Learn to Let Go (In 10 Easy Steps)
Hello friends,

You might remember when you first subscribed to this newsletter, I sent you an email asking you to fill out a 3-question survey?

So far, 427 of you have responded. Thank you so much!

The survey does not exist so that I can measure your love of Princess Bride .gifs. (#IYKYK)

Nope…that survey exists so that you can ask me questions, and I can answer them in this newsletter.

I checked the survey responses last week, for the first time in a long time.

So sorry about that, folks. Things got BUSY there for a while.

Anyway, I noticed a theme in the responses I've been getting lately to the question, "What is your biggest storytelling struggle?" Here are a few examples.
"Finding the right story line in the edit. After record, I drown in the material"

"Deciding what to keep in and what to leave out"

"Recording too much. Letting go of things that don't fit the narrative."
Letting go.

It might be the hardest thing we do. And we have to do it over and over and over again.

And yeah. Sometimes, it can feel like we're drowning.
Beautiful lake photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
At first, finding the throughline of our story might feel almost pleasant. Like we're bobbing around in a lake filled with good material. The sun is shining. The water is warm. There are infinite possibilities all around us.

Just waiting for us to make something beautiful.

But as we try to pick and choose the best bits, it can start to feel like the boat is taking on water. We've got our little plastic pail, and we're bailing the water out as fast as we can. But no matter how hard we try to jettison the bits we don't need, the water keeps getting higher.

And there's a storm coming...and we don't know how to swim!

Okay, maybe I went just a little too far with that analogy…but you know what I mean, right?

So, to help us all out, I've compiled a list of steps we can all take to keep our little boat from sinking.
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Step 1: Have a Plan

Be intentional about this thing! Don't just schedule interviews with everyone who might have something to say. Do a little research. Do a LOT of research. Figure out what voices you need, and why you need them.

I start to structure my stories before I even record my first interview. That way, I know what "role" each voice is playing in my story. Person A might be my main narrator. They're gonna be with the story from beginning to end. And I'm gonna have a very long list of questions for them.

Person B might only be truly important to the story for a specific point in time. So I'm not going to ask them all the same questions I ask Person A.

Focus. Be deliberate. Take a moment at the very beginning to plan. It'll save you lots of time – and heartbreak – later on.
Step 2: Stick to the Plan. Mostly.

You don't have to be a genius to know that the less material you gather, the less "letting go" you're gonna need to do.

Some people take it to the extreme. I have known reporters who limit interviews to no more than 10 minutes, so they don't feel overwhelmed once it's time to write.

Please, do not be one of those reporters!

The truth is, if you gather exactly the right amount of material, you're doing it wrong.

You want to gather more than you need. Quite a bit more than you need.

Really. It's a good thing!

It's in those unexpected moments that you find the true purpose of your story. The detail that hasn't been reported yet. The perspective other reporters have overlooked. The truth that might otherwise go unspoken.

At the same time, there are limits to how many roads you can go down. How much time your interview subject can spend with you. The number of hours you can spend going through all your tape and finding the throughline.

So, that's where a plan comes in handy. Go into each interview knowing what you want…and what you don't need. And then do your best to stick to it.

You don't need to interrupt someone when they're telling you something you don't need to know. But you don't need to ask them any follow ups either!

And if things really start to go off track, feel free to direct the conversation where it needs to go. You can be polite, but direct. I often say something like, "Wow, that's really interesting. But today, I want to focus on this other thing."
Step 3: Revise the Plan. Often.

Look, it's great that you had a plan. But I guarantee that by the end of the first interview, that plan is going to have gone to crap.

Don't just promise yourself that you're gonna figure it all out later. Go back. Look over your plan. Figure out what changes you need to make.

Maybe you need to add more questions to Person C's list? Or maybe you can delete a bunch, because you've already gotten it from Person B?

It can be difficult to make yourself take the time to stop and re-assess. But you're gonna thank me for it later.
Step 4: Make Some Early Decisions.

Last month, I went on a little overnight reporting trip to Las Vegas. And that night in the hotel room, when I was downloading my audio and uploading it to the cloud, I was also making some decisions.

Yes, I absolutely kept everything I had recorded. And I recorded a TON. If I spend 6 hours recording in the field, I'm probably gonna come back with at least 5 hours of tape.

Pro Tip: Keep rolling. You never know what's gonna happen.

But I know, realistically, that I'm not using 5 hours of audio. Truthfully, I'm gonna be lucky if we use more than 5 minutes.

So while the audio was still fresh in my mind, I copied out the useful bits. I kept them long, with at least 30 seconds on either end. And then I labeled those useful bits and put them in a folder.

This is the folder I will go to when it's time to tell the story of what happened that day. And I will probably never go back and listen to the rest of it – unless something totally unexpected happens (like we decide to spend an entire episode on this event, instead of just a scene within an episode.)
Step 5: Be kind, but also brutal.

