Ep.011 Athlete Story Podcast
Storytelling for Athletes. Tips From Emmy Award Winning Michael Baltierra, ESPN E:60 Show
Storytelling for athletes – What makes your story great?
I love ending the year with this episode with my friend, Emmy Award winning Michael Baltierra from ESPN’s storytelling show, E:60.
I really do believe that one of the most important assets you have as a world class athlete is the journey you’ve been on, going above and beyond – and even deep down under – to become the best at your sport. You may have won a medal or a title and that’s awesome – but it’s the investment you put in and the lessons you got back that will stay with you – and that you can use and contribute with to help other people if you want to share. That’s the basic philosophy of Athlete Story and what I’m here to help you tap into.
And the cool thing about this episode is that you will get to know more about how to share your story so that it’s interesting to other people and why it makes you special and valuable.
You can also watch a video version of this interview here.
READ the transcript of full interview by clicking here.
Anja Bolbjerg : Let’s talk about one of the best ways you can leverage your sports career in life after sports: Using the stories from your journey as an athlete to help other people.
How do you do this? How can your story help other people? Let’s look into that because once you find that out, you’ve found gold. That’s kind of your education as an athlete. Sports you can bring with you in life. It’s your degree. It’s one unique asset that you can always contribute with. Whether it’s just to make a point or inspire people to take action on something or shed new light on even an old concept or invent a new product.
It’s not about bragging or about what you did or accomplished, it’s about taking other people on a little journey that will teach them a lesson or give them an emotion or an aha moment in a way.
That’s storytelling and that’s why I’m super stoked for this episode because I’ve invited a storytelling champion to share his wisdom and insight with us today, He’s ESPN’s, Emmy Award-winning, executive editor to the E60 show, Michael Baltierra. Stay tuned, this is Athlete Story and I’m your host and coach Anja Bolbjerg dedicated to helping athletes like you own your sport career.
If you are a world-class athlete or simply into sport, I suggest you should subscribe to my show right now. I will be posting a lot more athlete stories and chats with world-class sport insiders and experts.
Before we get on course, let me introduce our guest briefly. Michael Baltierra’s career as a storyteller in broadcasting includes nine years as a producer at ABC News. Traveling the world to cover stories and put them into context so that we can relate to them in our own little pond back home.
His passion for sport and apparently, a great working environment at ESPN led him to become an executive editor for The E60 Show. For those of you who don’t know the show, it’s a weekly sports show magazine style where they bring great sports documentaries that are always relatable and relevant, no matter what the sport or the results because those stories go way beyond sports.
Knowing Mike, I can already tell you that empathy and the ability to see things from different angles, probably part of what makes a champion storyteller.
Let’s jump in and see what Mike has to say about what makes a good story and how to pitch it and why he likes to work with athletes. That’s always good to hear, right? Okay, let’s welcome Michael Baltierra from ESPN. Hi, Mike, welcome to the show, Athlete Story.
Michael Baltierra: Thank you.
Anja: Mike, you’re working at ESPN at a program called E60.
Michael: That’s right. I oversee the show. What I do particularly is to help select the stories that we’re going to do and then decide how we’re going to tell them.
E60, we call it a news magazine show so we usually tell in an hour, two or three stories that are like many movies, which are 15 to 20 minutes long. The best way to think of them is the little films.
Anja: The show is on every Sunday morning. Is that right?
Michael: It’s Sunday mornings and obviously ESPN is a Sports Network, but a lot of the stories that we tell really don’t have much to do with sports. They’re about sports people but they’re about everything that happens off the field.
It can be a personal story. It can be a story about politics, you know, we recently did a story about the Syrian National Soccer Team. It can be about anything, but it’s really not about the game. It’s about people struggling with life, doing things in life, just meeting them and things like that.
Anja: All right, so how does a story qualify to be on E60? What are you looking for?
Michael: I wish I had the magic formula. It comes down to what excites us. What we get excited about when somebody sends us a story or we find the story. The group of us who run the show, we sit around and discuss it. We generally know pretty quickly if it’s something–
Generally, I say, one of the first questions you hear is, “Tell me more,” then you know you’ve got a pretty good story. You got something there.
We like to think of it ia, “Have I heard this before? Are you telling me something new? Are you taking me somewhere new? Are you introducing me to somebody I’ve never met I want to know more about? Or are you taking something that I think I knew, presenting it in a different way? Meet this athlete you thought you knew who he was or she was, but their personal story is completely different than what you think. It’s really finding things that just show you the world in a different way than what you think it is.
Anja: So in a way, it has to be beyond sports. It’s not like news or what do you think?
