Oh, 1946,” and he says, “Oh, there’s a guy outside of town. He’s real good with his hands. He’s restoring an old car.” So I went and met Jim and we got to talking and he said, “You know, you can’t tell a car by it’s color,” and then I used those questions that are not questions and the rule of threes. Suddenly I find out this callosal story about how he had changed medicine and of course he never wrote a book about it, never ran for Congress, so no one knew.
I said, “Well Jim, you know some of your doctors that you taught have gone on to great fame and fortune,” including one guy, who was foremost testicular cancer surgeon in America, who when I interviewed him said, “Well, Jim and I were doing heart transplants on rats with his tiny tools, so,” he says, “If you can do a heart transplant on a rat a testicle looks like a volleyball.” He says, “I got no problems.”
So I asked Jim, I said, “What’d you get out of it?” He was 87 years old. He says, “Well I’m at the age where pretty soon I’m gonna be in a surgical unit and I’m gonna have to have something done to save my life and I’m gonna call in a lot of old IOUs and I’m gonna know they were well taught.”
So you see, I could tell you thousands of stories like that and that’s what I’m talking about, investigative reporting on seemingly ordinary people who have change, not just our local lives or our neighborhoods or trying to amass things to send to our troops overseas, but significantly changed America but were too busy to tell us about it.
Bobby Rettew: When you approach a story and you know you’re gonna go interview this individual whoever it may be, and you’ve obviously researched it, do you have a notepad with all your questions laid out or do you explore through that process of the interview to the point where the questions are meaningless, you really just want to find other intersections in there? How do you prepare for an interview?
Bob Dotson: Well, I do both. From the moment I decide to do a story or I was assigned a story I started playing the game of what if. If I had to quit right now and all I had was like two minutes in the driveway, what would be the point of my story? What do I want to get out of it? Not what information I want, but what’s the point of your story? What do I want people to carry away with it?
So I would constantly think, “All right, what the close?” and it would change constantly, but if you know where you’re going, even though it’s changing, you know the kinds of questions to ask. The rest of those questions become chapter 2. You’re not just coming in with 1,000 things, but what I do if I’ve got time to sit down and do it, I write out 100 questions, then I throw out 95 of them, but I’ve gone through it all and I said, “If everything works perfectly. If the sun comes up in the east and it doesn’t rain and I’ve got all the time I need to ask every question to everybody I know, this is what I need to do it,” and what it is is you’re getting up to speed. You’re starting to think, “Okay, what’s the information I need to get to that point?” and, “What’s my opening,” which I never ever worry … when I sit down to write a story I always write the middle first. When I wrote my book I wrote the middle chapters first. It’s easiest ’cause you’re not sitting there angsting over your opening line or opening shot or any of that stuff because once you start writing the middle, what happens is you’ve gone back over your research either on your phone or in your head or wherever and the opening line presents itself.
Like for instance, if you’ve used those non questions and the rule of threes well, you probably have two or three really major points, only one of which can you use in your story, like a soundbite or a pretty picture that illustrates that, that’s the point of it, but there are two or three others. So I take one of the two or three others when I’m working on my middle part and I say, “Hey, that’s the perfect opening.” I paraphrase it and make it an opening line. Now I haven’t sat there and wasted 20 minutes saying, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, I’m not sure what it is,” you know? So you’re not frozen and because from the very beginning that you’re considering a story, you’re asking yourself, “What’s the point? Where am I going?” Then you know.
It’s like good theater is knowing when to get off stage, so this is a theatrical thing that you’re doing here. It’s literary, but it’s also theatrical. You have an opening act, you have some surprises, you have some turns and then you get out. So if you know where you’re going, you’ve prepared as well as you can, then you put all the preparation aside and what you’re talking about is that when you get into the fog of the story, you start seeing connections that you hadn’t anticipated before, but the connections come from asking really good questions and then letting them fill the silence. So it’s just as important to prepare. You can’t go in and wing it in storytelling. The most important thing is to ask questions.
Like for instance, I was on an island off the coast of Rhode Island called Block Island and there was a guy there. I was supposed to go do a funny ha-ha story on the fact that he was 90 years old and he was a state driver’s license examiner. So if you were 16 in Block Island, you had to go down and see Fred Benson and the guy walked with a walker. So I thought, “Okay, this is your classic noon news closing feature,” but I started using all those techniques and he started filling the silence and he said, “You know …” we were all done and we were sitting waiting for the ferry to come back and take us back to the mainland, and I looked up at that lighthouse, which is gorgeous on Block Island.
I said, “You know that’s a beautiful lighthouse,” and then I stopped talking and he says, “I remember the first time I saw it I was eight years old and I came here from an orphanage.” I didn’t say anything, and he said, “A fellow by the name of Gird Milliken, who had 12 children took me in and on Saturday nights the different farm families on Block Island would have dinners and then brag on their kids and one night Gird Milliken got up and pointed his finger all the way past all his kids down to me at the end of the table and he said, ‘Keep your eye on Fred Benson. See how he turns out.'”
