Why Audio is Perfect for Storytelling
To start us off I'm Alex Blumberg for 15 years I've been telling stories on the radio for NPR, for Planet Money. And I want to start us off with a Piece of audio that for me really epitomizes the the power of audio.
[Alex via recording] I'm Alex Blumberg, I've reported on the radio for 15 years for NPR, This American Life and Planet money. Sound familiar? So that was actually (audience laughing) That's not the part that epitomizes the power, we're getting to that in a second. That is me doing a promo for this CreativeLive course. So I was actually recording a promo for CreativeLive, CreativeLive wants you to tell your story and then they put it on the website, they put it on near the YouTube channel. So I was doing that, I was recording that promo and I was telling all the things that Chris mentioned. About I've worked for in radio, I've done these podcasts that have weekly audiences over a million listeners, won awards and stuff like that. I was talking about all that stuff, I was b...
asically bragging. And in the middle of that, recording that, something happened and this is the part that epitomizes the power. So, something happened in the middle. I tell stories for a living, and I'm OK at it now, although it wasn't always this way. (phone ringing) My wife called while I was recording this promo. So, I put her on speaker. Hello?
Do you know what I'm doing right now?
[Wife via recording] What are you doing right now?
I'm sitting under a blanket, in our bedroom, with my microphone recording a promo for CreativeLive. You know, the online course that I'm doing.
Yes, I do know the online course that you're doing.
[Alex via recording] So, I'm sitting here because our apartment is a boomy I'm literally sitting under a blanket.
Just to be clear, our apartment, the ceilings are high and the walls are thick so it's very echo-y. I'm concerned with audio quality, so in order to get good audio quality I had put myself under a blanket to try to get the echo down. That's what I say when I'm talking about boomy. What this epitomizes for me though, the thing that this gets across, why this is a really good lesson, sort of the power of audio, is that audio is weirdly one of the most visual mediums. And that is because even though you don't see anything, you are creating scenes in your mind. And the scenes you create in your mind can often Last much longer than anything you actually could see on television. And actually talked about that with my with my wife as it was happening.
[Alex via recording] I feel like what's happening right now is just a very live moment. A powerful mental image, do you think?
[Wife via recording] And the powerful mental image is a grown man sitting under a blanket on his bed holding a microphone?
[Alex via recording] Exactly, with his wife on speakerphone.
[Wife via recording] Now you have to tell where my phone is.
Just out of curiosity, so that's one of the things that one of the the the things that I wanna be talking today is sort of like how to the power of audio towards your own end. But just out of curiosity and as I was thinking about doing this course, out of curiosity, how many of you out there that mental image, I'm sorry to say that mental image is now in your heads. But just a to talk about that for a second. Let's talk about that, who has a mental image in their head of what's going on right now? I just want to ask you some details about it. So in in your mental image what is the color of the blanket?
The blanket is navy blue and made out of fleece.
And what am I recording into?
I hadn't seen you recording into anything.
I'm just talking under the blanket. What about you, Esprit, what color is the blanket in your mind.
It was black and white checkered.
Black and white checkered, and who else, what about you, Liz, what what was the color of the blanket in your mind?
It was brown and like really soft and kind of fleecey but more like a duvet.
Right okay, and so the point is obviously none of you are right, none of that is the actual color of the blanket. But because you created that blanket in your mind. Because you created the colors, you put the checks on it, you made it navy blue, you made it so fleecy. Fleecy, I look like a fleecy guy? (audience laughing) Because of that, because you did that work, it is the more indelible image now. I'm sorry to say, I again apologize. I could have asked what was I wearing in your mental image, but I did not. Because of that you now have that image in your mind it will stick with you much longer than if you had actually seen the actual image of me sitting under the blanket. So that is one part of the power of audio that I'm going to be talking about. Of almost two decades of tricks and tips and material that I've learned about how to tell a powerful story through audio. In the many ways it's the the distillation of this course that I taught at Columbia University, a graduate level audio journalism course that I taught there for many years. So if you are in the field of audio journalism, if you work in public radio, if you tell stories on the radio, if you run, if you do podcasts of that kind, this course is definitely for you. But it's also for people who are any kind of podcasters, if you're a podcaster and you conduct a lot of interviews, I'm going to be talking a lot about tips for conducting successful interviews, how to make your interviews really stand out be live, so that I can work for you. If you simply need to communicate effectively as part of your job, if you what you're trying to do is engage people through the power of telling stories, this course will will be very helpful for you. Or if you just have a story to tell about something that's going on in your life, about your business or about something that you're involved in, that you're trying to get off the ground, story telling can really help you create an impact and connect with people to to make that interesting. So that's so that's what I'm going to be talking about. And the tricks that I will be teaching. The nuts and bolts of what a good story actually is. Sort of like the math and physics what a good story is. I have a formula that I'm gonna be talking about. And I'm gonna be talking about what it actually looks like, breaking it down. The art of the interview, everything from really basic mechanics, like where you sit, how do you make people feel comfortable, to what are you actually going for when you're conducting an interview? What makes a good interview? What are the things that you're trying to get out of it? We're gonna talk about how to write scripts for the ear, writing for the page and writing for the ear are very different things. And we're gonna talk a little bit about how to make that work. And then towards the and I'll talk about how to get fancy, I'll talk about music, if you wanna use music, little bit about ambiance and just some of that sort more high level stuff. And we're also gonna have a sort of a surprise flourish at the very end that I'm not entirely sure if we can pull off but I'm hoping that we can. So you're going to be all helping me create this big surprise cake by the end. So I'm gonna play another, just gonna start us off and play a couple of examples of audio that is really, really powerful and that demonstrates what we're talking about. So this is the first clip I'm gonna play.
