Notes from Audio Storytelling for Journalists Class Week 2

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 second week.

Audio is amazing at communicating emotion. The information in an audio story can’t be as dense as what’s in a print story. Your focus has to be crystal clear.

What is your focus? What is at stake? What is the central tension in your story? Who are the characters needed to tell the story? What are the scenes you’ll need to bring the story to life? It’s your focus that helps you figure this all out.

Ideas stories – What is the central question? The central question is also a focus. This is best for more simple newsy stories or maybe explainer type projects.

A good audio story is about a question and a quest to answer that question. Good stories are about a person engaged in an action that has a purpose, doing something for a reason.

Focus on the voices to appear in your audio story and what scenes are needed to illustrate what the person is doing and what are the other voices or information that’s needed to explain the reason, which you can also think of as the impact of what the person is doing. Again, the format is someone doing something for a reason. That person who’s doing something is almost always the main character in your story.

Knowing your focus makes doing interviews, collecting tape, writing will be easier and faster. If you know what your story is about and what it’s not about, your focus is your roadmap.

Different interviews will play different roles in the story you’re creating: main characters, expert voices, people who are impacted, etc

Think about what each person you talk to needs to contribute to the story and what parts of your central question or focus statement they can help illuminate.

To do a good interview, you have to know what you plan to do with that tape that you collect. Are you doing an interview that will be in your story as a conversation between you and the person you’re talking to? Are you looking for soundbites to use interspersed with narration? Or are you doing a non-narrated story, like an audio diary or first-person story? Sometimes in longform storytelling, we’re using a mixture of all of these techniques, but having an idea which form will make up the bulk of your story is really helpful.

Write out a plan as to whom you’re going to interview or talk to and what sort of tape you need. Will it be a conversation or a two way, a nonnarrated or audio diary style piece? Are youcollecting soundbites by asking open-ended questions? Are you asking a lot of how and why questions?

Your job is really to get your interviewee talking about the things you want to know about. A little pro tip, at the end of one of these interviews always ask, is there anything else you’d like to tell me about this topic? Because that answer is often your best tape.

Conversational interviews – create a story arc that happens and unfolds over the course of the conversation to tell the story. You’ll need to go in knowing where you want your interviewee to start the story and ask a question designed to do just that. Then you’ll need to know where you want to move the story to develop some tension and eventually move things to where you want the story to end. Your questions may need to provide some information in order to move the story along, provide some context or position the interviewee to tell you just what you need them to tell you.

Story questions: Tell me the story of when x happened? Ask your interviewee to set the scene because you want to get details that will help your listeners visualize what’s happening.

Be silent when you are interviewing. Ask your question and then seriously bite down on your tongue between your teeth. It reminds you to stay quiet until it’s really time to say something meaningful. Nod your head and make really direct eye contact.

Doing a good interview really does take some planning and strategizing. Take the time to think about what information you need from the person you’re talking to for your story and ask questions that are designed to get them to share that information with you and again, knowing the focus of the story is going to help you do that.

Write for the ear, not the eye. One idea per sentence. Simple, short subject verb object sentences. Information in a slow, steady pace. Ears hate numbers.

Learn to write for the ear and for audio by talking about your story. Say it out loud while you are writing. Avoid big, fancy words. Use language that you would normally use in a conversation.

It’s really important for your story to start strong. Put your best stuff first. Don’t save good things for the end. Use the beginning of the story to make sure someone’s invested and really cares about your story.

Reengage people periodically throughout the story by reminding them of the stakes, foreshadow a development and subtly remind them who the characters are. People get distracted easily.

Make your scripts clear. A script lays out everything that’s going to happen in the episode, and it clearly shows what audio is what. A script needs to do two things. Be easy for your voice talent to read and clearly identify what audio elements happen, when and where.

There are three main elements of a script: Narration or tracks, interview clips, which are also called actualities or acts, and sound. The narration is the voiceover. Actualities are the soundbites from your interviews or maybe big chunks of your conversation with someone. Then there’s the other sound or the sound design. This could be archival material, background sound or ambi, ambiance, sound effects or music.

