Easier Heard Than Done

Some helpful insights to minimize the (sometimes steep) learning curve of audio storytelling.

By: Kenzie White

An accurate representation of how I felt after spending nine hours on a 60-second sound bite.

I’d been an avid podcast listener for years. It would be fair to call me obsessed. I love it all — everything from the sophisticated and informative This American Life to the unfiltered and laugh-out-loud hilarious 2 Dope Queens. But podcasts (and any form of audio storytelling, really) aren’t just informative or entertaining. There’s something so natural, intimate, and effortless about it — just a couple of voices caught on tape. Right?

Not to burst anyone’s happy audio-filled bubbles, but it’s not. After taking a class on audio storytelling, it’s become clear to me that hours upon hours of strategic planning, formatting, and editing are put into these stories to make them sound effortless. It’s a tad ironic.

I began the class with a naïve confidence, which would set the stage for a very steep learning curve. Essentially, I would only truly absorb the lessons I learned about audio storytelling after struggling (immensely, I might add) to apply them to my own work. So, it’s my new mission to protect others from mimicking my personal learning process. Because honestly, I just about lost it a time or two.

I’ve outlined the audio storytelling process with a series of tips so that you can (a)be better prepared to tackle the world of audio on your own, or (b)simply have a greater appreciation for the sweat equity put into those top-chart-podcasts and NPR segments you love so dearly.

Story Strategy

It all starts with the idea. Certain stories lend themselves to audio more than others. Before you begin, it’s important to make sure your story is a good fit. If your story meets the necessary criteria, it’s a green light; but if it’s not matching up, you may want to think twice before moving forward.

Choose a story that…

· Provides plenty of opportunities to capture natural and ambient sound. These sounds bring life to the story and create a sense of place.

· Appeals to an audience that actually listens to audio. Radio and podcasts tend to attract more educated crowds, and are most popular with older generations.

· Covers a scope and amount of material that’s conducive to audio storytelling. In other words, is your story too long for one single piece (exceeding 60–80 minutes can deter listeners)? If so, is there enough material to divide the story up and create a series?

· Will fit into an attractive and appropriate format. Will you use narrators? Interviews? Casual round table discussion? Does the format mesh well with the story itself?

· Boasts plenty of interesting sources to speak with. Are there people willing and able to interview with you? Do they have something important to say?

Tech Tips and Troubles

You don’t have to be a seasoned IT expert to create fantastic audio pieces. However, you do need to be familiar with audio technology and how to utilize it effectively. Audio is incredibly intimate and calls for close listening. As a result, poorly gathered audio can’t be covered up and majorly distracts from the story. Keep the following tips in the back of your mind when you begin the process of capturing audio.

· Plan out your interview location. If the location has great natural sound that won’t drown out the interview, it may work to speak with your subject on-site. But if it’s too noisy, or the environment confuses the theme of the story, plan to interview the subject in an office or other quiet space.

· Be careful of venues with music. It makes for fantastic natural sound; however, interviewing where this music can be heard limits your editing capabilities later on. It can also mean there are multiple different songs in your piece, which gets kind of crazy at times.

· Watch out for echo-y rooms. If there’s a lot of hard surfaces (windows, wood, tile, etc.) place your recorder on a towel or sweatshirt to dampen the sound.

· Always bring extra batteries. Always.

Keep Your Eye Out For Interviews

Sometimes, just one single voice can manage to create a powerful and engaging piece of audio. But more often than not, a solo speaker can get monotonous. That’s why it’s important to identify different characters that can add flavor and interest to your audio story. Here are some helpful hints so that you don’t get stuck with one horrendously boring string of lifeless words (it happens, really):

· Preface the interview with some casual conversation to make the subject comfortable. Don’t whip out the equipment right away or you might freak them out.

· Ask the interviewee to speak in full sentences. This way, the speaker’s voice can hold its own and requires less narrator intervention to give context.

· Tell the subject to be as descriptive as possible. You want these sound bites to really pack a punch, so you’ll want to gather colorful words and quotes that inspire imagery.

· Scan widely for potential interviewees. Your primary character might not have a great voice or style for audio. Sometimes, a secondary character can be a fantastic addition to your story.

Act Natural

Natural and ambient sounds are the bread and butter for your audio story. They give a sense of place and enhance imagery throughout. Brainstorm ahead of time; however, also allow for spontaneity. When you’re on site, stop and listen. Follow the sounds. And most importantly, capture way more sound than you think you’ll need.

Easier Read Than Done

Now, this is far from an all-inclusive list. But these factors that can be the difference between a great piece of audio storytelling and an unpleasant mix of warbled words. Consider this a beginner’s guide — just enough to keep you safe from the maddening struggles that sometimes plague newbies in multimedia. In the end, you really just have to get out there and try if for yourself.