Please STOP Doing These Things
I usually try to keep things pretty upbeat in this newsletter. Focus on the positives. The success stories.
Storytelling struggles that turned out a-okay in the end.
But I'm just not in a positive mood today. (I mean, really. Have you seen the news lately?!?)
So, I decided to do the thing I often do when life has got me down.
Wallow in it.
Yep. I'm just gonna give into this slightly-negative feeling. I'm gonna sit in my discomfort. And I'm going to use this newsletter to list all of my storytelling pet peeves. The things that I really, really wish journalists and podcast makers would stop doing.
There are plenty of reasons why you might want to say something in narration that we've already heard (or are about to hear) in your tape.
Maybe the tape is a bit hard to hear, so you want to make sure the audience understands it?
Or maybe your interview guest was SO GOOD, you just have to repeat their words. On purpose. For effect.
These things happen. They're incredibly rare. But they do happen.
On the other hand, I just recently listened to a nine-part series where the host was constantly saying something like, "And then, they went to the store."
And then you'd hear a voice that said, "So, we went to the store to buy some avocados."
That kind of repetition is just plain lazy.
And it's terrible! It interrupts the natural flow of your story.
Instead of taking advantage of forward action that pulls the listener through your story and keeps them engaged, you're constantly rewinding and going backwards…for no good reason!
Even if it just adds a second – or half a second – to your story, it's still annoying. It breaks up the flow. It pops the listener out of the story.
It makes me want to throw my phone at a wall.
Same thing with interview segments where a host is interviewing a reporter and the reporter says, "So I called up so-and-so and asked her such-and-such. And she said, "X, Y and Z."
And then you hear the tape of the phone call, and it's just a voice saying, "X, Y and Z."
In both of these instances, it feels like tape has been added simply because tape is good.
And tape IS good. It's the reason we're all here!
But if the tape is repeating the setup, you're doing it wrong.
You're wasting my time. You're making me angry.
Like…really, really angry.
Trim the setup. Or trim the tape. Or trim both!
Do what you need to do to make sure that you're not making me angry.
Because you won't like me when I'm angry.
Confusing (or Missing) Time References
Okay, I get it. Timelines can get really tangled.
They almost always start in the past. (Even if "the past" was just yesterday.)
And then they might rewind some more. (On purpose!)
And then they're probably going to start moving forward. (With the occasional flashback or flash forward.)
So it's not surprising that time references can get confusing. (Really confusing.)
But I was listening to something the other day, and the host said something like, "And this is when we think they got married. But there have also been reports they didn't get married until X years later, when Y and Z had already happened."
And then, I kid you not, the host said something like, "And it was around this time when…"
And I was, like, whaaaat???? Which time?!?
I was soooo confused.
I mean, it would have been okay if she was talking about something that happened around the time of the wedding, whenever the wedding was.
But she was talking about something that happened around the time of the first potential wedding date. Even though she had taken a sidebar to tell me about the second potential wedding date.
So here's the rule.
Once you've placed your story in time, that's where you are.
You're stuck in amber -- frozen in time -- until you decide to move us to another time, by saying something like...
Two years later, when our main character was 13.
Two years earlier, when our main character was 9.
Pro tip: A calendar year isn't always helpful, because numbers are hard to remember. So pick a reference point that makes sense to your story. Maybe it's the age of your main character? Maybe it's the number of years since a certain event happened? Whatever it is, use that secondary time reference whenever you want to be a little more clear about when, exactly, something happened.
Every time the story moves forward or backwards in time, tell me about it. Make it as clear as you can possibly make it.
But once you've told me that we're in 1984, when the main character was 11, you don't need to keep telling me that it's 1984 – or that the main character is 11.
Sometimes, you might want to remind the listener of one of these details. Reminders are good!
But do so in a way that makes it clear that you're intentionally repeating the information, not resetting the timeline.
So don't say, "In 1984…"
Say, "And remember, this was 1984. So cell phones weren't a thing yet."