I didn’t say anything, and Fred said, “I was president of the Chamber of Commerce five times.” Didn’t say anything. He says, “I was head of the fire rescue team and squad for 30 years.” Didn’t say anything. He says, “I started all the baseball teams on the island. Did I tell you I won the Rhode Island State lottery?” He said, “I threw a barbecue and I told all the kids to come and I said, ‘Anybody that qualifies for a school, I’ll send you to college.'” And he said, “When I was 54 I could see that the economy was changing from farm to tourism, so we’d need hotels, so I finally went to college and I came back and became the shop teacher that taught the three major building firms, presidents, on this island.” About that time one of the granddaughters of Gird Milliken, the original family came walking by and she said, “Did he tell you he still lives in the same room at our house?” “No.” I didn’t ask her anymore questions. She said, “Oh yeah, yeah,” he says, “It’s unheated.” “Really?” “Yeah, it was right next to Gird and his wife, Mary, and it’s the same room where he lived when they took him in.” I went, “Okay, now I got a story.”
So I asked Mr. Benson, I said, “When do you go to bed?” And he said, “Oh seven o’clock every night.” I said, “Great, do you mind if we go over to your house and meet you in your bedroom. We’d like to take some pictures of you crawling up the stairs,” ’cause it’s up the second floor, and about that time the granddaughter says, “You know we’ve asked him to move down to our level where it’s heated, but he says, ‘I’m perfectly happy here.'” Well, by this time we had the cameras back out and quietly we had recorded all of that and we missed the ferry going back for the final shot, which was him coming up the stairs to go back to that bedroom and we used it with the last thing he told us after I looked back out at that lighthouse and we could hear the buoy sounds and the birds going by and Fred looked at it, and them he looked at me and he says, “I hope Gird Milliken knows how I turned out.”
Bobby Rettew: Wow.
Bob Dotson: So you can see you can start with what’s seemingly obvious. Funny, ha-ha, 90-year-old man, state driver’s license examiner. We’ve seen a thousand of those stories and they mean nothing except for a little chuckle and god we know chuckles. We need them today, especially at the end of a newscast, but how much more significant is it to take a picture of somebody or write a story about somebody who reflects us, seemingly ordinary people who do some extraordinary things that affects so many lives but are too busy to tweet and tell us about it.
Bobby Rettew: You have a tremendous patience that I think to me is … only journalists, many journalists have learned this patience, is to know when to sit and let the moments happen in front of you and be prepared for those moments. How long did it take to get to the place where, “Okay, I got the interview. I got what I need,” and run out the door ’cause you gotta produce it and get it out and do this stuff. When did you start really feeling the patience was yielding those really powerful moments because those moments are so important? Those are the, to your point, are the things that really bring us alive when we watch them? Was that something that you learned over time or is that something that has always been natural to you in the course of your career?
Bob Dotson: I think it’s something we all can learn very easily because when you stop to think about it, it’s just as important to figure out what doesn’t work and what’s terrible as what does work. So it’s great to find mentors and to follow their lead and do what they do and try to be at that level.
It’s also important to look around you day by day and say, “Well that damn thing didn’t work. That was terrible,” and I’ll tell you … to answer your question. This was the start of it. There was a huge fire in Kentucky at a dance club and a number of people were killed and one woman who was one of the last people out, who had struggle over her friends and they’re all trying to get out the dang door, she’s going on and on about that and I’ve got her on camera and I’m thinking, “Boy, here’s the moment,” because suddenly we’re all at that door and we’re all trying to figure out who do we get out and that sort of thing and a field producer walks up behind me. A field producer is a person who helps with all the logistics and sometimes writes the stories and he just makes sure everything happens. I won’t tell the name because you’ll hear what he did.
Well right in the middle of this … he’s listened to it for a few minutes and everybody in the room knew that this was like gold and he leans in when this woman paused to sob or something and he says, “Now you’re 38 years old, right?” And I went, “Holy Jesus.” This is a man that was more concerned about facts at that point, like you couldn’t have asked her that at the end when you’re going back to the car?
So I learned from something that was terrible that I would never interrupt the moment. Once you tee it up and it’s happening and your fortunate enough to have your camera running or your phone going whatever, just to be able to recognize what works and what doesn’t and what should be tampered with and what shouldn’t, that’s important too.
Bobby Rettew: You’re career is something that I think … and the way that you approach storytelling is something that transcends, to your point earlier, any type of media and to your point, we live in this era of fast video, tweeting, Facebook posts, Instagram, all those things. We also live in a medium where it’s all about different types of eyeballs consuming our content, but moments don’t change, right? They’re the same regardless of the medium. How have you used your news background and your storytelling background to train the next round of storytellers because you teach? Talk about that experience of engaging young aspiring storytellers who use the medium at their fingertips on their phone.
