Notes from Audio Storytelling for Journalists Class Week 1

I am taking Audio storytelling for journalists: How to tell stories on podcasts, voice assistants, social audio, and beyond” from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. These are my notes from the first week.

“Ira Glass on Storytelling”, This American Life.

Anecdote ~ a short account of a particular incident or event, especially of an interesting or amusing nature.

Identify a niche and the community that is interested in that niche. It is most important to define who you want to serve.

There is a lot you can learn about audio storytelling by listening to a wide array of examples such as podcasts and other audio presentations.

Audio allows the audience to go at their own pace and stop and learn about a story from beginning, middle and end. Stories are about people, not things or facts. Stories that keep people’s attention have to be character-driven.

There is an inherent power that is set up by the tension having a beginning, middle, and end to a story rather than just a regurgitation of information.

Where on the path does where investigative journalism and storytelling (audio) meet? Long-form pieces, with a lot of information, need to be “entertaining.” What changed with the ascendance of narrative nonfiction and podcasting is the realization that the journalist as a “character” in a story can serve a guide or perhaps even an avatar for the reader/listener – someone to help draw them into the story.

Forms of audio storytelling:
Interactive newscasts on voice assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google
Interactive podcasts
Audio news
Voice computing
Audio dramas “a movie in your mind.”
Social Audio (twitter spaces, club house)
Audio journals

Feedback from one another is an important way you will develop your projects and learn. Include “helpers” on your projects.

A good story is a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text,” ays Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind.

Like reading, listening to audio allows people to create their own versions of characters and scenes in the story. – Emma Rodero, a communications professor at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona

Building a story with Anecdotes ~ this happen, then this happened, and then this…one leading to next leading to the next. Sequence of events. Start with the action.

Raise the questions for the beginning. Constantly raise questions and answer them. Moment of reflection – here is why you are listening to my story. Tell something new that supports the Anecdote.

Best podcasters are those who a/ pre-interview and get a good grip on the subject and the person and b/ still make it sound spontaneous in the show. 

Pre-interviews: First, if possible have someone other than the interviewer do the pre-interview and then give notes or a briefing to the interviewer. This way the guest will be telling their story for the first time to the interviewer. Second, the pre-interviewer is trying to do three things 1) make sure the guest is a good talker that is interesting to listen to 2) make sure the guest knows the topic you want to talk about and 3) to be on the look out for “hot zones” where there is a good story or an emotional story lurking, but they don’t actually go too deep in probing those zones…they are just trying to find the places where the interviewer should dig.

The technical aspects become second nature with practice. Learn how to record good tape.

Be clear what it is you want to achieve in the interview
Plan out a story arc and progression of topics.
Ask different types of questions designed to get them to tell a story
Be clear what it is you want to achieve in the interview
Plan out a story arc and progression of topics.
Ask different types of questions designed to get them to tell a story

Play attention to what your are connected to. What captivates you? Amuse yourself with your stories. “I am my primary audience.”

Descript software: You can type into it, talk into it, and the ease by which you can move blocks of audio as easily as you move blocks of text.

Great storytelling captures our imaginations. Good stories are interesting for a reason.

Who are you talking to? What do you want the listener to learn? What should they care? Who do you want to listen? What is your end project?

Good audio interview is a story, a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and a good interviewer is going to try to create a dramatic arc.

When YOU are interviewed: First, who is the audience for this podcast or radio show? Second, what is the focus of the interview they want to do with you? What part of the story are they looking for you to tell? How long do they expect the segment to be like? Are they talking to other people to round out the perspective? Prepared to talk about the three to five things you most want a listener to know related to the focus of the interview and truly have talking points ready. Keep it concise. Let your interviewer ask follow up questions if they want more detail but really know which talking points are your priority and make sure you speak to them. Also, do you have anecdotes that illustrate the key points from your story?

Hero’s quest:
What were you setting out to do?
Who did you meet along the way?
What trials and tribulations occurred?
What did you ultimately discover?
What wisdom can you now impart to us?

Design Thinking: Anyone who creates anything is a designer. Who is it for? How is it going to benefit those people? What are the other things out there that maybe like this that people would be going to instead? And how is my thing different?

Sometimes the most powerful sound in stories is a lack of sound or a pause or a silence or a cadence of the way we speak in person, which you can’t really get when you’re reading print.

The Questions

  • Who are you going to be talking to?
  • What did they get out of listening?
  • What is it that you’re actually making for them?
  • Who is the thing you’re making for? Is it a broad swath of people or a narrow slice with a specialized interest?
  • What are your listeners doing while they’re listening? Are they multitasking and doing chores, or are they closing their eyes and listening deeply?
  • Do they know a lot about the subject area you’re going to be presenting or are they new to it?
  • What do they get out of listening (This is the why should someone care question. )
  • What is compelling about the thing you want to tell a story about?
  • Is it just a great tale? Or is there actionable information that you’re sharing?
  • What value does a person get from listening to your story?
  • Does your story or project help someone understand how to lead a better life?
  • Does it help someone make sense of something in the world that’s confusing or perplexing?
  • Does it help your listener feel a part of something bigger than them?
  • What is your story really about?
  • At the end of listening, what will the listener take away?
  • What is it about your story that I’m going to find worth investing my time in?
  • What is it that you’re making?

Audio has fewer barriers than some of the more expensive media to make. There’s always been a sort of democratization of the storytelling through audio because anyone could go out and get a recorder and a microphone, and now anyone can make a podcast and publish it. It is accessible, both to listen to and to make stories. It is a nimble medium. You can pause, you can stop, you can come back to it, you can listen again.

Audio stories are becoming more interactive, so people can respond. Some stories have Twitter accounts for the fictional characters that you can follow along with. The writers drop clues in the episode, so you can follow along and solve the mystery as you’re listening.

Listen to as much as you can get your ears on. You can learn simply by taking in all kinds of stories and write about what it was about those stories that worked or didn’t work. Remain open to new forms. Explore around the margins of what you love and see where that takes you.

It’s your job to take in what life has offered you and share it with others and that’s what makes this work so unique and rewarding.

~ Sayre Quevedo

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