Today’s guest is Daniel Lewis.
The story is more important than the format
As a consumer the format of the narrative podcast is not immediately interesting to Daniel. It’s the story that has to catch him, and whether he can connect with the topic itself.
For people considering doing narrative podcasts, it’s really a decision about whether that is the best way to tell the story that you want to tell and if you are willing to do the extra work that goes along with the format. It can come out really neat if you do it well but it is a lot of work. First, consider is a narrative/storytelling format the thing that communicates your message the best? Second, are you willing to do the hard work it takes to get something like that done?
Planning and preparation is key
If you have an idea that you feel could be fun for a narrative podcast story, Daniel says you need to plan and be prepared. If there is something coming up that would be great to record, make sure you have a recorder with you throughout the process. It could be as simple as your iOs or android device, but make sure you have that recorder with you at all times because conversations could come up at any time that are relevant to the story you’re telling.
Another reason to be prepared with a recorded always is to be able to speak your mind about something when it comes to mind. One practice you have to get into is verbalizing as much as possible, especially in those moments where you step away from the action and start talking to the camera or microphone. As you start producing this, you’ll find you will be recording a lot of random stuff. Daniel advises not being afraid to cut stuff out. It may be funny conversation but is it relevant? Does it add to the story? It’s ok to toss good stuff out if it doesn’t fit with the story that you’re doing.
Making a narrative podcast might help your marriage!
As a side note, Daniel suggests that maybe learning to make a narrative podcast could help in marriage communication as well. It’s stereotypical but a common complaint from wives is that their husbands don’t say what’s on their mind. This practice of verbalizing for the podcast could help here. When you get in that practice of communicating what’s on your mind and describing things, you’ll end up with much better material to use for recording.
When he listens to podcasts like Serial or Start Up, Daniel wonders about things like whether all the many random voices gave their permission to be used in the podcast. That is something you have to be concerned with today, especially if you’re going to monetize the narrative podcasts that you’re making. You need to talk to a lawyer but it might be enough to get the guest’s recorded agreement to basic terms and that they know they are being recorded and it will be used for telling a story.
The next step is finding people who would have some kind of feedback, having a conversation with them and recording it. It could be as simple as someone being a sounding board and you asking them to hear you explain the idea and then question and challenge you on it. Not only does it mean it’s another voice, it’s also a different perspective that could potentially bring something to the conversation that you would have never thought of.
Varying the audio recording methods
In an audio drama it is very important people can hear the spoken work very clearly. In a narrative, interspersed with clips of actual things you recorded, the audio doesn’t have to be studio quality but it does need to be listenable. Daniel believes the biggest sin that can be made with this kind of recording is not getting the volume levels right. The narrative section might be at a certain volume that is a different volume to a sound clip. Pay attention to this when you are recording but also in the editing. A good way to get better audio quality is simply to get closer to the microphone.
If you get some echo, some reverb, or background noise, it isn’t that much of a problem and can even enhance it because it helps make that section different from the clean, present studio voice. On the other hand, a soft room sound doesn’t quite work because it sounds like it’s trying to be studio quality but didn’t quite get there. Because it doesn’t contrast very much, it can create some conflict. If you want to create audio quality, try to make that contrast bigger so that people know just by the tone, the quality and the sound of the audio that it’s changed from studio narrative to recorded live in person. People can more easily follow that and you don’t need any transition because the style of the sound is making that transition for you.
Using music in transitions
Daniel suggests that you have certain music saved for certain things. All Things Considered by Gimlet, and NPR do this. They have sponsor music that loops in the background while they’re talking about their sponsors, and other tracks too like the opening music or the wrap up music. You can have your own sound track for the show, but make sure you get the license for the music.
Verbally transitions are sometimes needed. However, don’t say “we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor.” The music can be what sets the tone but you still need to clarify some changes with your spoken word. You need to say things like ‘this podcast is brought to you by…such and such’ so there’s still some kind of verbal transition, however the background music does some of the work for you. People can then start to associate certain background music with certain parts of the show. Music can also set the tone and emotion of the moment just like a film soundtrack.
