Six Steps for Spectacular Storytelling
I feel like I spend a lot of time focusing on all the things I hate in this great, beautiful world of audio storytelling.
That was a terrible transition.
WTF is up with that music?!?
Why in the name of all things holy did the storyteller do … that?!?
My editor's brain can sometimes cause me to lose sight of the things that make my storyteller's heart truly happy.
So…that's what we're gonna do today. We are going to focus on my most loved storytelling techniques. And, because I'm a fan of alliteration, we're gonna call this one the Six Steps for Spectacular Storytelling.
Just a note – the last time I did one of these numbered lists, I ended up with the wrong number of things. If that happens again, just go with it. Numbers have never been my gift.
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Thing #1: Look for beginnings and endings.
I know I said I was going to be more positive this time around, but sometimes I need to point out the negative to illustrate the positive.
I am listening to this podcast right now that is driving me BONKERS.
Basically, it's one of those podcasts where the host tries to stay out of the way as much as possible. Every once in a while, she will come in with a question or a clarifying remark. But other than that, there's no narration. No interruption. Just one person telling their story.
The thing is, I love this format -- in theory. I feel like far too often, the host takes on too much of the work. And sometimes, I just want to hear the story from the person who experienced it.
But in this case, the episodes feel like a never ending litany of random plot points.
And then this happened.
And then this.
And then this other random thing.
Forever and ever.
Seriously, this podcast has a very good story to tell. It's one of those stories that makes me – as a storyteller – wish I was there first.
But it is not sour grapes when I say that there is a better way.
When we give our listeners plot point after plot point after plot point, we don't give them anything to hang on to. We overwhelm them with information.
I like to call this the "firehose." Shout out to my husband, the firefighter.
But if you're not married to a firefighter, you could just call it "really bad storytelling."
Instead, you want to look for specific moments. Sometimes we call them scenes. They are moments in time that have a beginning and an end.
And we enter those moments with intentionality. Purpose.
And we leave them just as purposefully.
So instead of a never ending string of "this happeneds," we end up with scenes, like from a movie.
Fade from black.
Which caused this to happen.
And then someone said this.
Which caused this totally interesting outcome.
(Not an end to the story, but an end to the scene.)
Fade to black.
Those moments where you're "in the black"? They're so important! They give the listener a moment to breathe. A moment to think and reflect.
Sometimes you might punctuate those moments with music. Sometimes you might literally just pause for a beat or two.
I know you're in a hurry. You've totally cut out amazing, beautiful stuff to get your story down to time. And now you're just pausing? Doing NOTHING?
But trust me. You can totally lose some of that connective tissue between scenes, so that you have time to focus on those moments where something ends and something else begins.
Those moments are vital. Take the time to savor them.
Things #2: Explain in the moment.
Yeah, this is another one of those things that my story editor brain just can't let go.
I'll be listening to a podcast and I'll hear a narrator say something like, "And you're gonna hear this person say XYZ, and that refers to…"
Or, even worse, I'll hear a character use an unfamiliar acronym (XYZ.) And then the story keeps going. We get all the way to the end of the anecdote.
And then, just as we're ready to reflect on what it all meant, the narrator will say, "When the person said XYZ, they were referring to…."
Either way, you have taken all the power out of the moment.
Instead, explain when – and only when – explanation is needed. So, go ahead and play the tape where the character says "XYZ."
And then, find the very next decent drop in point. The next logical pause. It might be immediate. It might be a few words after "XYZ." Or you might need to wait until the end of a phrase. But it should definitely happen no later than the end of the sentence.
And then, just drop in the world's most sparse and simple explanation. "XYZ. It stands for…"
And then get back to your storytelling. Simple as that.
Your listener will have the information when the information is needed. And now they can go about their day, focusing on the things that really need to be focused on.
Thing #3: Don't get distracted by the shiny thing...
I know. I know. You're in an interview and someone says something tantalizing and you really, really want to jump in and follow them down that rabbit hole.
It's human nature!
But that's when I make a little note. Just a keyword or two, scribbled (or hastily typed) into my interview plan.
I don't jump in right away and interrupt the story, because I know I need to get this anecdote from beginning to end. And I know the best time to get an emotional response to that particular moment in time is right after I've asked my interview subject to go back there and relive it.
Not 10 minutes later, when I've finished going down that rabbit hole I dug for myself.
There is a time and a place for interrupting a good anecdote.
And that time is while under deadline.
And that place is spot news.