Michael: Not exactly, but obviously, there has to be some sports element to it otherwise people who are watching ESPN would say, “Why am I watching the story?”
We use sports as the starting point, so it could be an Olympic athlete who how did they get to be who they are and that the personal struggles or just their life story. It can be we did a story in South Africa about women’s soccer players. What are the struggles they have to go through to play in South Africa and it really doesn’t have to do with the sport? It’s more about South Africa and living in South Africa. It’s things that anybody can connect to whether you’re a sports fan or not.
Anja: It’s global as I hear it.
Michael: It’s global yes, ESPN is I think in almost 180 countries will broadcast, so we try to appeal obviously what mainly for the US. that’s our main Channel, but we try to do two things. One, do stories that can run anywhere on ESPN from China to Latin America to wherever, but for the US audience, because I grew up overseas and still think of myself as being international as much as I can, I try to make sure that the American audience is also aware that it’s a big world. It’s not just about what’s going on in the US. We’ve done stories, right now we’re shooting in Argentina. We just recently did a story in Brazil. We’re trying to get to Yemen which is incredibly difficult, but we’re trying to do stories all over there. You see the whole world not just what’s going on in the US.
Anja: Sounds like a fun job.
Michael: Yes, it is. I can’t complain about that.
Anja: How did you get into that job? Are you a journalist or what’s your background?
Michael: I kind of fell into it. I graduated from college and thought, I was going to do a very traditional career path whether it was business or something like that and I wasn’t passionate about it. I had a friend who was a journalist and he said, “Why don’t you try this?” I tried it and I thought this is really interesting. I didn’t know that you can do this and make a living. I did that. I was at ABC News, which is the American Broadcasting Company, did that for 13 years covering the world, traveling to war zones and all kinds of things and ESPN started E60, the show that I work on now, which they wanted people who weren’t necessarily covering sports, but they cover the world and it’s sort of worked and it takes a little bit of the journalism that I used to do with sports and combines it and we get to do sorts. That’s sort of how I ended up you I never planned it.
Anja: I know you’re a good student. I know you were probably the top choice, but we’ll tell him later how I know that.
Michael: Yes, absolutely.
Anja: Okay, you guys got to stay to the end if you want to know why Mike and I know– Okay, if you’re an athlete and you say I want my story on E60 and you have something in mind, of course, not just your- how would you go about pitching it to the audience?
Michael: The biggest thing is, to be honest, and open and that’s very difficult because you’re selling your story to sometimes strangers and try to get them interested in who you are and a lot of times that comes with rejection. Some people be like “Oh, I’m not interested. Thank you very much.” I like to remind people that we get hundreds and hundreds of stories a year that people send us and we only do 50 or so a year. That’s already even if we wanted to do all of them, there’s no way we could do all of them. So we have to choose. Sometimes it’s like I said, some stories are obvious. That’s an amazing story, we’re going to do that.
Sometimes we just have to decide between two great stories and there’s no this one is no good and this one is good. It’s just we’re going to choose this one because we think it’s better or it’s different or it’s easier to film or the timing is right. So when you’re pitching a story, don’t feel down if somebody says no right away. You’re going to get a lot of nos and we’ve had stories that we’ve done that are some of our best stories and people tell us, I’ve been trying to tell the story for years and nobody was paying any attention, so, if you believe in the story, keeps selling it.
Anja: A place like yours, how long is the timeline for me to get a pitch to actually have a show?
Michael: It really depends. We’ve done stories that we do in two days because they have to get on really fast. So we go in, we film it, we edit it, we put it on and it’s on the air. That’s very rare on average three to six months. We’ll get the story, we’ll start filming it and we’re going to edit, we watch it, we revise it, we screen and then it finally gets onto the air.
We’ve had stories that we’ve shot over three or four years. Again, that’s the extreme, but because something in the story keeps changing or it’s just that’s just the way it happened. We like to think of it as we let the story dictate when it’s ready to be told and if there’s something still happening in the story, we’re not done, so we wait. We’ve had more stories than I can remember two or three years later, and five more years, people get frustrated like, “Why haven’t you edited it,“ because it’s not done yet. We haven’t figured out what happens at the end, or big thing is happening.
Anja: I guess it has to follow this famous story arch and you can’t just end it on a big open loop.
Michael: Absolutely, when you were asking how we decide what we want to do when people pitch their stories, the best stories for us are the ones we don’t know how they’re going to end. When people pitch us a story and it’s already done, it’s a little bit harder for us to say yes because it’s already in the past. When you’re filming a story and people already know how it ends, the people you’re interviewing or who are telling the story, then, it loses a little bit of magic because you’re not in the moment.
