This is ... The Narrative-Style Interview
Hello friends,

I've gone back and forth about this week's newsletter. Frankly, y'all have sent me so many good questions, I'm having trouble deciding which ones to answer first!
I actually started to write about strategies for interview prep. (Is there such a thing as too much prep?) But then I remembered that I'll be covering that topic in this Sunday's workshop, and I didn't want to steal my own thunder.
For those who missed the news, I'll be holding my first virtual workshop for Narrative Beat subscribers this Sunday (May 16) from 1 - 3:30pm Eastern. There will be a lesson -- inspired by the classic movie, The Princess Bride, hands-on exercises and a ton of time for questions and discussion.

The workshop is almost sold out, but I'm releasing an additional five! Tickets available here. The cost is $40. But if you can't afford $40, just reply to this email and let me know. I'll send you a discount code.

And don't worry if you miss this one. We'll definitely be doing it again!
Stay tuned for an upcoming missive on interview prep. I have THOUGHTS.

In the meantime, I went back through some of your questions, and I found that a bunch of you have been asking about narrative interviews.

(Not interviews for narrative stories. But interviews -- that will run as interviews -- but that follow a narrative structure.)

And I gotta say, you Narrative Beat readers are a smart bunch! Because narrative interview podcasts are super hot right now. And is it any wonder?

The narrative interview format uses all the techniques of narrative storytelling — story questions, emotion questions, tension, suspense, a story that unfolds over time — while simultaneously making it sound like we're just listening in on a conversation.

For the listener, it's the best of both worlds.

For the podcast producer, narrative interviews are quicker, easier and -- let's be real here -- much cheaper to produce than scripted narratives.

Case in point, the last narrative interview I recorded for Only A Game was recorded at 11am on a Friday. I had it edited, mixed and ready to drop 2 1/2 hours later. Try that with a scripted narrative!

But the first time I tried to record one of these things, it was a bit of a mess.

I didn't do a good job writing the questions. That left my guest wondering what I wanted from him. He kept skipping ahead and answering questions I hadn't asked yet.

Guests skip ahead all the time, and it has never freaked me out before. But somehow, because I was trying something that felt new, I got flustered and forgot all my tricks for getting a guest back on track.

To be fair, after editing and adding in some archive sound, I was still pretty happy with the finished segment.

That's the other thing about the narrative interview format. It's very forgiving.

Over time, I got better at narrative interviews. So here are some things I learned along the way.
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Do: Remember...this is still a narrative.

That means you're going to need all of the elements that you look for in a good narrative story. You're going to need a sequence of events. But not just, "this happened, and then this happened." You want to focus on anecdotes, just like you would in a scripted narrative.

You also need to make sure you have a strong central character -- or characters. You need tension, stakes and surprise. You need to be thinking about foreshadowing, signposting and turning points.

You're going to want to think about structure. Many, many narrative interviews follow an e-structure, starting with a news item at the top and then going back in time to explain how we got here. But that's not the only way to do a narrative interview.

Maybe you want to start at the beginning? (Oh, how groundbreaking!) Maybe you want to think of your interview like a broken narrative, pausing the chronology at tense moments to explain difficult concepts? All of the structures you would consider for a scripted narrative are available to you.

Even a great editor can't salvage a bad narrative interview. So you're going to want to go in with a concrete plan. You're going to want to know the story inside and out, so that you know what's missing in every answer and can ask the right follow-ups.

This is not the time to wing it.

Don't: Copy Michael Barbaro's style

Look, I get it. According to the most recent figures I can find, The Daily gets 4 million downloads. Daily. That's insane.


But, I'm just gonna be honest with y'all, because I feel like I can do that here.

If I hear another f---ing podcast where a pleasant male host talks over spacey, electronic music, pausing longer than necessary every few seconds, while introducing something that is inevitably named The (One Syllable Word) -- I might just lose my mind.




Everyone who's copying Michael Barbaro's style is copying the wrong f---ing thing. (Please pardon my pseudo-swearing, but I feel very strongly about this.) I don't object to Michael Barbaro's style. But it's HIS style. Not yours. So stop pretending to be someone you're not.

Do: Add sound...lots and lots of sound

I'm not going to get into the whole debate over "fair use" and podcasts. I'll paste in some resources below.

But let's just sum it up by saying that before you steal audio from the internet and cram it into your podcast, you should check with your employer and/or your lawyer.

Some people think it's okay. Others feel strongly that you need to secure rights.

The truth is, no one really knows for sure. It's the wild, wild west...and you don't want to be the one that gets taken down if/when a new sheriff comes to town.

That said, there are a lot of ways to add audio that isn't stolen from the internet. Here are some examples:

I told a story set in 1908, and asked my friends act out passages from newspaper reports, doing their best turn-of-the-century newsman voices.

I told a story about a wacky March Madness style tournament for endangered animal species, and had my friends mimic their favorite, cheesy sports announcers while reading tweets that had been sent out during the tournament.

I've also asked people to share cell phone videos and voice mail messages. I've even recorded the sound of a coworker eating Pop Rocks after a guest compared the sound of eating Pop Rocks to the sound of the ocean floor while diving inside an iceberg.

Remember Pop Rocks? So weird, yet strangely delicious.

Anyway, get creative. It'll sound better than yet another waterfall of archive news clips, anyway.

Don't: Add sound if you don't need it.

Look, not every narrative interview needs to be crammed full of bells and whistles. Some conversations are compelling enough to stand on their own.

To be honest, sometimes narrative interviews are crammed full of clips as a way to introduce important details l that didn't get explained well during the interview.

If that happens, and you don't have access to clips that can bridge the gap for you, feel free to just drop in a simple line of narration. The listener isn't going to sit up and say, "What's that doing here?"

Do: Take Charge

Look, if your guest skips ahead like mine did, don't let it fluster you. Let them finish their thought and then say, "We're going to get back to that, but first I want to ask you…"

Pause -- to give yourself an edit point -- and then ask the next question in your chronology.

You're probably going to do some rearranging when you edit, to get everything back in chronological order. (Or your e-structure, broken narrative, or whatever structure you've decided to use for your interview.) That's okay. But you might still need the question you had planned to ask, as a transition. So when you get back to the question your guest has already answered, go ahead and say, "I know you've already talked about this, but I want to go over it again…"

Pause -- to give yourself an edit point -- and then ask your question.

Don't: Write long questions

Long questions suck for two reasons.

1. You want to sound like you're having a real conversation, and you're going to have a hard time sounding natural and smooth if your question is too long.

(And no, you can't just go back and re-record all of your questions. Re-recorded questions sound like they've been re-recorded. Re-record sparingly, and only as a last resort.)

2. You're the guide and you're the glue, but you are not the focus. The focus should be on the story and on the guest, so shut up and let them talk!

I'm sure there are about 1000 other Do's and Don'ts for Narrative Interviews, and I'm going to think of all of them as soon as I hit "send" on this newsletter. But this should be enough to get you started.

Just remember. Don't be like Michael Barbaro...unless you actually ARE Michael Barbaro

More on Fair Use
How to know when you can depend on 'fair use'
Most online resources say that you can never, ever use copywrited music (or other audio) in your podcast. These copywrite laywers disagree.

Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors
I've seen a lot of references to the "four factors" of fair use. Here they are, nicely explained. (Keep in mind, some people say fair use never applies to podcasting. No matter what.)

Codes of Best Practices
The Center for Media & Social Impact has a ton of resources on fair use, broken down by industry. Sadly, podcasting isn't one of the industries they cover. :-(
Photo of the inquisitive pebble by Ana Municio on Unsplash.