Additional transition tips
Another way to transition is to have a portion of the clip playing in the background so the audience knows you’re about to go to a clip or just coming off a clip. Play a portion of the clip and have the narrator come in and say “that’s so and so, talking about such and such”, or start the clip by saying “on such and such day, I was talking to so and so”.
As well as reducing the volume, a cool little trick you can also do, especially when there’s spoken word in the background and spoken word (your voice) in the foreground, is to play with the frequencies a little bit. Reduce the frequencies in the vocal range, so that way you don’t have multiple pieces of audio conflicting for the same audio frequency range. You reduce it a little bit in the background but then raise it back up when you bring that background clip back into the foreground.
Enticing the listener
Daniel emphasizes that to entice the listener you have to have a compelling story to begin with and compelling details along the way. It’s ok to sometimes along the way dig deeper into something less compelling, books and movies all have their low points where the audience is waiting to get back into the action. Your podcast story might have those moments too. It’s not always cliffhanger after cliffhanger—that can get boring as well. Look at the overall story you’re telling within an individual episode, and look at the peaks and valleys within the story.
Start with a peak so that when the audience starts listening they think, “that’s interesting, what is the story behind that?” and they want to learn more. You need something that hooks them in the beginning, and carry that through a little bit. Then it’s ok to go down into a valley as you go into more depth. Then go back up into a climax, and perhaps back into another valley.
Make sure you end on a climax too. The most important parts of presentations, books, and stories are the beginning and the end. Make sure that your beginning and end are great material. Especially with that end point, you want to hook them so that they’ll come back for the next episode. It could be a cliffhanger, but there are also ways to end without cliffhangers, such as by letting the audience know what’s coming in the next episode, because that can hook them in as well.
Keep learning across genres
Daniel’s advice is to keep learning how to tell a good story and not just in the medium of a podcast. The principles apply whether it’s learning about giving a good presentation through something like Toastmasters, or whether it’s a book about storytelling. The medium itself doesn’t matter, the skill behind the medium matters. Learn the principles and looks at narrative lessons you can learn to know how to craft things together.
Study the podcasts out there that do it well. There are plenty of journalistic narrative podcasts out there aside from Serial. Some suggestions are Start Up, Reply All and most everything from Gimlet Media or This American Life or NPR spin offs.
Listen to them and break it down. Try and evaluate what they are doing in each part, what they are using the make their transitions, how they are coming up with hooks, what the flow is that they’re following. Don’t try to imitate them; it can be difficult but also usually ends badly. Look for what you can learn that you can put your own style on.
Learn from other great artists. Be inspired by others. Almost no great artist is inherently good without being inspired and challenged by other things, so listen to other stuff and don’t be only entertained by it. Go back through, deconstruct it and experiment with it on your own.
Today’s guest is Jessica Abel, author of the book Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio and the Out on the Wire Podcast.
Reasons to do a narrative style podcast
Jessica suggests doing a narrative podcast because narrative journalism is an extremely powerful way to convey ideas. You can pack so much into so little time and with so many layers of meaning by carefully editing, layering in sound and thinking really carefully about your scripting and narration. Although you could listen to five episodes of a good interview podcast and get little nuggets of gold here and there, there’s often fluff that goes on in between those nuggets. It’s possible to put all of those nuggets into a half hour narrative podcast and really not miss anything.
Even interview podcasts themselves can be done much more tightly, much more efficiently and much more interestingly. For example, Fresh Air episodes are heavily edited. They’re not narrative, they’re interview based. But they’re still done in a style that the listener is kept in mind and the story that they want to tell, the information that they want to convey is carefully composed. Jessica believes that even people who are doing a more interview-oriented format could benefit from thinking like a maker of narrative.
When researching her book, Jessica spoke with Dylan Keith, the head of production at Radio Lab who also used to work at On The Media. People used to ask him what he did for a living and he would say “I take a 45 minute interview and make it a 6 minute interview.” It would be a super punchy, awesome 6 minutes and the listener can get everything they need out of it.