If someone says, “This is happening,” and, for example, if you’re doing a story of an athlete and they don’t know if they’re going to win the championship or not, you can film before and get that excitement or the nervousness, and the interviews they’re telling me about, “I hope I win, I hope this happens,” and then we’re there for the championship game and you see it.
If that’s already happened, then it loses that. No matter what you do, you just can’t recreate as much of that. We like to find stories that we don’t know where it’s going to end. We know there’s going to be an exciting end, but we don’t know it’s going to and here or there.
Anja: I can understand that. It’s as if we were going to go watch a movie and we already knew how it ended.
Michael: It can still be good, but it’s much more exciting when you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end. We rely on interviews, and the people even being interviewed, if they know how it’s going end when you’re interviewing with them or they know, “I know I’m going to win,” they answer questions in a very different way. It’s hard to explain. You can see it when, if we’re interviewing somebody right before they’re going to go on to the field to play, they’re nervous, they’re excited, they don’t know what’s going to happen.
If we interview them after the game, two weeks after the game and they already know they lost, it’s very different. They don’t have the same emotion. We’re telling that story, the viewer can tell the difference. That’s what we try to follow.
Anja: You got to think of that excitement, the surprise factor, and you got to think about the “Tell me more”, those are the two important things.
Michael: Yes, “Tell me more.” They get it, some ways it’s like when you’re at a cocktail party or a party with new people and you want to talk to somebody in the party, and they’re telling you something so exciting you don’t want to walk away, or they’re telling you a story that you already know and you’re looking for somebody else to talk to because it’s not very interesting. That’s really what it is.
Anja: Are there things that would automatically disqualify a story?
Michael: [laughs] No, never. The nice thing is that we have no rules. Sometimes people will ask us, “Are there certain sports? Are there certain types.” No, we’ve done stories on everything you can imagine. Obviously, the big sports, Olympic sports all that, but we’ve done stories on dog contests, Spelling Bees, Cheese rolling which is this crazy thing they do in England where they roll a cheese down the hill and people try to catch it.
Anja: That does sound crazy. [laughs]
Michael: It is. Not every story has to be serious, some of them are fun, and some of them are crazy, and some of them make you cry. We don’t say, “Oh, we’re only doing this type of story,” because there are a lot of stories out there that we want to introduce people to.
We did a story on competitive eating, which is crazy and the characters are unbelievable, and people would tell us, “What are you doing? That’s not a sport.” Well, it’s a competition. It was great and it was a lot of fun.
Anja: If you have a story, you have a point, you have a message, what would be a good idea to build up your story so that you get that excitement? Is there any formula for that?
Michael: There’s several tips. There’s no formula but there are tips, things to always remember. One of them to me is does it excite you? If it doesn’t excite you, then, you shouldn’t be trying to share it just because you think somebody might be interested. You have to be interested in it and you have to want to tell it. That comes across when you’re sharing it with people and trying to pitch it.
Also, you’re a member of the audience, if you’re interested, then, there’s going to be somebody else that’s interested out there. If you’re not interested, then, find another story. Part of that is what is interesting about the story? What makes that story interesting to you. What makes it exciting or emotional? What makes you happy? What makes you sad? Those are the things we like when we are putting our stories together, one of the things we’re mindful is, there is difference between a report and a story. A report is, here are the facts, here is what happen, this and then this and then this on this day. That’s not a story, that’s what you get in school when they tell you, “Memorize these things.”
That’s why school sometimes isn’t very exciting because they just give you reports of facts. The story takes that timeline of the report and takes you up and down. This one is a high, people were very high, excited and happy and then all over sudden something happened here and they went down. This is when they were really down in the story and then they would go back up. The story is the up and down, that’s really what it is.
Don’t tell me the facts because the facts are easy. Everybody knows the facts, tell me the ups and downs.
Michael: What you’re saying is you got to involve the emotions behind?
Anja: Absolutely. That’s what the scary part is. One of the first things we ask when we do stories about athletes is, what was the moment when you were the lowest? If they are honest that can be a very vulnerable, but that’s when it gets really good when they tell you honestly, what was the worst moment? What was your best moment? Then, if they are honest, then the rest is easy, because then they have to explain why and how. How did they get there. If they are not honest then it’s not an interesting story. If they just say what you expect, then it’s not very good.