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Really, Really Late (or Missing!) IDs
Look, IDing every voice before you hear it can sound really old school.
It can break up the flow of your story. Interrupt those lovely moments you've spent all of that time creating.
Plus, it's just plain B-O-R-I-N-G.
Back-IDs are popular for a reason.
But I don't want to hear a voice for 20 seconds….a minute…TWO minutes, without knowing who they are.
Tell me who's talking.
You don't have to ID someone every time you hear their voice. But if you hear someone else's voice for a little while and then go back to the original speaker, tell me who that person is again.
And even if they're the only voice in a story, say their name. Again and again.
Because we humans have shit memories.
We need IDs.
Of course, now that I've given you that rule, I'm gonna tell you when you can break it.
Voices in sizzle reels, trailers and episode teases do not need to be IDed. Exception to the exception: The voices are famous and you want people to know that you've gotten an "ungettable" interview!
Voices in a vox pop – shoppers at a mall that's closing, voters on a cold day, fans of a sports team – do not need to be IDed. Exception to the exception: You're gonna hear from one or more of those voices later!
Overuse of Audio Cliches
The first time we ever heard a Skype ringtone used in a story, it sounded sooooo cool.
Newsflash: We've been using Skype for almost 20 years now. That damn ringtone no longer sounds cool.
There are a lot of audio cliches. Here's a very partial list:
- All ringtones -- unless they tell you something important about someone's character.
- Answering a phone/video call.
- Ringing a doorbell or knocking on a door.
- Opening a door.
- Greeting someone on the other side of the door.
- Closing a door. (Especially a car door.)
- A car engine turning on.
- A car engine turning off.
- A GPS giving directions.
- Really, any sounds from the inside of a car as it goes from place A to place B.
- The sound of a person settling into a recording studio.
- The sound of a person settling down onto a couch or chair.
- A person saying their own name and/or job description.
- A person spelling their own name.
- Two people chatting over the sound of walking across leaves.
- A host interjecting to ask their co-host a question when they obviously already know the answer.
- A host faking surprise at something that clearly should not surprise them.
And the list goes on and on and on.
Truth is, you can use one of these cliches in a story and totally get away with it.
I'll even give you permission to use two, if you have a VERY GOOD REASON for at least one of them.
(Example of a good reason: Having a person spell their name because it sounds a lot like another name that's spelled totally differently.)
But, if you find yourself using more than one of these cliches in a single episode, ask yourself why.
Quite often, devices like this pop into our work because we're worried our work isn't good enough on its own. So we add a bunch of random sounds to try to "liven" it up.
Newsflash: It doesn't work.
(See what I mean? I just did the "Newsflash" thing. Doing it twice is lazy and makes it seem like I don't trust myself to say something interesting.)
Don't be like me.
If your story is boring, FIX it.
If your story is not boring, TRUST it.
I started this list with the pet peeve I hear the most. And it's true. Unnecessary repetition interferes with my podcast listening more often than any other audio storytelling sin.
But I'm gonna end this list with the most egregious…
…the most insidious
…the most vile story telling sin.
Promising more than you can deliver.
Telling me that I "just won't believe" this "totally incredible, amazing, unexpected thing" that's about to happen next.
Oh, what drama!
Surely I'll keep listening through that extremely long commercial for some product I'll never use if only you promise me something really AMAZING on the other end.
Or, I'll cue up the next episode, even though I have tons of other things to do today.
But here's the problem.
Your story just isn't that amazing.
It's just not.
It might be the most amazing thing you've ever done. And you deserve kudos and congratulations for doing such good work.
But it's still not THAT amazing.
Trust me on this.
If you overhype your story, you're guaranteed to disappoint your listener.
And if you do it again and again, over time you become the child who cried wolf.
Nobody will ever believe you again.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't hype your story. Or pump up the drama. Or highlight the tension.
I am saying that you should be careful. Because if you cross that line, you're gonna have a real hard time gaining my trust…ever again.
(Not to be overly dramatic about things.)
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