Jessica’s advice is to approach an interview in that way, as material, and to think about what is it that you want to tell with this interview. Even if you’re not constructing something that’s character based you can still think of these kinds of tools and apply them to interviews.
Constructing a story from a narrative idea
In order to take your initial idea and make it into a story with a strong narrative, there are a lot of steps, which is why Jessica did an entire podcast series and wrote a book on it!
First, come up with an idea for a story, ideally one based around a character that goes through changes, although you can certainly work the style with idea-based stories as well. Then you need to vet that idea in various ways, test it with different kinds of tools. One such tool is the ‘X-Y story formula’, which comes from Alex Bloomburg. So you may be doing a story about X, but what’s interesting about it is Y. It’s important to figure out what’s really interesting about it and not just what you’re going to find interesting about it, but what the listeners are going to find interesting about it.
There’s also the focus sentence approach, which is sort of like a mini narrative arc. Jessica says that if you can work out the focus sentence on your idea, you often are well on your way in terms of thinking about the outline of your story. The sentence is usually some form of this: “Someone does something because [blank] but [blank].” A character is in motion, living some kind of life and has a sense of mission, something they want, but there’s something that stands in their way. From there you have to do a bunch of further outlining.
Jessica also invented a new tool called the Story Mad Lib, which she talks about in more detail in Episode 4 of Out on the Wire Podcast. The Story Mad Lib is a way of building out the entire arc of the story in a paragraph to guide you where you’re going to go, and help you figure out and plan your interviews carefully ahead of time. If you do an interview that takes an hour or two hours, you will have tons of stuff in there that you could use for 8 or 10 different stories, and you get to decide which one is the story you want to tell. So that kind of selection and decision-making is a huge part of making a narrative.
Selecting interview subjects and preparing for interviews
It depends on what the interview is for but if the interview is for a story that is character-based, then Jessica recommends thinking about what the turning points in the narrative are. If you have a character-based story, you have a character who is going to be the center of the story, you want to think about what the stages that they went through in the change that you want to depict in your narrative. Think about when they went from one place to another place, what and where their dilemmas were, where were their decision points. During the interview, ask them all kinds of questions about those decisions that they had to make, and about those moments of change, how was it before, how was it after etc. The preparation is often figuring out the bare outline of what the person’s story is and then deciding where you want to delve in further. Jessica goes into more detail on this in episode 6 of her podcast.
Hooking the audience’s attention at the start
There are a lot of ways to approach this and one way Jessica suggests is to think about your best piece of tape, and put that at the beginning of the episode. Ask yourself which piece of tape is the one that’s going to raise a question and get people curious, get them wondering what’s going to happen next. Put that at the top. Basically, you need to put a question to the audience so that they can’t turn off, they need to keep listening to find out what’s going to happen next.
Techniques to transition smoothly
Jessica doesn’t have a list of transition techniques, but rather each time she needs to go from one part to another, she thinks about how she wants to connect the things that happened and raise a new question. At the end of one section you want to raise a new question that you’re going to answer in the next section. If you’re using music, that’s a good way to bridge parts like that.
Jessica suggests thinking about what cycles are in your story. She recommends Ira Glass’s 45 second rule: every 45 second you need to have a new little mini arc happening in the story. It can really be anywhere between 45 seconds to 2 minutes of time in your story but each time you need to be raising a question, answering a question. It could be narration, a quote, some music, but it’s important to think about it in little arcs.
Of course, Jessica recommends her own book and podcast, because she created them for people who are wanting to make narratives.
Other than that, she recommends transim.org as it’s a wealth of information on both the technical, strategic and all other aspects of narrative audio making.
Practice your craft
Ultimately, Jessica’s advice is to just start making it. She says, “Start making audio, just go!” It’s about practice and doing it over and over again. Ira Glass talks about the gap between our taste and what we’re capable of when we start. We can see what’s great but we can’t make what’s great and that can be really hard and really depressing to know how far we are from where we want to be. But the only way to the other side of that gap is to do it over and over again.
That’s exactly why Jessica made her book and podcast and working group: so people can have a place where they can work with other people to make audio and other narratives too.