Anja: Do you ever do stories where the people are involved, actually don’t really want to be in their story? [laughs]
Michael: All the time. [laughs] One of the biggest part of my job is convincing people to do it. I’m always amazed because I think, “Should somebody ask me to do this, I probably would say no.” Again it’s very personal. We are asking people to talk about their best moments, but also their worst moments when they’re vulnerable, what things upset them, how hard it was to do something to come back from an injury, or think that your career is over, whatever it is.
Then we are asking them to let cameras film that and go into their lives with cameras whether it’s at home, or their family. That’s very personal. A lot of our job is convincing people to let us do that. The way we do it is to say, “Listen, we’re going to be honest and we’re going to be respectful. We’re not going to just show up and disrespect your life and your experience. We’re there to listen to you. What we find is that most people, the vast majority at the end of the process are very, very happy with it.
That doesn’t mean that they love the story, that just means that they understand what we did and how we did it and that for some people its like therapy, they get it out. They share things with sometimes family members if family members didn’t know or friends or whatever it is, or things that they didn’t even realize. Overal,l it’s just a positive thing.
Anja: All right, if you’ve done something bad like if you are Larry Nassar or…, how do you go get the story?
Michael: Well, you’d be surprised sometimes people like that want to talk. We talk a lot about when we interview somebody like that, what are the questions and how are we going to approach it because we don’t want to get into I guess, “You didn’t do it, you did it because that doesn’t go anywhere.” We spend a lot of time getting our interviews prepared and how we’re going to do it and the questions we’re going to ask.
Sometimes you’ll be surprised people say yes to interviews for a million different reasons. Some people are narcissist and they love to be in front of a camera. Some people think that they are right. They’ll try to explain why they’re right and you are amazed that they sit down. We’ve had athletes who were accused of using performance enhancing drugs, sexual abuse, violence. They said, “Ah” and they tried to explain why they are right, or their side of the story.
That’s what we’ve done. We’re just here to hear your side of the story, so this is your opportunity to tell us that. Sometimes they say no, and if they say no, then we have to decide, is it worth trying to tell a story without the person? Sometimes we can, I mean, Larry Nassar was a perfect example. We did a full hour on him and obviously he didn’t sit down, but we had all the people who accused him, all the people who work with him.
You can tell a story a lot of times without the person, as long as you have other people around who know him or her. We did a full hour on Sepp Blatter of FIFA and he refused to sit down with us, but we did it because we had a lot of people who had worked with him, who knew him, who grew up with him, and could tell his story without him there.
Anja: I know there’re places you wouldn’t go in a show like that.
Michael: [laughs] What do you mean? Physically or emotional?
Anja: [laughs] Well, politically or–
Michael: We never say no, which is good and bad. The one thing we respect are people’s privacy, private people, not public people because that’s a whole different category. Private people, because when you report and you find out things, there are things that you have to decide, is this something we want to make public or not? We have long discussions about the impact that that has and why we would make it public if it’s a private person and sometimes we decide it’s not. As journalists and as people we can’t do that because there’s no reason to do that. Other times, if they’re public figures or it’s for the greater good, even though it might be uncomfortable, we decide we have to report it and put it in the story.
It really depends. We do it case by case because, again it’s hard to say this is how we’re going to handle it every time. The way I like to think of it is if it happened and its real, then we shouldn’t shy away from it. A lot of times we take on topics like Larry Nassar or all kinds of things in sports that people want to try to avoid. We don’t want to avoid them. We want to talk about them. What we don’t do is take a side.
If we do something that’s political, we won’t choose a side. We’ll just say here’s the issue, here’s what we know about it, and hopefully at the end of the story you can discuss it and decide what you think.
We did a story, healthcare in the US. Health insurance is a big problem because there are a lot of people who don’t have health insurance, especially young athletes who are in school. If they get injured, some of them don’t have any health insurance, so we did a big story about that. It wasn’t about what should the politicians do? It was just about the athletes. If you get injured, here’s what your life is going to be like because you may not have insurance. Then we let people decide on what they think about that and how it should be solved, but we don’t take a position.
Anja: I know that there’s quite a few former athletes working at ESPN.
Michael: Yes. A lot.
Anja: A lot.
Michael: Most of them, I’d say probably 30% to 40% if not more, probably more because there are professional athletes who are incredibly successful who work here, but also everybody else here loves sports generally. Some either played in high school or college or in some way, so there’re a lot of athletes here, which makes sense because we do sports.
Anja: Yes. [chuckles] Are there any other reasons why ESPN likes to use athletes?
Michael: Yes, absolutely. You have to love what you’re doing, so we cover sports. We talk about sports all the time. Obviously, people who have competed have an immediate connection to that and a passion. I think as someone who didn’t play sports as a high level, what I see and when we hire people, what’s great about having former athletes is that, work ethic? Unbelievable. You can’t find people who can be focused and be dedicated in the way that former athletes are. Passion, teamwork, all the things that it takes to be a competitive athlete make you generally an unbelievable worker, colleagues, so those things.
