Adlai Wertman: Storytelling Away from What They Want Me to Hear

Adlai Wertman does not read the arts section of the L.A. Times, and doesn’t really listen to stories about the arts if they come on the radio. So he doesn’t have much to say about arts journalism, but he speaks volumes about how to communicate effectively and reach people with specific ideas.

A former nonprofit director who’s now the Founding Director of USC Marshall School of Business’s Society and Business Lab, Wertman says his career is entirely focused on connecting with people through talking, and convincing people to become engaged in issues or organizations through speech and writing. He says the most important skill for communication is “empathy, so I start with listening and then move on to talking.”

(Listen to the complete conversation here.)

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Wertman stays away from Twitter and Facebook, and rarely expresses his opinion over email. His focus is one-on-one communication, not conversations with a crowd. When we asked how an arts journalist could write for thousands of eyes and ears and still maintain that feeling of personal communication, Wertman talked about crafting the message for the audience. He says there is no real universal communication.

Wertman admits that he is not generally interested in stories about the arts. He heard a piece about an opera on NPR and says he stopped paying attention: “my mind just went somewhere else until the next story came on.” But he did listen carefully to a report about the organ in Disney Hall, “because that story was about a person.”

“I learned about the organ, I learned about Disney Hall, I learned about performances, I learned about three records that came out, but it was told through the story of the person who was doing the organ. And that was really interesting to me… but it was storytelling away from what they wanted me to hear. Maybe they wanted me to learn about the recording, and I did, but the part that engaged me was the man who tunes the organ.”

So, if a voice on the radio says that coming up next is a report about a new opera, he tunes out or changes the channel. “But when those stories come up and it’s the personal side of the story or the story of the opera itself… that’s a very different experience for me… I’m going to assume everything else is a review.”

Still, Wertman warns about using the personal story in a manipulative or formulaic way. Wertman says the story is best told by the person who is part of it. If you tell someone else’s story, he says, it “sounds manipulative. But you have the ability to let them talk for themselves.”

He also advises never to write for the sake of writing, without a notion of what you want your audience to glean. But if you know what you want them to take away from your story, he says, that means you know who your audience is. It’s not the same story to different groups of people. Your message must be targeted, and it must be true.