After four decades on the air, veteran storyteller Bob Dotson shares advice with students

By Georgie Silvarole

December 10, 2015

Newhouse graduate recently retired as regular 'Today Show' correspondent

An American story is what Bob Dotson G’69 traveled the countryside in search of for 40 years. He scoured the nation on behalf of NBC’s “Today Show” for his “American Story” series and found teachers who dressed like Elvis, surgeons who spent hours with their hands wrapped around patients’ hearts and paraplegic kids who became great athletes.

But when Dotson was asked about his all-time favorite story during a recent visit to the Newhouse School, his reply was simply “the next one.”

Dotson, who retired in late October after four decades on the air, gave storytelling advice to a full house in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium earlier this month. One of his story-structuring tactics — “Hey, You, See, So” — resonated with students.

The “hey” gets the viewer’s attention right off the bat, then the “you” swoops in and draws the line between the story and the audience, Dotson says. The “see” proves you’re a good storyteller by showing the viewer something about the story that hasn’t already been covered, and the “so” follows up on that by giving the viewer a reason to watch your piece, he says.

“As a professional storyteller, your job is to connect the seemingly unconnected,” Dotson says. “A storyteller will show you things you might have missed even if you were standing right next to them.”

Finding seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things is what made his career interesting, Dotson says. After graduating from Newhouse with a master’s degree in television and film, he jumped between a few smaller gigs before landing a job with NBC.

The author of two books says he learned a lot while reporting from the road. One lesson he shared was his “rule of threes.” When interviewing a subject, even if they’re reluctant and hard to talk to, they answer in three parts: first with what they think you want them to say, followed by their explanation of that first statement. Finally, he says, if you pause and give them a chance to be uncomfortable in that silence, they share the good stuff.

“Success in this business is not being dealt a good hand,” Dotson says. “Success is playing a bad hand well over and over and over and over again.”

Dotson talked about a young child he did a story about. The boy was adopted, athletic and a rising wrestler. Then Dotson shared that the boy had no legs below his knees.

In the clip, Dotson’s voice narrates through the subject’s severe case of meningitis. After losing his limbs to infection, the boy still wanted to wrestle, and it was important to his parents to find someone who could understand. Then Dotson offers a totally new angle of the story: the boy’s wrestling coach is also an amputee.

“It’s always a good idea if you can build in surprises,” Dotson says. “If you can put surprises in your stories, they stick with you.”

After fielding questions from students about finding stories, managing time and climbing up the journalism career ladder, Dotson thanked his audience for coming. He concluded with sentiments on how the stories of those seemingly average people he has encountered have shaped his incredulous outlook on the country as a whole.

“The most unreported section of our world is us,” Dotson says. “You have given me an insight on why America became America.”

Georgie Silvarole is a junior newspaper and online journalism major at the Newhouse School.

Photos by James McCann, a student in the military visual journalism program at the Newhouse School.