This is where I'm guessing many of you are coming into this process. You've already recorded. You have hours and hours of tape, and no idea what to do next.

First of all, be kind to yourself.

You are not a bad reporter. You are not doing it wrong. This happens to all of us. Especially when we're excited about the story we're trying to tell.

You got this!

Now that you've given yourself some grace, I want you to take a deep breath. Trust your gut. Make some brutal decisions.

And get rid of all the crap.

Some people will do this by identifying the best bits. The ones they think might make the final piece. They will either highlight those bites in their transcript or isolate and label them in their DAW.

But sometimes, I can find that concept to be overwhelming. Like, I don't know what the best bits are yet!! How do I choose??? There are just So. Many. Good. Parts.

That's when I flip the script. If I'm not ready to identify my favorites yet, what am I ready to let go? What can I delete?

And when I say delete, I mean it! Make a copy of your outline or a copy of your transcript or a copy of your audio and literally delete the bits you don't need. The bits that are boring. The bits that you love, but that seem off topic. The bits that you know will never make the finished piece.

Don't do this to the original, of course. Always keep a copy of the original!

But I promise you. Once you de-clutter your options, it will be easier to see your throughline.
Step 6: Whittle Away.

A story isn't like an oil painting, where the artist adds layer after layer of paint until the image emerges.

Instead, it's like a sand sculpture, where the artist must – bit by bit – remove everything that doesn't belong.
Photo of Karen, standing in front of a ridiculously large sand sculpture.
I've never made a sand sculpture myself, but I did once cover the International Sand Sculpting Festival for NPR. So I kinda feel like an expert.

You don't start working on the fine details until you've got the rough details in hand. And you can't sculpt those rough details until you've got the overall shape right.

It's a process. But stick with it and the right image will emerge. Bit by bit by bit.

So when you find yourself feeling like you're drowning, frantically bailing water out of your little boat, take a breath. Relax.

This is the work. You are doing it right. Trust the process.

Keep whittling away at what you don't need. If you keep at it for long enough, you're gonna uncover something truly beautiful.
Step 7: Sleep On It.

What can I say? Sometimes, you're gonna have to make really hard choices. You're gonna have to get rid of things that you love.

I often find that I know the right answer. I know what I need to cut. But I just don't have the heart to do it.

So give it a moment. Go for a walk. Listen to your favorite song. Maybe consider leaving the script until morning?

Those hard decisions are going to be a lot easier once you've given yourself a little time to acclimate to them.
Step 8: Remind Yourself of Your Purpose

If your piece is still too long -- or if it feels unfocused -- now is the time to go back to the basics.

Why are you making this story? What do you want the listener to understand? To feel? What are you hoping they'll carry with them as they go about their day?

Then look at what you've got. Does every single sound bite, every piece of ambi, every word of narration support that purpose?

Does every anecdote lead you to where you need to go?

Another way to think about it is -- if I remove this piece of tape (or this narration or this anecdote) does the story still work? Does it still make sense? Does it arrive at the right place at the end?

When you're able to delete something without needing to replace it with something else, that's a pretty good sign that it's gotta go.

Yes...even when the thing you're thinking about deleting is your VERY FAVORITE thing.
Step 9: Cry

Yeah, sometimes there's nothing left to do but mourn.

We can't keep everything. We have limited time. Limited resources. And most importantly, our listeners have limited attention spans.

I can give you all the reasons why cutting your story makes it better. I can convince you of the logic. The reasonableness of my plan.

But sometimes I just need to give you a moment to grieve.
Step 10:

Okay, I don't really have a Step 10. But 10 steps sounds so much better than nine.

Sue me.

Oh, and one more thing. If, by chance, this newsletter has inspired you to go back and respond to my survey, it's never too late. Follow this link!

Or…you can just reply to this email and ask your burning storytelling questions directly. I am here for you!
Our Next Narrative Beat Workshop!
As promised, I have scheduled our next Narrative Beat workshop, How to Make a Story.

We're gonna plot the process of making a story -- from beginning to end. How do you turn a concept into a pitch? How do you turn a pitch into a series of interviews? How do you turn those interviews into a script? And finally, how do you add music and sound design to bring it all together?

This workshop is a great fit for folks who are relatively new to audio storytelling. But I'll also have some tips and tricks to help more experienced producers streamline their process.

We'll meet on Zoom on Saturday, March 25. And I'm gonna run it TWICE. At 10am Eastern and at 4pm Eastern.

(Just click one of those times for more information and to buy your ticket!)

I tried to pick meeting times that will also work for folks who do not live in the continental United States. So, all my friends in Europe and Australia...this one is for you!

And as usual, I'll be offering free and reduced-cost tickets for members of this community who can't afford full price. Just reply and I'll send you the code. (Preference given to those who haven't received free or discounted tickets yet. So if you've been questioning whether you really should take advantage of this offer, now is the time!!)

I hope to see y'all on Zoom on the 25th!