But if you are making a narrative story, take the time to finish talking about one moment in time before flitting off to find out more about that shiny thing that happened in a different moment in time.
Believe me. It will wait.
Things #4: Lean into the squishy stuff.
Look, as journalists, we can sometimes get too caught up in the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of it all.
And I'm not saying that you should skip those things. Details are important!
But sometimes we get so caught up in the details, that we forget to get the emotion.
And sometimes we know full well that we need the emotion, but we're too shy or intimidated to ask.
This is the part of interviewing that takes the most time to learn. When is the right time to ask someone about their emotions? How do I "go there" without feeling exploitative?
And what the heck do I do if someone starts crying?
And I get it. Asking complete strangers about their feelings can feel strange. It can feel intrusive.
And sometimes I have to psych myself up and remind myself that this person is sharing their story because they want people to hear it. Maybe they're hoping that they can affect change? Or maybe help others avoid the thing that happened to them?
So, yeah, I know it's weird. But don't let yourself get so wrapped up in the "who, what, when, where, why and how" that you forget to follow up with, "And how did that make you feel?"
Or…if you'd like to feel less like Sigmund Freud and more like Ira Glass, you can always go with, "And what did you make of that?"
Thing #5: Make 'em wait.
Most people want to focus on the positives of their story.
Even if they not particularly positive people in their personal lives, when it comes time to tell their story to the world, they often try to ignore the difficult, awkward bits and skip straight to the part where they look like a hero.
But here's the thing. Skipping straight to the "happily ever after" makes for a really, really boring story.
As storytellers, our job is to make the listener sit with us in the moment of uncertainty. In the moment when we don't know how it's going to turn out.
And sometimes that means we push our interview subjects and ask them to remember what it felt like when they didn't know that it would all turn out okay.
What was their fear? What could have gone wrong? What could have been the greatest reward?
And then, when it comes time to build out my story, I lean into those uncertainties. Once I've really dug into that moment of tension, that's when I know I've got my listener hooked. And I'm not going to waste all that effort and resolve that tension too quickly.
Often, that's when I take a moment to do something else. Explain a difficult to explain concept, maybe?
Or even take a commercial break!
Because once I come back and resolve that tension, I'm gonna have to do a whole lot of work to build it up again.
Thing #6: Go big or go home!
Nothing angers me more than storytellers making wimpy choices.
Okay, I'm going back to the podcast I was talking about in Thing #1.
(I swear, if this was not the most BONKERS story ever told, I would not still be listening.)
The first time I listened to this podcast, I was in my car. And I was really confused by the fact that there seemed to be no music.
No music. No narration. Just a single voice droning on and on.
And on and on.
And on and on.
(Without the benefit of beginnings and endings.)
But then, I heard something.
Is that music?
So I turned my car stereo up. Wayyyy up. And I still couldn't tell.
The next time I listened, I was out for a walk in my suburban neighborhood. And the same thing happened!
I heard something. Maybe it was music? Maybe it was just some weird background noise on the recording? Or maybe it was the birds in my neighborhood on their way south for the winter?
I literally could not tell the difference.
It wasn't until I got back inside my house, doors and windows sealed, that I could confidently say, "Yep. That's music. And well-chosen music, at that."
All of this is to say – be confident in your choices.
I know, I know, I know. For some of us old-timers, adding music to our stories feels like cheating.
But here's the thing. Either do it, or don't do it. Don't wallow in the middle.
Make decisions for a reason. If you want music, pick music that fits your story. And then mix it in at a volume that doesn't require noise-canceling headphones to hear.
(Also, don't swing the other direction and make your music really loud. Music volume is an art, and -- fun fact -- you're unlikely to get it right if you're mixing with noise-canceling headphones.)
Similarly, If you're gonna share your personal opinion, don't apologize. Put it out there and know that there will be people who disagree with you.
If you're gonna do anything that goes against what you were taught in J-school, do it with purpose and confidence.
You got this. I promise you.
| |Okay, I think that was six, yes? Please, please tell me that was six!
A couple of housekeeping things.
If you're one of those weird people who wants more of me (?!?) might I suggest my friend Eliane Grant's podcast, Sound Judgment. In last week's episode
, we talk about Believable: the Coco Berthmann Story…and my undying love of Post It Notes.
If you're sad to have missed my workshop on serialized narratives, the recording is now available online…for a reduced price. Get your ticket here.
And finally, as always, if you know someone who would benefit from my rambles about storytelling, please tell them about this newsletter. Our little community continues to grow every day, which makes me eternally happy.