I used to work at ABC News which is a completely different environment. Here, it’s like when we focus on a goal at ESPN, everybody’s focusing. It gets done in ways that I’ve never witnessed before and that’s because everybody has that background as an athlete and the passion. When they have the goal, then they know what they need to do to get there and they’re not going to generally stop until they do it.
I think that makes ESPN incredibly, A, fun to work at and, B, successful. I see it everyday. It’s like, oh my gosh. People are here late. They’re working hard in the same way that when you’re training for something, you don’t stop when the game is over. You keep going.
You think of how do I get better? How do I deal with the next thing? That’s the same thing when we’re hiring people. This is the type of person we want because they’re not going to just do what we ask them. They’re going to do that and then they’re going to think of what can I do next? What can I get to make it better? How do I go to the next step?
Anja: Let me just linger a little bit on that because that’s sweet music in my ear. [laughs] Probably and most people listening to, if you are an athlete and you just retired or about to retire or looking for a job, just find confidence in what Mike just said that you have these qualities.
Michael: No question. You would be surprised how many people don’t have those qualities, so it sets you apart so quickly, so quickly that you already have a track record, no pun intended, of achievement of high level achievement. If you’ve achieved in one field, you can transfer that to any other field because a lot of times people ask me, well, how do I get into TV? How do I do this, we can teach you those skills, the day-to-day like, how do I press the button on this and how do I do that?
What I can’t teach you is hard work, passion, desire to be to succeed, team effort, all that stuff. That I can’t teach you. I can ask you, but I can’t teach you. I can teach you all the other stuff of how does E60 make a story, I can help you get along that. The other stuff, i’s people who have been doing it for a long time and it’s immediately you’re in that top percentage of people that walk in looking for a job.
Anja: Okay, so what we’re at that, is in the recruiting thing, is there a gender balance to respect because it seems to be very male-dominated?
Michael: Yes, absolutely. Especially in the US for sports networks, it’s for a long time been heavily male, that’s changing and that’s changing a lot thankfully because everywhere it’s changing. I can only talk about ESPN because that’s what– ESPN is owned by Disney and Disney is made an incredible effort and ESPN has made an incredible effort knock down barriers and make everything available to everybody.
I have been here 10 years, I have seen a change from when I got here to to today of just walking into the office and who’s there and who’s in charge of things and who’s doing what than 10 years ago. It is completely different. Again, ESPN the way we look at is, why would we not try to appeal to everybody because that means your audience is much bigger so there are always initiatives about international stories, like of course, we want to appeal internationally to women, to younger, to certain sports. We’re constantly looking so it’s becoming much more open to everybody.
It’s not there yet, but it’s getting there. It’s going in the right direction. Again, that’s something when we talked about how do you pitch a story or how do you pitch yourself, it’s what makes you unique and different whether it’s a sport you play, who you are, your background, use that to your advantage as opposed to like, “Well, I’m not like everybody else.” That’s a plus, you’re not like everybody else.
Anja: Exactly, I like to say that like some people have an MBA and you have your athlete story, so don’t try to use all your power to fit in, use that to stand out and make a difference that way.
Michael: We get a lot more people with MBAs coming in for news than people with unique athlete stories, that’s much more exciting.
Anja: Talk about this whole development of ESPN and the sports TV. How do you see the future of sports on TV with all these new opportunities for self broadcasting and doing like what I’m doing with Athlete Story and my little scale?
Michael: Yes, what I see it, there are two ways of thinking of it. At ESPN people were very scared, it’s like, “Oh my God, it’s changing so fast, technology is changing, our kids can watch games on their phone and they don’t have–” They get scared of think, how do we protect what we have, big network, TV, we control everything. Then there are other people say, “You know what? This is a great opportunity because everybody can get this, everybody can turn on their phone, everybody can have their own show, everybody can do it.”I like to think of it that way. I watch my kids, they can watch any sport at any time however they want whenever they want, that’s fantastic, it lets you think of like, “Okay, so what do we do with that?” And let you be more creative. It’s harder in some ways because there’re more people doing it, but we liken to, “If we do it better then people are still going to come to us and watch it, or to whoever.” The goal is always quality. Just do it really, really well and offer people something that they can’t get anywhere else. That’s the key. People immediately know if it’s good or not and they will decide, “Is this worth my time? Am I going to spend time doing this?” That’s what you have to focus on, not, “Oh my gosh, there’s so many people out there.” It’s fine. There are always going to be a ton of people. Are you telling them something that they want to hear, or want to see? That’s the key.
