I have an announcement!
This is the first live show of this kind we’ve ever done, and I wanted to explain why we’re doing it, and what a Revisionist History live show looks like.
It’s become quite common for podcasts to do live performances. In most cases, what they’re doing is taping a show that will be distributed, as-is, to subscribers. Pod Save America does this, to great effect. But that’s not what we’re doing. Instead we’re doing something closer to a public “table read.”
Table reads are the episode test-runs that we rely on heavily at Pushkin. First I’ll write a draft of an episode—all the chunks of interview tape I want to use, and the narration that will bring it all together. Then I sit down with a handful of people—my producers, and sometimes random friends or other Pushkin employees—and read through the script. Wherever the interview tape comes in, we play the interview tape.
Until I started doing a podcast, I never did table reads. I wrote five books and countless magazine articles and never once read any kind of draft out loud for a group. Why? Because I didn’t think that there was any additional value in hearing something once it had been committed to the page. And I didn’t think that there was any great value in turning the evaluation of what I had into a social experience. I might have sent my manuscript to my mother, or to close friends. But it never occurred to me to gather everyone in the room and make a performance out of my first draft.
But now I think otherwise.
Now I realize that there are a whole set of things about a creative idea that can only be learned with a table read. For example, one of the great, underestimated qualities of great writing is rhythm: the critical components of the narrative all fit together and go on for just the right amount of time. (Why are almost all pop songs somewhere around three minutes? Because musicians came to understand that that was the right constraint for that particular art form: That’s what the listener wanted from a pop song.) But rhythm is one of the hardest things to measure in a piece of writing. How long should you spend describing someone? If two characters are talking, how long should that conversation last? If you want to plant a seed in the reader or listener’s mind, how much time do you have to spend in a place or with a character or with an idea to make it take root?
Figuring out a story’s rhythm is super easy in a table read, though. Just look around the room at your audience! If you feel like you’ve lost them—and believe me, you’ll know when that happens—then you know you’ve gone on too long, or not long enough.
I just had this experience with an episode we’re doing in the upcoming season of Revisionist History on the relative-age effect. (If you read my book Outliers, this was the subject of the first chapter). The episode consists of a bunch of interviews with people in the sports sector from around the world, and tape I gathered during a group interview with a bunch of students at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The first draft of the episode was roughly 70 percent one-on-one interviews and 30 percent Penn students. After I finished the table read, there was dead silence in the room, and I (and everyone else) realized I had it backwards. The rhythm was all wrong. When you listen to the episode—as I hope you’ll do—you’ll discover that it is now 30 percent one-on-one interviews and 70 percent Penn students. I thought Penn was the icing. It wasn’t. It was the cake. Until I read my draft out loud, I had no idea.
Or how about arguments? When I moved into the world of audio, one of the things I discovered—to my great surprise—was that effective arguments are not just coherent and logical and persuasive; they also sound coherent, logical and persuasive. That is: there is a kind of aural signature to a satisfying story. I wish I could explain this. But I can't! Because I’m not reading this aloud to you, and you’re not sitting next to me listening.
The closest I can come is to show you this email, from one of my producers, Eloise:
What does “what a voice” mean? It means, in part, that Selznick—she’s referring to the Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick—does indeed have an amazing voice. But Eloise is also talking about the tape in the sense that I’ve been talking about here. Hearing Selznick, as opposed to simply reading his words on the page, has some extra ineffable payoff. He sounds right.
Anyway. What does this have to do with our live show? Well, we’ll be doing a table read. We’re not going to read the script word for word. But I’m devoting each evening to a description, followed by a consideration, of the arguments I make in an episode soon to be released in the upcoming season of Revisionist History. I’m testing out the idea to see if it works. I’ve invited some special guests (including an Oscar-winner!) to help me sort through the first draft. And there will be ample time for the audience to weigh in—and tell me where I’m going wrong.
What’s the episode in question about? Ahh, that’s the mystery. I want you to come in with an open mind. All I’ll say, aside from my David O. Selznick hint, is that we’re going to be watching some film together.