Whether you’re a writer or a cartoonist, you have to practice your craft.
Today’s guest is Doc Kennedy from the Filmaker’s Focus podcast. He is one of the guests who contributed to the Season 4 series on Narrative Podcasting, and he’s on the show today to share some updated information. Along with being a podcaster, Doc is also a film maker, and working towards being an actor and a stand-up comedian. Being a film maker, he brought a different perspective on narrative podcasting than many of the other guests, and was able to bring in a lot of parallels from video and acting. Today, we will revisit this.
In the time since Doc was last on the podcast, there have been ever-increasing changes and improvements to technology. For example, cell phone cameras have gone from little grainy pictures to 4K. It’s insane how much things have changed even just in the last couple of years. Because of this, Doc’s perspective has changed somewhat too, and he feels some of the advice he gave last time is now outdated.
Doc’s advice is to start with the basics. Some people are producing videos online that look good but sound terrible. If you can’t get the video to at least match the audio, he says don’t make it. Sound and lighting is the thing that separates you from or makes you an amateur. If you have to choose from the two, take the sound, because you can look at a picture and think ‘it’s ok’ but if the sound is bad it’s unlistenable. The majority of things today will have half-decent video because most cameras these days are so good that you can work around shoddy lighting. If you’re going to hire out for anything, hire an audio guy. That’s how important it is. If you see a video that looks good but sounds horrible, you will turn it off. It’s that simple. Make sure you’re getting quality audio and do what you can for solid lighting.
Doc says if you can afford it, hire somebody that has the proper gear and knows what they’re doing. It’s one thing to have a mic but it’s another thing to know how to record. There’s a huge difference between recording audio for a film versus recording a podcast episode. In the podcast, usually you’re in a contained environment. In a narrative setting, the elements might be a little out there so you need to be aware of the little sounds that you’re hearing the background. At least reach out to someone in your area who has the gear and let them guide you on what to get and what’s available in your area.
Doc hesitates to list specific brands of quality gear because things are changing so quickly. However, he suggests looking at getting a basic shot-gun mic, and doing your research. There are some amazing tutorial videos on YouTube that provide great videos of comparisons between two microphones, which can be really helpful. You want the professional level, but make sure you do your homework.
The importance of pre-production
Doc is really big on pre-production. He says podcasts are often rushed but in film making they don’t do rushed projects, everything is planned out. He likes having a solid game plan in place, making sure everyone has the right gear and there are the right people to operate that gear, and that the production is as great sounding as it looks.
The more planning you do up front the easier it is on the back end. In Doc’s freelance work, planning also helps when managing the client. If you do the preproduction there is a blueprint set up of what the client can expect so if they come back and say they aren’t happy or it isn’t what they expected, you can refer back to the pre-production blueprint. A lot of times people don’t understand what it takes to make a video or what that video may look like in the end. In that kind of client situation, ask if they’ve seen a video or movie that they want their video to look like. That makes it comfortable for client and creator and gives time to clarify whether the creator can actually create what the client is asking for or whether they need to refer on. Doc says pre-production meetings can drag out though, so he recommends doing pre-production for your meeting on pre-production!
Applying the screen-writing approach to podcast planning
Doc suggests writing out the podcast planning as a screenplay because having the blueprint is really vital. His opinion is that if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re going to get there and where we end up isn’t going to be good. If you aren’t good at writing and don’t feel comfortable about it, find someone who is. Make sure that you get something written out so everyone on your team knows where you’re going, even if the team is just you.
If you’re doing something with multiple characters, you can start visualizing what that character should be. Pre-production isn’t the most fun part, and for Doc he doesn’t enjoy the post-work editing either. He finds the best part is actually filming the piece. However, it’s important to appreciate the pre-production process because it makes everything else seamless.