Bob Dotson: Well, I point out a fact. We’ve all been watching a 30 second story that seems like about 10 years long and we’ve all had a favorite book or a movie that’s lasted a week-and-a-half, in the case of a book, that we hate to see it come to an end, and you touched on it. It’s because in both instances you either had moments or you did not and it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a tweet or a documentary. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s just a line or two in a letter or whether it’s a book. The approach is the same. Storytelling. What makes your work stand out and accessible to ever larger and expanding group of people is if you focus in on the story.
So for instance in journalism most of students are taught who, what, when, where and why. If you can answer those questions you’ve done a good story, but I say also consider as a storyteller a different mantra. It’s very simple and I remembered it on every story and every book and every documentary I’ve ever done. Every story starts with, “Hey.” You get their attention. You don’t spend two chapters like James Michener had the luxury of doing 50 years ago talking about the techtonic plates moving back and forth in Alaska before you realize that there’s somebody dead in the valley. You gotta start with the dead person in the valley. You’ve got to get their attention.
The second thing that most people who are new to storytelling overlook is … Hey is the first. The second is you. This may be a story about a train derailment in New Delhi India, but this is why you should care in South Carolina. If you don’t link it to you, the reader, the viewer, the audience, they’re gonna click off mentally and they’re gonna do it fast than they ever have before. So this story is really not about the subject matter, it’s about how it affects you.
So hey, the second building block is you. The third building block is see, see what I found. Now usually these days what you found is not unique, everybody has found it, it’s been on the backs of taxicabs, it’s been on your phone, it’s been on the internet. So you’re not actually uncovering something brand new every day that you’re doing a story, but the see part of it is you connect the seemingly unconnected. Now you’ve done that because you’ve asked rule of three questions and you’ve let people fill the silence, so you have a deeper understanding, no matter how little time you have to prepare, you have a deeper understanding than anybody else who’s covering that story. So hey, you, see.
I think a good definition of that for any storyteller is show me things and tell me things I wouldn’t know even standing next to you. So a storyteller connects the seemingly unconnected and suddenly you realize, “Oh I’ve overlooked that ant crawling through the grass. I just saw an ant,” and this is where it fits into that story about me, about how it affects me.
So hey, you, see, and then the last one is so. So why should you care, and that’s the point of your story. If an audience doesn’t know why they should spend, and you notice they say, “I’m spending time watching TV,” or, “I’m spending time reading a book.” If they don’t understand why it’s important to spend their time with you, they’re not coming back.
So it’s a simple mantra. Even in a crowded fast-paced story day, I say, “Have I got my hey? What’s gonna get their attention?” And it may not be what I anticipated, but again, that’s a moment, that gets you into it. It could be a beautiful shot, it could be a piece of sound, it sound be a startling revelation, it could by anything, but you gotta get them into the tent. Hey, you, where is it, how would I hook it up to people? Well I do that from the see, I start to connect the seemingly unconnected and then I pound home at the end of it, so why should you care.
Bobby Rettew: You are awesome. I just love talking to you because I’m taking notes here from … I love the hey, you, see, so. It’s just so awesome and I feel like in the world that I work in and working with people in healthcare, working with people in foundations where we help them tell stories of ways that are beyond marketing and all those pieces that we try to expose them and I can’t wait to go get making it memorable, to read it.
For people outside of the television business, people that work in these other industries that they’re trying to communicate better, they’re trying to find ways to connect with people, how does making it memorable really translate and help them see storytelling in a way that impacts what they do in communications, regardless if it’s broadcast television or as journalist? Talk about how this translates in their world.
Bob Dotson: Well, there are a lot to textbooks that are very technical as you know. They’ll tell you the right kind of equipment to use and that sort of thing and you can get overwhelmed with that. It’s the difference between building a car and a driving it well. It’s important to do both but sometimes you’re so worn out by the time you get to the point where you’re driving it that you don’t really use it in the way that really works best.
Well that’s the same way with this book. About 15 years ago and I’ve recently updated it, I had a number of people come to me and said, “You know you’ve had these tips that I’ve heard all my life. Why don’t you put it in a short concise book that I can keep in my back pocket and every time I run into a situation I can go back and check it out?” So yes, it’s written originally for people in television news ’cause 15 years ago everyone was in television news, but when I rewrote it and it came out in 2015, it was for the internet generation and for people that aren’t affected … not just doing news stories, but doing all kinds of things.
