Writing often feels like a putting together a jigsaw puzzle–only one that can be arranged a thousand different ways. Audio, at first glance, seems to resolve that heavy lifting. After all, your subject provides the words, tells the story–how hard could it be to put the whole thing together?
Like any piece of journalism worth spending time with, the answer is, “hard.”
Or maybe not so much “hard,” as “involved.” Your subject may be providing the words, but chances are your subject isn’t thinking about what he or she is saying the way you will and should be. When we are speaking or interviewing, we digress, we lose our focus, we hesitate. That may be acceptable in close conversation, but when I’m listening to an audio piece, my time’s too valuable to waste time on audio that isn’t tight.
Further, the interviewee may not even be aware of the real story he or she has to tell. One of my former students, now at San Jose State University, was just telling me about a recent interview he did with an older hula instructor. He met with her a couple of times, asked her many questions, watched her teach. What he got was adequate, but not compelling. His story had no center of gravity. It wasn’t until he was wrapping things up with her that she mentioned off the cuff a serious car accident long ago that left her unable to dance for years. Suddenly, he had his story.
Determining what is interesting in a story is important. As Mark Berkey-Gerard points out, every person has a story, but not every story is equally captivating. To help his students hone in on what is captivating, he has them apply Alex Blumberg’s “and what’s interesting” test.
Berkey-Gerard also looks to Ira Glass, who has a series of YouTube videos covering the art of storytelling. Glass is known for This American Life, a favorite program for those of us who love a good story. Glass makes it sound (and for a while look) easy, with his casual, slightly irreverent style. But he’s nailed the elements that need to be a part of every compelling audio or video story: the anecdote and the moment of reflection. Berkey-Gerard sums up Glass’ point this way:
“An anecdote is the sequence of actions that builds the momentum and raises questions to be answered. Stringing together a series of actions (this happens, and then this happens) makes the audience feel that they are moving toward a destination.
A moment of reflection is the point when someone clearly says, ‘here is the point of the story.’”
But how you tell the story is also important. That is, learning how to tell a story–how to pace it, how to order it–is also crucial to creating stories worth listening to. Mindy McAdams talks about the road map for effective storytelling as containing an opening, a climax and a resolution–these create the arc of the story. Know where you are going, where you want to end up, and you’ll have a story listeners will stick with. The anecdote Glass talks about and the arc McAdams cites gel well with Deborah Potter’s suggestion (albeit for TV storytellers, but equally applicable to audio alone) to rely on “strong, chronological narratives” to engage viewers (or in this case, listeners).
So, as much as it might be tempting for the budding journalist to simply throw audio together, don’t. Consider carefully what the story is and how you can best tell it. Then put that jigsaw puzzle together.