Learning How to Write with Stephen Colbert

I’m a morning person, so I catch clips of late night shows in the early morning hours. It’s actually a pretty great way to wake up. I drink my coffee, peruse social media, watch the stuff that looks like it has the most potential.

This morning, I found this segment of Stephen Colbert answering a question from the audience about how he knew his wife was the “one.” And I think I learned more about how to tell a great story in those few minutes than I did during two years of grad school.

Not only is this story enough to make you believe in true love at first sight, it’s a great example of how public speaking, and writing, should be done. Anyone who writes can learn something from this clip, including:

Great one liners: At one point in his monologue, Colbert quotes his mom’s reaction to his own waffling on whether or not to marry his girlfriend: “’I don’t know’ isn’t good enough.” Right there, Colbert realizes he doesn’t want to marry his girlfriend, and he skips a whole lot of soul searching and verbal musing (which, let’s be honest, is often only interesting to the person doing it) and delivers a decision. And it’s recognizable—who hasn’t felt that solid gut reaction, that slap-to-the-forehead epiphany, that moment of reason so pure it delivers its own natural high?

Pointing out language choice: Colbert says of the first time he spots his future wife: “…and I see across the lobby this woman, I think, for the first time, not ‘girl,’ woman.” Here, Colbert takes the time to pause in his description of this beautiful woman to point that he thinks of her as a woman, not a girl, which makes us all realize this is an important distinction for him. While it breaks up the flow of the story, it adds its own crucial texture and layer to the narrative.

Tangents: The son of poet Chuck Sullivan makes a cameo appearance in the story of Colbert’s great love story and through him, Colbert makes a connection to the Odyssey, an ancient epic about a man struggling to get home to his faithful wife. While a link between a comedian and an ancient Greek warrior named Odysseus might seem far-fetched, the tangent makes the actual story even more poignant.

Suspense: In his story, while chatting with the beautiful woman (not girl!), Colbert gives his future wife an out. Maybe she’s just being polite, he thinks, and he wants her to be able to escape if that’s her real desire. So he looks at his watch and turns and walks away from her, giving her one minute to politely excuse herself from the shared future that he already suspects lies ahead. What makes this a great part of the story is that while telling it, Colbert turns his back on the audience, letting them stew in the suspense—will she leave? Will she stay? Will they live happily ever after?

There you go. Better writing through late-night television clips.

Sometimes, when I think about making my writing better, I assume I can only do that by reading great writers and, well, writing. But that’s not true. There are loads of tips and techniques out there waiting to be spotted and used. You just have to look and recognize moments of brilliance when they happen.