10 Lessons on Audio Storytelling (So Far)

posted on May 1st 2014 in Storytelling with 0 Comments

I’m in a storytelling workshop at Transom these days, and I think it may just be the best kept secret in public media. It’s incredible.

I just spent a day workshopping stories with This American Life senior producer Nancy Updike, and have done the same with Jay Allison, producer of the Moth Radio Hour (and so much more).

1. Why do you want to tell the story? Yes, you. Why you?

This American Life’s Nancy Updike was so helpful in reminding us that — to tell a compelling, real story — you need to actually know and understand your own feelings about it. Why do you want to tell this story? Why do you care? What is your personal connection? How do you feel about it?

If you think it doesn’t matter, you’re wrong, and missing out on potentially critical insights.

You can tell a story without knowing those things, sure, but it will always help you to have thought hard about them. The answers will clarify and inform your story’s focus, direction and style.

None of this means you stop being open-minded in your work, or jump to conclusions — it just means that you’re self aware, and that you’re close to the emotions at the core of any story.

The truth is, we all have our reasons for the stories we want to tell. And we should know what those are.

2. Narrative Rules.

Having a specific story in your piece can add a kind of urgency and power to your work that stands alone, and it can be so fun and satisfying. Narrative speaks to something instinctual in us all.


If you’re going to have a narrative — even hint at one — you have to do it justice or nothing else matters. My first (and second) draft of my first piece at Transom introduced a story/character arc, and then drifted away into moments and ideas I liked.

But if the narrative loses it way, nothing else matters. It’s all lost on your audience.

You can introduce ideas, and you should, but above all, you can’t drop the thread once you’ve started it.

3. Moments of reflection are usually worth the work.

Nancy Updike knows how to reflect. At key moments in her pieces, she’ll switch from describing to reflecting, and from the particular to the universal. Literally, she starts speaking about life, in general, for us all. But her reflections are so poignant, so poetic, and so full of self-awareness, humor and compassion, that you are just with her.

This is one opportunity that is especially present in audio storytelling.

You don’t have to do it, of course. And plenty of beautiful radio stories don’t. But This American Life shows — time and again — that it can be unforgettable.

This is not easy to pull off. But if you can do it well, it can elevate the story to something far more profound.

Listen to Nancy’s most recent story on hospice for so many examples:

You may notice that, for every affecting moment that comes through from the tape itself, there are just as many that come from Nancy’s reflections on the story’s meaning and lessons.

Here are just two examples from the hospice story — which have that much more resonance in context:

“Dying is a constant series of judgement calls, decisions, based on options that are very far from what anyone would want.”

“I know the strain of this waiting, where nothing is happening and your brain keeps flitting between the giant, existential thing that’s going on and the tedious nuts and bolts of just getting through every hour.
Every moment seems full of meaning, and yet not meaningful at all. It’s surreal, and it is crazy making.”

4. Audio (can be) the most visual medium

Nancy also helped to drive home this point — radio can capture the imagination like just about nothing else, but you have to give people imagery to work with. A little description goes a long way. It shapes someone’s conception of the piece, and can be central to what they take away from it.

This excerpt from her piece “I’m from the Private Sector and I’m here to help,” about military contractors in Iraq, is one of my very favorites:

The contractor, Hank, is describing how he wants his men to look:

Hank: Steely-eyed, flat-bellied professionals.
Nancy Updike
And he walks around doing that look, but he also knows it’s all a bit of a put-on, a man dance, as he calls it. And with tens of thousands of American military and ex-military and private military in Iraq right now, it’s very possible that we are standing in the middle of the largest man dance on the planet.

5. Take deep breaths. Pacing matters.

When you’re racing to finish a piece and fit in all the points you want to make, it can be easy to forget that the listener doesn’t care about all of your points, or when your deadline is. They just care about how it feels to listen to it.

If you have music, give people time to let it sink in.

If you have a moment, give it beat or two to let it be felt.

Why are you rushing? Why are you yelling into the microphone?

An audio piece should feel like letting someone have an experience, sit with it, reflect on it. Let your tape and your listeners have some space.

6. “Did Mediocrity! Die!”

Another point Nancy drove home that really got to me is also the name of her talk from Third Coast a few years back:

Why is so much radio so mediocre? You can feel your own reaction as you read something — even your own work — you know if it’s mediocre. So don’t accept it. Just don’t. Stay with it until it’s not anymore. That’s your job — to know the difference. Don’t settle.

As soon as I listened to her talk, I rewrote a whole bunch of one of my scripts.

7. Get to the big things through the little things.

I love ideas. But the small details of people and their lives can be much more evocative and memorable than spelling out some idea.

Ideas are in up in the sky, emotions are down here, in the small moments of life. Start with the little things if you want to reflect on the big things.

8. Don’t be contained when you interview. Be a little wild.

Don’t just ask the questions in interviews you think you should ask. Focus on the questions that you find yourself really curious to ask, the questions that jump up and you’re afraid to ask.

Be spontaneous. Get off script. Ask lots of follow ups. Go down rabbit holes, even if they don’t go anywhere. The adventure and the authenticity will come through on the tape.

9. Stop rereading your script. Start listening.

Writing is a big big part of radio. You need to see the words and organize them on the page.

But you can’t forget that radio is ultimately a felt and heard medium. In the end, it’s all about how it feels to listen to it, not read it on a screen.

So don’t get lost in reading. Put in your time really hearing your piece and editing it with a pacing and rhythm that keeps you gripped and moved. That’s what counts.

10. If your interview is going badly, restart it.

That’s from Terry Gross. Just say, “hey, probably my fault, but this isn’t going well, would you mind if we started again?”

The person you’re interviewing doesn’t need to think you’re a genius. It doesn’t matter.