I was recently reminded of the year I spent as the only reporter for a tiny public radio station in Reno, Nevada. (Hello, KUNR!)
I was in my early twenties, recently single, and I was working ALL the time. Think 14-16 hour days.
There weren't a lot of opportunities to make friends.
So, I did the thing you totally might do, if you were a young person living in a strange city before the era of Tinder or Bumble.
I signed up for a ballroom dance class.
Now, I could tell you all kinds of crazy stories from that class – starting with the fact that it was limited to people under 25. The instructor was in his 60s, and he used the class as his personal dating service.
But that's not why I bring it up.
Lately, I've been getting really annoyed by stories that treat their audio like an afterthought.
Like…these producers know they need to interview people. Ask them questions. Get good answers.
And they know they need to actually use some of that audio in their stories.
But when it comes to integrating the audio with the narration, it all just becomes a jumbled mess.
Unintentional repetition. Momentum that starts and stops. Mismatched tempos. Bad edits. Narration that holds the audio at arms length.
The narration might be brilliant. The audio might be insightful and emotional.
But they're not dancing together in harmony.
So, I've been thinking…what if we treated our audio like our dance partner? How would that help us make better stories?
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Be a "Good" Leader
Okay, yes. You are in charge. This is your story. You get to decide what move to make next. Where the story will go.
If you don't lead, your story will just meander around the dance floor, never actually doing anything interesting.
But a good leader doesn't just throw their partner around the room, all willy nilly. They don't push them to make moves that they aren't comfortable making.
A good leader doesn't control their partner.
A good leader guides. Assists.
A good leader makes the follower better. Helps them execute moves they didn't know they could do.
You can do this with you audio. You can use your narration to guide it. Assist it. Make up for its weaknesses.
(Like that time I made a story out of the most awkward interview I've ever done and won a national Edward R. Murrow award with it!)
When things go wrong on the dance floor – like when the leader signals a move their partner doesn't know how to do – it's not the partner's job to adjust.
It's the leader's job to meet the partner at their level.
The same is true of your audio. You can gently nudge it. Encourage it to shine.
But you can't turn it into something it's not.
So if you've got a slow talker, you might be able to remove some of the pauses to speed them up a tiny bit. But you're never going to make them peppy.
If you have someone who's completely unemotional, you might be able to tease out a little bit of emotion with narration and music.
But if you try to push it too far, it's gonna sound like your narration and your audio are dancing two completely different dances.
And nobody wants that.
My writing. My tracking. My sound design. It all changes just a tiny bit, depending on the voices in my story.
Are they slow talkers? I might slow down just a touch, so that I don't sound like a chipmunk.
Are they blunt? Well, then, maybe I should be a bit blunt, too.
Are they funny? Well, then, I better be smiling when I track my narration.
It's my job to adjust to my audio. Not the other way around.
Take Some Time to Learn the Basics
If you sign up to a swing class, you're not gonna immediately start doing aerials. It just doesn't work that way.
You have to learn the basic steps before you start doing anything too fancy.
Far too often, I hear stories by folks who haven't learned the basic steps. And then they try to do something really complicated.
Sometimes, producers try to build artificial "surprise" into their narrative. They choose some random fact to keep secret. And then they work so hard to keep their surprise a surprise, they just end up with a story that makes no sense.
Or, even worse, they choose a complicated story structure, just so they can say, "Yeah, it's a double-e with a broken narrative and a story within a story."
Like, whoa. That's way too complicated for audio.
But let's forget the WORST example. Let's talk about the most COMMON.
I can hear your edits.
Yep. That time you tried to end your cut in mid sentence, and you thought you covered up your very abrupt edit with a tiny, little fade?
I heard it.
That time you tried to take all the pauses out of a slow talker, to make them sound like they were talking faster?
I heard it.
And god-forbid, that podcast that uses something like Descript to edit entire episodes, without adjusting the timing of the automated edits?
I hear EVERY SINGLE ONE of those edits.
The truth is, there's a whole lot more to a good edit than just deleting the right sounds.
Every voice has a cadence. A rhythm.
And if you're not careful when making edits, you're gonna screw it up.
Your audio will sound choppy. Disjointed.
Like a dancer who can't find the beat.
So here's my challenge to you. If you can't make a good edit…don't.
Figure out another place to end. Another beginning.
Heck, just choose a different piece of audio!
Even if the listener can't identify all of your bad edits, like I do, they're still gonna notice that there's something going on with the cadence – the beat – of your audio.
It's gonna feel WRONG. Like something has been altered.
And I get it. The audio HAS been altered. Even if you've only chosen a place to start and a place to stop and taken out some ums and ahhs, the audio will have been altered.
We're not fooling anyone. We in the business of editing audio.
But the key is to make your edits sound natural. Like you haven't changed a thing.
That way, there's nothing to distract from your beautiful dance.
Hold Your Audio Close … But Not Too Close
One of my biggest pet peeves is narration that doesn't embrace the audio.
Instead of staying with the story – with the emotion – and moving it forward, this kind of narration creates distance.
It feels impersonal. Cold.
It's like my senior prom, where my date announced that he "didn't believe in close dancing." So instead, he locked his elbows and made sure there were always at least 24 inches of air between us.
So. Incredibly. Awkward.
(No offense to my date. He's a lovely person. Just not the right dance partner for me!)
What does it sound like when you hold your audio at arm's length?
You hear a voice. Maybe someone describing something.
And the narrator will drop in and say, "This is so-and-so. And they're describing the moment when they were 8 years old and X happened."
Cold. Impersonal. Instead of bringing the listener into the story, narration leaves them on the outside, looking in.
Instead, try… "So-and-so was just 8 years old when X happened."
See the difference? One holds the audio apart -- as if it's something wholly separate from the narration.
The other dances in time with it. Close, but not too close.
Let me give you another example.
I love using the audio of the questions I ask during interviews. Not all of them. But a few.
It sounds intimate. It gives the listener a peek into the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee.
But sometimes, you want to be able to use the idea of your question as a transition, without actually using the audio of your question.
Maybe your audio was bad? Or maybe you flubbed the question?
These things happen to the best of us.
Resist the urge to say, "So, I asked them…why did they do this crazy thing?"
Instead ... just ask the question.
There's no need to pretend you're asking it directly of your interview subject. That's just weird.
Keep it in the third person. Almost as if it was rhetorical.
"So…why did they do this crazy thing?"
If you get rid of the artificial distance between your narration and your audio, you'll find that your story moves much more gracefully.
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