Layout script – use all caps for your actualities and mix case for your narration tracks. Caps help us read out loud more smoothly.

Looking up from the page as if into the eyes of our listener does something that changes the sound of our voice ever so subtly, and it helps us sound like we’re really making eye contact with the person listening.

If a script included names like Rund Abdelfatah <RUN-d AHB-dell-fah-tah> and Ramtin Arablouei <<RAHM-teen ARAB-loo-ee> — I’d provide a pronouncer ….and likely even bold them to make it apparent to you that you may want to practice!

Amb, Ambi, or Ambiance. That’s basically the sounds that happen when you are in the field. Sometimes it is called Nat Sound or Natural Sound or just Sound. Sometimes it is even called Field Tape

Narration or Tracks is what the narrator or host reads. Sometimes in a script my part would be labeled “narrator” or perhaps labeled with the readers name.

Clips from interviews are sometimes labeled just with the guest’s name, sometimes they are called AX or Actuality.

Sound effects are usually labeled SFX. And music is music, unless it is the show theme and then it is Theme.

The project has to be edited and fact checked. The editor is the first ears on the project. They are always using their ears first.

First edit: listen 100 percent with eyes closed and taking notes. Listening for big structural problems. Here is what is working. Here what isn’t. Here is what has to happen next. The editor needs to here the story before they look at the script.

Each time you edit you have a different purpose. First edit you look at like structure, the right voices, emotion and if there is actually a story. It is linear process in which you go from big macro questions to micro questions. You refine each time so that that each time you edit, you have a slightly different purpose.

Macro questions – Are we making a clear point? Do we have a strong purpose to this story? Is our structure right down to smaller bore? How are you saying things? Is this written for your voice? Is your tape working? Do we need more or less of a a person?

Micro questions – smaller things that are easier to fix such as worrying about a couple of words here and there.

Audio journalism is one of the best mediums for feelings.

First structure, then really listening for the wording, then listening for facts and last we’re listening for, pacing and rhythm because there’s this musical quality to audio which is about sound design.

Signposting and resets: showing of your hand. There’s so many opportunities for your listener to get lost, and so signposts are anything that helps the listener find their way. Sometimes it’s sort of a recap of where you’ve been and a point telling you where you’re going.Such as quick directional like, we understand this, but we haven’t yet learned that kind of point.

Iterative projects – plan, develop, and implement project functionality in small chunks (or iterations) / the process to adapt as the project unfolds by changing the plans.

Your goal is to convey information and in a narrative project to convey it in the most compelling, story driven way that you can while not losing the journalism in the process. And so often, those signposts are reminding people of the journalism or the journalistic purpose of what you’re saying.

It is very possible to have a clean set of pieces of tape that you’ve extracted from your interviews. Think about the listener while you edit. The best audio is extremely focused. Hone in on that to really create a very focused conversation.

Never be predictable. A good story, no matter what medium it’s in is always a little bit surprising, if not very surprising.

What works well for audio is emotional, personal connections.

When you interview asked questions that pushes the interviewee to a place they might not have gone to before, or maybe is a little more personal or maybe is just asked in an unusual way. Being willing to follow something up. Maybe the first answer was generic and you push a little more. You don’t want to just hear the expected things from people.

  • Three different types of interviews.
  • 1. trying to get facts and soundbites
  • 2. trying to get the material, you need to have somebody kind of tell a story in their own words and first-person storytelling
  • 3. two ways, which is really an interview that’s kind of a conversation between two people and it really airs or runs as that conversation.

What kind of interview is this? What do I want to achieve out of it? How explicit kind of a focus or an intention do you have when you’re going into an interview?

90 percent of the work happens before you’re on the air with producers and reporters spending a lot of time, sometimes hours, discussing and researching and preparing for a narrative. Research the guest. Look at other interviews they’ve done. Figure out what you want to get out of the interview. Thinking about that is really important at the beginning.

