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Today’s guest is Daniel Lewis.

The story is more important than the format

As a consumer the format of the narrative podcast is not immediately interesting to Daniel. It’s the story that has to catch him, and whether he can connect with the topic itself.

For people considering doing narrative podcasts, it’s really a decision about whether that is the best way to tell the story that you want to tell and if you are willing to do the extra work that goes along with the format. It can come out really neat if you do it well but it is a lot of work. First, consider is a narrative/storytelling format the thing that communicates your message the best? Second, are you willing to do the hard work it takes to get something like that done?

Planning and preparation is key

If you have an idea that you feel could be fun for a narrative podcast story, Daniel says you need to plan and be prepared. If there is something coming up that would be great to record, make sure you have a recorder with you throughout the process. It could be as simple as your iOs or android device, but make sure you have that recorder with you at all times because conversations could come up at any time that are relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another reason to be prepared with a recorded always is to be able to speak your mind about something when it comes to mind. One practice you have to get into is verbalizing as much as possible, especially in those moments where you step away from the action and start talking to the camera or microphone. As you start producing this, you’ll find you will be recording a lot of random stuff. Daniel advises not being afraid to cut stuff out. It may be funny conversation but is it relevant? Does it add to the story? It’s ok to toss good stuff out if it doesn’t fit with the story that you’re doing.

Making a narrative podcast might help your marriage!

As a side note, Daniel suggests that maybe learning to make a narrative podcast could help in marriage communication as well. It’s stereotypical but a common complaint from wives is that their husbands don’t say what’s on their mind. This practice of verbalizing for the podcast could help here. When you get in that practice of communicating what’s on your mind and describing things, you’ll end up with much better material to use for recording.

Choosing guests

When he listens to podcasts like Serial or Start Up, Daniel wonders about things like whether all the many random voices gave their permission to be used in the podcast. That is something you have to be concerned with today, especially if you’re going to monetize the narrative podcasts that you’re making. You need to talk to a lawyer but it might be enough to get the guest’s recorded agreement to basic terms and that they know they are being recorded and it will be used for telling a story.

The next step is finding people who would have some kind of feedback, having a conversation with them and recording it. It could be as simple as someone being a sounding board and you asking them to hear you explain the idea and then question and challenge you on it. Not only does it mean it’s another voice, it’s also a different perspective that could potentially bring something to the conversation that you would have never thought of.

Varying the audio recording methods

In an audio drama it is very important people can hear the spoken work very clearly. In a narrative, interspersed with clips of actual things you recorded, the audio doesn’t have to be studio quality but it does need to be listenable. Daniel believes the biggest sin that can be made with this kind of recording is not getting the volume levels right. The narrative section might be at a certain volume that is a different volume to a sound clip. Pay attention to this when you are recording but also in the editing. A good way to get better audio quality is simply to get closer to the microphone.

If you get some echo, some reverb, or background noise, it isn’t that much of a problem and can even enhance it because it helps make that section different from the clean, present studio voice. On the other hand, a soft room sound doesn’t quite work because it sounds like it’s trying to be studio quality but didn’t quite get there. Because it doesn’t contrast very much, it can create some conflict. If you want to create audio quality, try to make that contrast bigger so that people know just by the tone, the quality and the sound of the audio that it’s changed from studio narrative to recorded live in person. People can more easily follow that and you don’t need any transition because the style of the sound is making that transition for you.

Using music in transitions

Daniel suggests that you have certain music saved for certain things. All Things Considered by Gimlet, and NPR do this. They have sponsor music that loops in the background while they’re talking about their sponsors, and other tracks too like the opening music or the wrap up music. You can have your own sound track for the show, but make sure you get the license for the music.

Verbally transitions are sometimes needed. However, don’t say “we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor.” The music can be what sets the tone but you still need to clarify some changes with your spoken word. You need to say things like ‘this podcast is brought to you by…such and such’ so there’s still some kind of verbal transition, however the background music does some of the work for you. People can then start to associate certain background music with certain parts of the show.  Music can also set the tone and emotion of the moment just like a film soundtrack.

Additional transition tips

Another way to transition is to have a portion of the clip playing in the background so the audience knows you’re about to go to a clip or just coming off a clip. Play a portion of the clip and have the narrator come in and say “that’s so and so, talking about such and such”, or start the clip by saying “on such and such day, I was talking to so and so”.

As well as reducing the volume, a cool little trick you can also do, especially when there’s spoken word in the background and spoken word (your voice) in the foreground, is to play with the frequencies a little bit. Reduce the frequencies in the vocal range, so that way you don’t have multiple pieces of audio conflicting for the same audio frequency range. You reduce it a little bit in the background but then raise it back up when you bring that background clip back into the foreground.

Enticing the listener

Daniel emphasizes that to entice the listener you have to have a compelling story to begin with and compelling details along the way. It’s ok to sometimes along the way dig deeper into something less compelling, books and movies all have their low points where the audience is waiting to get back into the action. Your podcast story might have those moments too. It’s not always cliffhanger after cliffhanger—that can get boring as well. Look at the overall story you’re telling within an individual episode, and look at the peaks and valleys within the story.

Start with a peak so that when the audience starts listening they think, “that’s interesting, what is the story behind that?” and they want to learn more. You need something that hooks them in the beginning, and carry that through a little bit. Then it’s ok to go down into a valley as you go into more depth. Then go back up into a climax, and perhaps back into another valley.

Make sure you end on a climax too. The most important parts of presentations, books, and stories are the beginning and the end. Make sure that your beginning and end are great material. Especially with that end point, you want to hook them so that they’ll come back for the next episode. It could be a cliffhanger, but there are also ways to end without cliffhangers, such as by letting the audience know what’s coming in the next episode, because that can hook them in as well.

Keep learning across genres

Daniel’s advice is to keep learning how to tell a good story and not just in the medium of a podcast. The principles apply whether it’s learning about giving a good presentation through something like Toastmasters, or whether it’s a book about storytelling. The medium itself doesn’t matter, the skill behind the medium matters. Learn the principles and looks at narrative lessons you can learn to know how to craft things together.

Study the podcasts out there that do it well. There are plenty of journalistic narrative podcasts out there aside from Serial. Some suggestions are Start Up, Reply All and most everything from Gimlet Media or This American Life or NPR spin offs.

Listen to them and break it down. Try and evaluate what they are doing in each part, what they are using the make their transitions, how they are coming up with hooks, what the flow is that they’re following. Don’t try to imitate them; it can be difficult but also usually ends badly. Look for what you can learn that you can put your own style on.

Learn from other great artists. Be inspired by others. Almost no great artist is inherently good without being inspired and challenged by other things, so listen to other stuff and don’t be only entertained by it. Go back through, deconstruct it and experiment with it on your own.