Do the best with the equipment you have
Doc advises not to get too caught up in the newest, upgraded technology. In terms of cameras, 4K is really popular right now and it’s growing. If you have a DSLR, don’t be ashamed that it isn’t 4K. Use it. There’s a feature film on Netflix right now that was shot entirely with an iPhone! But this iPhone film had solid audio. If you’re doing things correctly and you’re giving a picture that’s worthy of the audio, you’re fine. Don’t worry about what the newest, greatest thing is, don’t be in a rush to upgrade it, just do the best with what you’ve got.
Doc is keen to answer questions from listeners. He didn’t go to school for video production, he learned it all from mentors. The mentors meant a lot to him so the least he can do is help others in the same way, which is why he does his podcast.
Find Doc at filmakersfocus.com or follow him @filmakersfocus on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And if you’d like to, you can follow Doc’s comedy @dockcomedy on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
The guest today is Corey Coates from The Podcast Producers.
Choosing the right medium for your content
Corey’s experience has shown him that you have to make a decision as to who is going to be the one actually telling the story before you decide whether or not to do a narrative style. When doing narrative podcasting, people usually imagine as the narrator that they are “telling” the story, but the reality is a really good narrative podcast is one where the story is being told by the participants and almost unfolds on its own. There’s clearly a choice to guide the story in a certain direction, to edit in a certain way and to present the story that you might want to tell but before you even think about why you want to do it, ask “who is going to be responsible for telling the story?”
A lot of people are interested in the method of doing it this way largely because of the popularity of some narrative podcasts. When you listen to RadioLab or Serial, they sound beautiful and they’re fun to listen to. Corey knows how attractive that idea can be, but doing it just because a lot of the most popular shows or the ones you enjoy are in that fashion doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you should do. Choosing the right medium for your content is critical.
If you’re trying to bring pure information from individuals to individuals, maybe the interview format is the way to go. If you are trying to demonstrate, as Corey and Jessica did in The Podcast Producers, that there’s a lot of experts, information and ways to look at the exact same thing, then maybe the narrative way of going is better for you. Ultimately it comes down to deciding ‘who is telling the story and what is the story being told?’ and then choosing the format that goes around that.
Start with the story arc
It always starts with the story arc. From beginning to end, what is the story you want to tell? Decide how you will subdivide that into chapters, which can become the episodes. For The Podcast Producers, Corey and Jessica knew they wanted to do 10 episodes, because it was a time constraint and prevented the project expanding for the rest of the year. From beginning to end they brainstormed a ton of questions or topics, what would be a logical order to arrange topics, and who might they be able to talk to on some of those subjects. It was about the questions Corey, Jessica and their community had, who are some of the people that might be able to provide the answers, and then how can you link one answer to the next, or one question to the next answer that takes someone through the journey but most importantly leaves them where we want them to be, which is wanting more. When you get to the end of it, there’s conclusions and ideas but nothing is really conclusive.
Choosing interview subjects
Corey and Jessica specifically targeted certain individuals for their knowledge base and their experience in the industry. It’s tough because in a lot of cases you have folks that are the most vocal and prominent, that may not necessarily be the ones with the best information, they’re just the loudest so they tend to get the most attention. Having been in the industry for 10 years and 3 years respectively, Corey and Jessica were able to tell whether folks were really legit, they know their stuff, and they’re really making a contribution, or if they were jokers and they’re coming in marketing themselves but not really having the skills needed. So they laser pointed their pitches and ended up getting 95% of the people they wanted. The 5% that didn’t were often the ‘shot in the dark’ people, and usually the reason was that their schedules wouldn’t allow it or it wasn’t going to fit Corey’s production schedule.
Corey’s advice is that the more specific you go towards somebody as a guest, having knowledge of who they are and their background, the more likely they are to agree because they know that you’re not just coming at you with a form letter that you send to everyone but that it’s a personalized request. If you blast to everyone in an industry, that shows people that you don’t care who they are, you are just taking who you can get. Corey strongly advises against that.
Word of mouth types of referrals can also be great, even if then you are cold calling those folks, because you can tell them who recommended them to you. For season 2 of The Podcast Producers, they already have a great list of guests, most of whom have come through referrals this way, but that has happened over time as they built their reputation in the industry.