The best interviews are interviews where you’ve established a point of contact and trust with that person because then they open up to you.

You want to pre-interview to demystifying the process. Let them know the two or three points you want to hit. It’s important to have the points that you’re going to go through and that the guest is prepared for those points. Then have a very clear narrative of questions. Finish with what do you want the listener to take away from this?

If you’re not prepared, you don’t know where you’re going. Then in an interview, you’re kind of just like fishing around. If you have a clear map in your head and you have a clear path of what you want to do, interviewing is easier.

Protip. Don’t ever be shy about asking the same question again if you’re not getting what you need. Maybe ask in different way to really zero in on that question, that answer or the thing that you need to be able to build your story around

Room Tone – time 10 seconds of silence so you can get the sound of the silence in your room for editing purposes in those 10 seconds

Nonverbal things that you can do to establish comfort levels with people. Dress like the person that you are interviewing.

Zoom interviews take ten times harder to establish a point of contact when you’re not in person with someone.

Look at transcripts of podcasts to learn to write a script.

What is the focus? And what is in it for the audience?

Pro tip: When you read from a script, look up at the end of the sentence.

Have logic in your writing. Make sure that one point follows another in a logical manner.

Your hand gestures and facial expressions come out in your voice.

Planet Money – Break down the big stuff into digestible bites, for take abstract concepts and make them concrete, for take non-stories and make them stories.

Chana’s Transom 5 Manifesto tricks: Sign-Post, Find Characters, Think Small(er), Go on a Quest, Organize.

Idea Stories explore a big fundamental question in a way that shifts your perspective but lack many of the elements that make great radio – characters, stuff happening to the characters and scenes that you can picture.

In Plato’s Republic, the first people to go are the storytellers and artists for they pose the greatest threat as they are able to combine facts (numbers) and feelings (emotions) into that high realm of “art”. The threat to those in power are people (reporters/writers) who can give emotion to hard facts, mingle the two to create meaning in that higher realm of storytellers.

How do we start a conversation that we know will be difficult? Where do we start?

When you start a hard conversation, you want to be able to explain why. First, you need to ask yourself why you want to have a conversation about something hard. Then, when you initiate, start by asking if it is a good time to talk, and talk about why you want to have this particular conversation. W hen I explain why I am asking a particularly sensitive question, people are much more open to answering it. They feel invited in, rather than ambushed, and they invest in the idea of sharing something that could be useful to someone else.  

Explain the why. Ask concrete questions.

Remember: your guest, and your listeners, are expecting the hard question. Don’t wimp out. Notice how they talk and ask about that too. Allow in laughter. Don’t fill in the gaps. Wait. Carefully time your statement of challenge or disagreement. Your listeners are counting on you not to skip the challenging line of questions. Stay in it. T he challenge is to not flinch from the conflict but to acknowledge what’s happening and to unwind the reactiveness on both sides, and then circle back and analyze together what created the blow up. Keep in touch. Stay in it for the long term.

You want to be clear about your objectives for the conversation, to be prepared to listen closely and actively, to prepare the person you are talking to for a different, deeper sort of exchange. You need to respect the dignity of the person you’re talking with, and respect yourself enough to speak up when you disagree.

Never, ever, ever ask your interview subject to rephrase the question as part of the answer.

Narration and narrative are two totally different words with two totally different meanings. Narration is the script that the reporter or host reads. It is the bits of the story that are written after the interviews are completed. It’s the glue. Narrative is a story — told through a sequence of events — that includes characters, surprises, stakes and change over time. Most narratives are narrated.

“Writing through sound: A toolbox for getting into and out of your tape”, by Alison MacAdam, NPR

“Subverting The Inverted Pyramid, And Other Tips For Making Audio At A Newspaper”, by Martine Powers, Transom

“Beyond the 5 W’s: What should you ask before starting a story?,” by Alison MacAdam, NPR

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