Anja: If you can keep surprising them I guess, with your rolling cheese.
Michael: It’s very easy, and we’ve seen it a million times, companies that were at the top and then 10 years later they’re gone. Especially now, I think it’s moved so fast. There was a time when Apple was almost bankrupt, and now look at it. Myspace, and a bunch of companies that just don’t exist anymore. Look at the record business. That’s going to keep happening, so a lot of what our bosses on the show, and what we try to do is, “Last year was great, fantastic. Now we have to work harder. Last year was fantastic, what do we do differently?” We can’t just keep doing the same thing because the audience will leave as soon as they get bored or they find something better. We have to keep changing, and that’s hard. What you want to do is like, “That was a great year, let’s just do it again.” No, we have to change it.
Anja: I guess, being a Disney corporation, you’re the kings of reinvention and staying relevant. [laughs]
Michael: That’s what they want us to do. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. They also own a lot of TV stations and TV is changing. Is it going to be there in 10 years? Probably not the way we know it. As a business, it doesn’t work. People will still want to watch things, they’ll just be different.
What Disney does, and they’re a pretty good example, they realize, “They way we did business, it’s completely changed.” That’s why it started, they bought ESPN, they bought Pixar and Lucas Films and Marvel Comics. Now they’re starting their own Netflix-type business because they realize, “That’s how people are getting things now.”
“We can’t just sit here and say, “We’re Disney, we’re so big people will still come to us.”” No.
Will it work? Hopefully, because we all want it to work but that’s a risk. They’re changing it completely, knowing that they have to, they have no choice. Either they’re going to change it or they’re going to disappear at some point.
Anja: I guess sports has the advantage of, as long as it’s the coverage of big events, that those events are there.
Anja: You can’t just go out and copy that.
Michael: Exactly. That’s, again, if you are an athlete, you understand that. There’s power in, whatever your sport is, whatever, people want to watch that. In the moment, not in three weeks or whatever. Those are moments that are happening live that people want to watch. If you understand that and use that, then there’s power in that.
Anja: Let’s say that I am an athlete and I’m preparing for the next Olympics. I think, “It would be so cool if they would just bring my story up to the Olympics so that people know a little bit more and maybe they’ll follow me during the Olympics.” Can they send their pitch to E60?
Michael: Yes, absolutely. We get stories from everywhere, directly from athletes, from agents, from book publishers, from families. Grandmas on the show send things in. It doesn’t matter, if it’s a good story, we’ll follow it. The key is to, again, present it in a way that makes you want to know more. If you’re an Olympic athlete, “Know that my event is happening at this point in time, when should I start pitching it?” If it’s too early, nobody is going to pay attention. If it’s too late, nobody’s going to care. Know that moment of when it’s right to do and use that.
I always tell people, again, it’s so much easier to now to reach people, whether it’s email or LinkedIn, or Skype, whatever. Just reach out to people. You’d be surprised to know how easy it is to reach out. Sometimes they ignore you and sometimes that’s fine. Don’t take it personally, but you’d be surprised how often they respond. At least have a communication with them, and if it works great, and if it doesn’t that’s fine too, but don’t reject it yourself before you– Let other people reject your story before you do. Because if you abandon, then it’s never going to happen. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding something in your inbox or a message somewhere that’s like, “Hey, hi, here’s a great story,” and you say, “Hey, that is a great story.” You immediately reply because you’ve recognized it so.
Anja: If there’s a ratio of pitched stories to the stories that you’ve dug out somehow [chuckles] using this -[chuckles]
Michael: I found most of them myself.
Anja: [laughs] You invent them? [laughs].
Michael: It’s from everywhere. I’d say it’s all over the place. Obviously, our staff is always looking for stories so that helps because they’re constantly looking and we know what we want. Sometimes you just stumble into something and you think, “Oh my gosh, this is incredible.” I’d say 40% comes from our staff, 20% from people outside, another 20% just randomly, and then the rest is from who knows.
I think the key is to figure out when is the right time to pitch your story, and how to pitch it and pitch it to the right people. Sometimes we get pitches that are like, “This is a great story, but it’s not for us, it’s not a story that we would do.”
Anja: How do you find out who’s the right people?
Michael: You watch, for example, if you try to tell us a story about a politician and this is an extreme example, we’re like, “That’s a great story, but we don’t do stories on politics.” Know the people, know what they produce whether it’s their shows.
Anja: You mean know your media, but what about who to pitch it to because there’s not just you there?