Tips for interviewing and sticking to the story arc
Ultimately when interviewing, Corey is always looking for sound-bites. He wants the two or three good phrases out of the guest in a 20-30 minute conversation that are going to be usable. Sometimes there are surprise elements in the interviews. There were times when Corey planned to interview a guest on a topic, but ended up going off track and talking about other aspects of podcasting and those sections became the gold that often fit into other topics.
His advice is to play a little bit fast and loose. In interviews for a narrative podcast you can get away with it because it’s not a show where the person you are interviewing is the sole guest for the one episode. As an interviewer, you don’t have to be ‘on’. You don’t have to ask the immaculate questions, perfectly phrased, and the guests don’t have to give you that perfectly phrased answer that leads from beginning to end of the show like you would in an interview format.
Corey does suggest that as the interviewer, you have to speak less. Ask a question, then allow the guest to speak. After they finish the answer, just pause for 2 seconds, and you’ll see almost every time that the guest will elaborate. And the second thing they say is almost always more profound than the original answer that you got.
Finding the gold in the editing process
Corey believes the hardest thing to do for any editor is to edit, especially when it’s their own show. As podcasters, we are the control room, the editor, the producer, the distributor, the marketing personality, all at the same time. It makes it difficult to be objective when making some of these choices. It’s important to find a way to put things in perspective to who that audience is going to be. Start editing and cutting, not from your own perspective and the things that you like, but the things that are going to be the most valuable to that listener. Of course you, the podcaster, will understand the topics but if your guest is using a lot of industry jargon or buzzwords, it’s important to think about whether the listener will understand. If the answer is that most people wouldn’t understand what that is, Corey says, “cut it, you don’t need it!”
On the cutting room floor
When interviewing, Corey suggests you try to save yourself time down the road. When you get an ‘aha’ moment during the interview, time-stamp it. It was an emotional moment for you and that could then translate well to be an emotional moment for the listener. What you’re able to then is take some of those emotional markers and start putting them into bins and experiement with arranging them around. As you’re doing that, you only have to go and look for the little 5-10% pieces of audio that represent linking the pieces together. That is really the trick: creating the entire story to the best of your ability based on only components provided by your guests. Everything in between that can’t be linked and doesn’t make sense is where the narrator jumps in to get people from point A to point B to point C.
Corey feels that repurposing audio is a great way to go, and with The Podcast Producers, they intentionally did 20-30 minute interviews with podcasters for this purpose. Partly it was because they didn’t want to take up more than 30 minutes of anyone’s time, but it was also because at the end of it they got a weekly 30-minute long form podcast with somebody within the industry. Having finished producing the entire 10 part series and doing all the marketing necessary to get it out there, he can then start pulling these to release as episodes, raw and uncut. It keeps subscribers happy because they’re now getting weekly content, fans of the series are happy because they love the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stuff, and the editors are enjoying it because it’s a chance to see it in the raw perspective before it ends up in the polished product.
Tracking and transition techniques
Everyone has their own approach and every producer has their own flair. For Corey, it’s very simple: he’s always looking for wording to match. When something that one person says can naturally lead to something that someone else said, and those two things can be put together that is a win in narrative audio. Then you don’t need music, transitions, narration or anything fancy. It’s just letting the spoken word tell the story.
In many cases it doesn’t always fall that way because it is largely unscripted material so we have to find a way to bridge from one to the other, which is a good opportunity for a narrator to jump in, usually with a little bit of bed music under it. The music helps the listener to float in and out of the show when the narrator interrupts, but sometimes it’s also used in order to give the listener an appropriate amount of time to think about what was just said. If you can get two pieces of audio to stitch together naturally without having to do anything else to it, do that first. And if you have to get some narration in there, leave a little space, put a little music, give the narration and then go back into the content.
Avoid Analysis Paralysis
By his own admission, Corey is a proponent of the art of non-doing. He warns against getting overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s out there and getting locked into the research phase. He says just let the interviews flow, start getting the content in. In the meantime, start the hunt for your music. He suggests finding an individual composer so you have something that’s thematic that will work for the entire series. Then, see what happens!