For your audience, for people who are struggling to get their message across, the tips are universal. We all have to use pictures these days in our presentations, we all have to use video, we all have to use words and we all have to use judicious editing. That hasn’t changed. I can imagine that the first caveman went down into the valley and watched dinosaur in a fight and came back and starting painting pictures on the wall and one cave would have been filled and the other caves, not so much. The difference is how do you tell the story, ‘Cause you had the same information. Here was this damn dinosaur falling off down in the valley. Well it’s the same here.
It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re trying to communicate about a medicine or anything else. The tips in the book are universal storytelling tips, and what I did and your listeners will be happy about this, it’s a very short book because I tried to write all the trips at a poetic length. Nobody’s got time to sit there and wade through a bunch of stuff that isn’t germane to what they’re doing, but in this case, I had all the tips. I took a script because I saved every version of every script for years.
After Benny Kent did that with the film back in those days and I had this unique ability of going to places where a lot of my competitors did not. I thought, Not only am I gonna keep the stories, but I’m gonna keep all the raw material.” So I ended up with so much stuff which is now down in an archive, but when I teach I say, “Okay, here’s where this script started and it’s just as mundane as you can imagine,” and then, “This is the time I had, these are the choices I had.”
So you would see not only in what you were trying to work on, but how it changed and why and bit by bit and then you can also click on the internet, NBC put these stories up as examples and they’re still up so you could see what the finished product looked like. So it really is not just a book about journalism at all. It’s a story about storytelling and don’t we all try to do that?
Bobby Rettew: Absolutely. You know I was sitting here thinking through reading the book and the tips that I would want to get out of it and how could I apply it and I want to go back and my final question, to bring this all around, is I really am gonna take away from me personally, is the idea of standing at the fence with your neighbor. Isn’t that what we really are doing? We’re trying to capture conversations that are happening at the fence because that’s what really people want. Do you feel that way and is that really what we’re trying to do is expose people to rich conversations that mean something to them?
Bob Dotson: Well, you know, on one side of our lives is the complex world and we barely make sense of most things every day. We don’t have time. It’s not like we’re smart or dumb, we just don’t have time to be experts in all the complications that happen and yet it always falls to us in our careers, in our daily life to explain the unexplainable. So going to the fence where so many generations before us got most of their information and leaning over and in people talk, trying to explain that complex subject and looking at your neighbor’s eye and you see they understand now because I’ve told them in terms that we all understand.
So for instance, say they’re putting in a new sewer in your neighborhood and everybody in town goes to the city council meeting and just has the debate, right, but if you were leaning over the fence and you were talking to your neighbor, Carol, you’d say, “Carol, it’s not gonna stick around here come next Thursday.” Boom. That pretty much sets it up and then she says, “What happened?” Then you can get into the other stuff, but the most important thing is to take that complex issue and make sure they get it because you said, “Hey, guess what? Hey, you.” This is about you, it’s not about some sewer discussion downtown. It’s about our neighborhood and as a matter of fact it may not stink by next Thursday.
That’s people talk and you see it over and over again, great comedians can do that, good storytellers like James Patterson, the mystery writer, anybody, good movie script writers and stuff like that and what you’re trying to do is to come away with a pitch that you can do that people will be humming for the next week, the next month, the rest of their life. They get it. I mean Abraham Lincoln didn’t say, “Four score and seven years ago … I mean 67.” No, he said, “Four score and seven … ” you know, our forefathers set forth … it’s the way you say it that people keep repeating like a great song that you heard the summer you were 16 and dating and could drive around in a car without your parents looking at you and it sticks with you when you’re 60. That’s what you’re trying to do, whether you’re making a press release or a media release or explaining a complicated story to someone who doesn’t think they understand or even care and suddenly they get it. That’s the thing we really need to foster.
I always tell people, my students, keep the storytelling flame burning. It’s not enough to just report a tweet, get a reaction to the tweet, back up the tweet, go find another tweet because that’s a paint by numbers and people burn out on paint by numbers, but if you have the same information and can develop that into a story that affects me, personally, then I want to keep coming back to that fence and listen to you.
Bobby Rettew: Ladies and gentlemen, the master storyteller, Mr. Bob Dotson. It is a pleasure and an honor to be on this podcast recording with you. I’ve learned so much from you over the years. I’ve learned so much today and by the way, my wife still talks about that dinner in Charlotte. She says she had such a wonderful time, so thank you, thank you, thank you so very much.
Bob Dotson: You know it’s tough for a 70-year-old to blush, but I am blushing.
Bobby Rettew: You are awesome and I appreciate it and I really thank you for taking the time. I know you’re retired, but I know you’re a busy man and I just appreciate it. So you have a wonderful rest of the week and thank you.
Bob Dotson: Thank you.
Bobby Rettew: Thank you for joining us. We hope you enjoyed the conversation and expiration. Most importantly, there are many intersections inside the world of storytelling. Intersection is powered by TouchPoint media network, podcasts dedicated to discussion on all things healthcare.
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