Michael: Do a little research. When I started, I would watch the end of the show and see the credits, who’s there? Get names, write them down, and then find their email. A lot of times it’s really easy because emails are a formula, it’s usually first name, last name at company dot com. You can find it or do a Google search, find their fan page, talk to people, whoever you know, pop them an email.
People love to talk about themselves, if you send them a question and say, “Hey, I’d love to hear more about you and your experience,” most people will be like, “Yes, absolutely, I want to tell you about me.” Don’t be shy about that because even if you send a hundred emails or texts or whatever, and you only get 30 back, that’s a lot, that’s huge amount. You’d probably only get 10 back, but already you’ve gotten 10 connections.
If I get a call and it’s something that I know isn’t for us, I’d let you know, if I know somebody else I’ll say, “You know what? This might work with this other show at ESPN or somebody I know.” If I think it’s a good idea, I’m not just going to throw it away, I’m just going to say, “Hey, wait a minute, this might be good for our other show.”
The more you push your story, and find the people, and talk to people, the more eventually it’s going to land where it should land.
The other side of that is sometimes we get emails and we never hear back from people. If that person isn’t interested enough in their story to call me or to try to reach out to me, then why should I try to?
Michael: You have to show the passion otherwise if it’s not, we’re not going to try to follow up. If I was interested in your podcast, I’m sure I can find your contact information, and I write an email to Anja and say, “Hey Anja, I love what you did, can you tell me more about that, or here’s an idea for show or whatever.” That works much better than any other way of doing it.
Anja: I’m going to send you an email tomorrow.
Michael: It’s all right.
Anja: I’m just thinking, if you’re an athlete and you got injured or you’re preparing for the big event and you got injured or something happened that messed up your plan totally. You’re like, “Am I going to make it now, what’s happening, am I going to lose my sponsors, am I going to lose my funding?” What you could do, if I understood it right is you could pitch this story as a, “What’s going to happen to me now kind of story.” Then maybe you would want to follow if you were preparing for the Olympics, and you got this injury, and now is she even going to be able to compete at the–
Michael: Absolutely. A lot of the stories that we do are just that. Our athletes who tell us, “I don’t know if this is it for me.” We did earlier this year Lindsey Vonn, and most people know a little bit about her story, so we wanted her to talk more about the injuries and the times when she thought her career was over, and when she was going to stop, and what it would take. Her grandfather passed away who she was very close to and she thought she wouldn’t be able to come back from that.
So that’s what makes the story interesting because the least interesting stories that we do are the ones that the person started here. They trained really hard. They got really really good. They were better than everybody else and they won the championship.
Michael: It’s so boring because nothing ever happens. The stories that are great are, “Nobody expected me. I was really bad, and then I got really good but then I got injured and the doctors told me I would never play again, but I came back, and then something else happened and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this any more,’ and then I came back, and then I won.” Those are the stories we all love because–
Anja: Sounds like my story. [laughs]
Michael: We’ve all had ups and downs and that’s what we want to see. I’m not going to be an Olympic athlete, but I can identify with someone who’s [inaudible 00:41:33] been down and wanted to give up, but didn’t and fought back, and that’s what we want to see and that’s what sports is great at is that there’s so many examples of people who’ve fought through that. Whether it’s pain, losing their sponsors, injuries, whatever and they fight back, and that’s why people love to watch the games and our shows, it’s because you get inspired, and you think, “They did it. I can do it.
Anja: The growth or the development of that person in the story could actually doesn’t have to be results wise, it could be, “I learnt this. This cocky stupid whatever, and then this thing happened and now I know that humility and [laughs] respect are good values that I’m going to–” I’m not sure. Whatever.
Michael: Yes. Absolutely, and for us, that’s the cornerstone of story telling. Person starts here, if at the end they’re still that same person, that’s not a good story. They start here and at the end they’re a different person, and that could be whatever you want it to be. They have to be a different person because we’ve seen them go through a lot of things and then at the end, they’re more humble or they’re more appreciative or they’re– Whatever it is. They’re different at the end and a lot of times our stories don’t end well. They don’t end well, like the athlete doesn’t win, but that’s fine. Sometimes that’s more interesting than if they won because that’s real life. A lot of times it doesn’t work out, but that’s okay.
Anja: I’m so glad you say this because a lot of athletes will say, “Well, I never won anything. What am I going to go up do speeches about?” It’s just the opposite almost. It’s giving more–
Michael: More you have a better perspective and I can say this from a professional angle, former athletes who work at ESPN, the ones, and this is generalization, who tend to be better at their job are not the ones that were superstars. Most of the good analysts and commentators were average, and I say average, they weren’t superstars because they have a different perspective and so when they comment on the game, they’re more insightful and they have more interesting things to say and they can think about things.
