So, what’s your story?” asked Lea Thau, creator of “The Moth Radio Hour.” “I understand you came from Mexico as a young kid.” Thus began a series of questions to figure out whether I had a story to tell on stage during the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary weekend.
Lea kept returning to one detail I had mentioned—the death of my sister Lupita when I was 4 and she was 2, and what the loss meant not just for me but for my entire family. Lupita’s accidental drowning transformed our lives, ultimately forcing us to leave Mexico for the United States to start anew. “You have a compelling, powerful story to tell,” Lea said. “Make that the tree, find the branches to decorate it with the right anecdotes. Watch it grow.”
During subsequent conversations, Lea guided me through the story, picking spots through which to weave the narrative. Her ear was set not so much to the facts of the story as to finding the climactic moments, teaching me the art of pausing, speaking clearly and firmly. I practiced by going around my neighborhood in Mexico City, with notes, reciting the story to myself.
Weeks later, during our last chat, Lea and I went through the story one last time. I had my notes close at hand. She said the talk sounded stilted, hollow, empty. “Your notes have become your worst enemy,” she said. “Get rid of them.” I put the notes away and practiced in elevators, during walks through Parque Mexico, with complete strangers—cabbies, the person sitting next to me on a flight to Boston. Each time, depending on the reaction of my audience, I learned where to pause, what lines worked best, which words to stress.
Something I instinctively knew as a journalist—that a good story is universal, whether you tell it in Spanish or English—was reaffirmed, and Lea taught me a new way of connecting with an audience.
Alfredo Corchado, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, is Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News