Sometimes You Just Gotta Break the Rules
Hi Friends,

Let's face it. I'm a rule follower. Breaking the rules really stresses me out. And it's almost never worth the drama I put myself through.

That said, some of the best narrative storytelling techniques break the "traditional" rules of reporting.

So come on. Let's get cracking.
Rule #1: Ask your subject to speak in full sentences.

No, no, no, no! Don't do it! Not ever!

I've interviewed a lot of public figures. Many of them have done a ton of interviews. They'll often ask, "Do you want me to speak in full sentences?"

And I say, "No. Don't worry about that. It's my job to ask questions that will give me the answers I need."

The thing is, when you ask your subject to speak in full sentences, you're asking them to do your job for you. It requires them to spend some of their brain power framing their response. You'll often get answers that sound stilted...and overly formal.

Nobody rephrases the question as part of the answer in everyday conversation.

Instead, ask questions that call for stories.
Take me to the moment when X happened.

Tell me the story of how you did Y.

At what point did you realize Z was your only option?
2. Ask one question at a time.

There's a very good reason you were taught not to ask compound questions. As the thinking goes, when you ask multiple questions at the same time, your interview subject doesn't know which one to answer.

(And it's totally true. I can't tell you the amount of times I've heard an interviewer ask a question and then continue on to make three more points and ask four more questions. Don't do it!)

But when you ask two incredibly simple and closely related questions at once, the result is magic. The brain automatically frames the answer in a full sentence...and often in story.

Think about…
Where did you go next, and how did you get there?

Who was the first person you told, and what did you say to them?

When and why did you finally decide you needed to make a change?
3. Write in the present tense.

I know, I know. Present tense is more immediate. It helps the listener feel like they're in the moment.

But in narrative, we're almost always asking our subjects to talk about something that happened in the past. Even if the events happened just a few hours -- or even minutes -- ago, they're naturally going to describe them in the past tense.

(And please, don't get me started on whether you should ask your subject to speak in the present tense! Their brains are going to be so busy trying to make the switch, they're likely to forget to mention those rich details and emotions.)

So, it's okay. Embrace the past tense. There are other, better ways to bring your listener into the moment.

There are at least two exceptions to this...

A. What if my interview subject is speaking in the present tense?

Some people do this naturally when describing the important moments of their lives. If that happens, cool. Switch your narration to present tense to match. You have my permission.

B. What if I'm not using interview clips -- just narration and sound design?

In this case, there's no need to stay in the past tense. Present tense is your friend.

And remember, you can switch from present to past to present again. As long as you're doing it clearly and deliberately, there's nothing wrong with switching back and forth.

Helena Merriman did this really well in the BBC's Tunnel 29.

Check it out.
Tunnel 29 - Episode 1: The Escape

The story starts in the present day, on a busy street in Berlin. Then, about :47 seconds into the episode, the action dips under the street, past the subway and into a tunnel below. When the action shifts to the tunnel, Helena Merriman switches the present tense...even though she's describing something that happened in the early 1960s.
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4. If something makes a noise, put it in your story.

Doorbell rings? Use it!
Walking up the stairs? That's gold!

But is it?

If your story is set in the past and you're recording sounds in the present, spend some time thinking about how those sounds fit into your story.

I'm going back to Tunnel 29 for this. If you listen to the first three minutes of Episode 7, you'll hear an example of how to use present-day ambi really well.
Tunnel 29 - Episode 7: The Interrogation

As the episode begins, one of the main characters has just been taken to a prison that specializes in interrogations. We hear a door slam and then we hear Merriman inside the present-day prison, describing what the character would have experienced when he arrived.
But... if you listen to the very next episode, you'll hear some ambi that really didn't work for me.

So again, you really just need to listen to the first 3 minutes.
Tunnel 29 - Episode 8: The Messenger

Merriman begins by describing a dilemma the characters were the early 1960s. Then we hear a present-day door buzzer, some walking and introductions in German. Merriman takes a few moments (really no more than a sentence or two) to describe a woman and her present-day apartment. And then, suddenly, we're back in the early 1960s.
This exchange completely popped me out of the story. It was as if I was sitting in a dark movie theater, totally engrossed in the story. And then, suddenly, someone turned on the lights, walked a woman to the front of the room, introduced her, turned off the lights and started the movie again.

My brain didn't have the context to know why we were suddenly switching to the present day. More importantly, there was no reason to leave the 1960s. That buzzer and walk up the stairs didn't illuminate anything for me. The description of the woman's present day apartment didn't help me understand who she had been when the story took place.

It's possible that if this exchange had been used later in the episode, after I had gotten to know the woman, I would have found the description of her apartment to be interesting. But coming where it did, I merely found it distracting.

So really ask it worth that super-expensive reporting trip so that I can capture the sound of a door buzzer? Do I want to drive three hours so that I can record the sound of walking up the stairs? Or do I have better ways to spend my time and money?

One caveat. Always record room tone. Even if you're recording over Zoom. That rule isn't going to change.
5. Keep it professional.

Look, I know. Journalistic integrity is super important. I'm not suggesting that you go drinking with your interview subjects. You are not actual friends, even though you're asking these people to share the intimate moments of their lives.

But look, if you're asking someone to share the intimate moments of their life, it's only fair that they get to learn a tiny bit about you, too. And if you make someone cry with your questions, for god's sake, hand them a tissue. Give them some time to compose themselves. Consider turning your recorder off. Empathize.

I often tell my classes that narrative interviewing is an act of empathy. And it is. So be a human being first and a journalist second.

But...just to be really clear, if you're interviewing a public figure or someone who has been credibly accused of wrongdoing, keep those boundaries up. Cozying up to someone and then conducting a "gotcha" interview is unethical. And it can sometimes be hard to predict where a story is going to take you. So proceed with caution if you have any inkling that things might get controversial.

And finally...

6. Avoid using the first person.

Do I even have to mention this one? We all know that the first person is okay, right? Avoiding the words I, me and we can require some pretty serious word gymnastics. Don't bother.

On the other hand, don't be a narcissist. Unless the story is actually about you, keep the focus where it belongs -- on your story and your subjects.

What rules of "traditional" journalism do you love to break? Reply to this email and let me know!

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Resources I Love
Tunnel 29
Have I convinced you to listen to this podcast yet? Because you really should. There's a print version here, but then you won't hear all the innovative sound design.

Power Your Podcast with Storytelling
Full disclosure: I first learned the "two questions at once" trick by watching this workshop from Alex Blumberg. If you're just starting out -- or if you're a huge fan of Gimlet -- the workshop might be useful for you. But be is very long. (10 hours and 19 minutes!) So get comfy!

All in Favor… Say I!

I believe Sean Cole answered the "first person" question back in 2011 with this Transom piece. But in case you missed it, it's still a good read.