The superstar sometimes they can’t connect because they were superstars and so they were always winning, and they were always great, so they don’t understand why everybody isn’t great, and so that’s an advantage. Just because you weren’t the champion, doesn’t mean you can’t be a great sports broadcaster or a great storyteller in sports or whatever it is. You probably have a bigger experience and know more about the sport because you were watching more, you were paying more attention, and you had to work hard.
Michael: Well, thank you so much for all this. I hope that you just inspired a lot of athletes to go out and tell their stories. To go out and use their story and leverage it to bring value to other people’s lives through what they’ve been through.
Mike: One of the things that we say sometimes: “Oh. I wanted to do a story on this person, but they don’t have a really good story.” Most of the times we just haven’t found a good story that they have, we all have a story. You have to have at least one good story. You just haven’t figured it out yet.
Anja: I was just going to say we all have many stories. [laughs]
Mike: Yes. You just have to figure out how to tell it and also how to tell it to the people that are interested. Everybody has a great story and that’s the key is to find which one it is you want to tell and to the right people. Once you do that, then it all works. It’s easy.
Anja: If I just hold on to what you’ve just said before. If that story can show some kind of a transformation.
Mike: Absolutely. [crosstalk]
Anja: That makes it a good story. [chuckles]
Mike: In any competition, we don’t end up in the same place. Everybody is not in the same place from where you begin to the end. That’s the same thing with stories. There have to be people who are up and people who are down at the end and that’s what we’re looking for. That change. What happened? Tell me how it happened? What happened at the end? We’re all different. We have a different view of life or experience for your sport because you just did that.
Anja: Then let us in on the whole emotional roller coaster. [chuckles]
Mike: Athletes know that better than everybody because every competition is an emotional up and down. You know that at any minute you could be at the top or any minute you could be at the bottom in a sec.
Anja: Yes, but what every athlete also knows is pretty much how to control those emotions. According to what you’re saying, if you want to make your story great and relatable, it’s not about controlling your emotions. It’s about letting people in and dealing it with you.
Mike: Yes, being honest. Some people are honest and it’s not emotional, but it’s powerful and some are honest and they’re incredibly emotional. You are right. For athletes, that sometimes is the hardest thing is, to just let go and realize, don’t try to control this. Just be honest. Tell me the truth. Whatever you see the truth to be and if that’s what people like to see in stories.
Think about in sports, the most memorable powerful moments for you in any competition. It’s when the athlete is celebrating or crying or getting emotional. That’s what you remember, not the when they were in complete control usually. The moments when they let go of that. That’s the same thing for the stories. You have to show that because that’s what people connect with.
Anja: Yes. Excellent. Thank you so much. This has been great.
Mike: My pleasure.
Anja: Great help. Great tips there.
Mike: Yes. Awesome. Thank you.
Anja: Should we tell them how I know you’re a good student?
Mike: Yes. Sure.
Anja: Back in the days, Mike and I went to the same high school at the American School of Paris and the reason why we’re here talking today is that we actually just had a little reunion not so long ago. I asked Mike if he wanted to come and share some of his insider wisdom from sports. Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Mike: My pleasure, Anja. All right, talk to you soon. Bye.
Anja: Talk to you soon. Bye.
[00:49:09] [END OF AUDIO]
“You’re a member of the audience. If you’re interested, then, there’s going to be somebody else that’s interested out there. If you’re not interested, then, find another story. Part of that is what is interesting about the story? What makes that story interesting to you. What makes it exciting or emotional? What makes you happy? What makes you sad? Those are the things we like when we are putting our stories together, one of the things we’re mindful is, there is difference between a report and a story. A report is, here are the facts, here is what happen, this and then this and then this on this day. That’s not a story, that’s what you get in school when they tell you: -Memorize these things.”Michael Baltierra
Executive Editor E:60 TV show, ESPN
About our guest
Michael Baltierra‘s career as a storyteller in broadcasting includes nine years as a producer at ABC News. Traveling the world to cover stories and put them into context so that we can relate to them in our own little pond back home.
His passion for sport and apparently, a great working environment at ESPN led him to become an executive editor for The E60 Show. For those of you who don’t know the show, it’s a weekly sports show magazine style where they bring great sports documentaries that are always relatable and relevant, no matter what the sport or the results because those stories go way beyond sports.
Knowing Mike, I can already tell you that empathy and the ability to see things from different angles, probably part of what makes him a champion storyteller.