We're going to start this segment off with Carrie in Kankakee, Illinois WKAN 1320, Hi Carrie, how are you?
Hi, how are you?
Good, how can I help?
So this is Dave Ramsey you guys probably familiar with him. He's a podcaster, he's a host of a very popular show about money He's one part of interviewer, one part financial guru, one part sort of lake support group. You know a lot of people call him and ask all sorts of questions about money how do we get out of debt, and he sort of helps This is a story that he told, this is a moment in audio that happened on his show a long time ago, that we put on This American Life a while ago. On This American Life we did a story about Dave Ramsey. We talked about this was early on in the phenomenon and we talked about like what he was doing and like the impact it was having on his listeners. And we're playing clips from his show, and so this is one of those clips. The woman had called he was giving financial advice a woman called talking about, and she wanted his advice. She had two sons that were living with her, she was working at a factory, she was making abut $300/week and she was living with a boyfriend. She waned to know, and she had some questions for Dave.
The thing us, he's like very controlling we share expenses, I have to give up half of my paycheck to pay for the bills, to help pay for the bills. When I'm done doing that, then I have hardly any money left to do for my kids, or for myself or to try and put money back. Okay, he says that I can't leave because I would never be able to make it on my own. I will admit I'm not very good at handling money. I don't know how.
Let me let me ask you something. If you were sitting down with a cup of coffee, how old are you>
If you were to sit down over a cup of coffee with a 27 year, single, young lady, that was living with a guy and she tod you what you just told me what would you tell her?
To get out you can make it on your own.
Mm-hmm, good advice.
Okay, but where did, how do I start on my income?
I mean, well I'm not positive, you don't make a lot of money, I agree with that. But, let me tell you what, you're in a really unhealthy relationship. You're dealing with a guy who, he's not hitting you is he?
I'm not sure I believe you.
Yeah, it's fine.
It's okay, I just, I mean to.
You gotta get out of there girl. You gotta get out of there now, Okay.
He knows that it's me.
No, it's not you darlin, this guy's sick, you gotta get away from him.
Okay, you think you can survive? Well I can tell you this, if nothing else, you can start by going to a domestic violence shelter right now and checking in with your kids and they will help you and you know, you may have to take a part time job, you may have to move into subsidized housing of some kind, I don't know exactly what the short-term, the next six months is gonna look like but Carrie, I can tell you this, Carrie you were not designed by God for this man.
So, one of the powerful things abut audio one of the things to has the most power to convey and that's why I love that clip. There's something very tangible and real that is happening right there. I listened to it like five or six times, I can't help but cry a lot of time, I managed to keep it together this time. I feel like that there might be a couple people out there tearing up. But it's just that moment, where you realize like Dave Ramsey realizes what's going on. The woman on the tape, you know, it's it becomes clear what's happening and he is sort of changes this tune a little bit and sort of focuses on what's going on with in her life and it's all because you can hear it. You can hear the honesty of what's going on. So I wanted to ask you though, what what did that make you feel, like talk let's talk about that clip for a second. I know why I find it powerful, but I want to know why you guys find a powerful. Talk about the emotions as you're listening to the caller, who wants to go, yeah. In the back, Richard.
I mean you can really hear in her voice when he asked the question is he hitting you, And then you can hear it in her voice that she saying no, but you can hear that she's actually saying yes. So then he ask again and you can even hear it stronger so he knows the answer is not no, it's yes.
And that to me is the key, key thing about audio. there was a study done a while ago, where they were asking, they did this study about which form of media is it easier to lie through? So they had a fake story, and they put a fake in a newspaper, they put a fake story on TV, and they they put a fake story on radio. It's the same fake story and then they gave it to a bunch of different people to look at. And then they asked people to tell whether it was true or not. The easiest the most people who were fooled, ere the ones who were watching the television story. So it's easiest to lie through TV. And they the people that were reading the story were a little bit more able to discern the lie. The people who were listening to it on audio, they had the easiest time determining whether it was true or not. Audio is the most honest medium. You can hear honesty in a way that you can't really read it for you can't really see it. I think that is what is going on in this clip. That's why it's so powerful, you can hear a person being sort of dishonest with themselves and then you can hear them making that realization. And even though she hardly saying anything, you just hear it. Ray did you wanna have a ?
I was struck by how, it's a financial show, and it becomes something entirely different.
Exactly what I mean and that's another thing that's so great about audio, is what you're going for is authentic emotion a lot of the time. And even though you're talking and that comes through, I mean that's been my stock in trade sort of, you know for a long time at Planet Money is we were ostensibly a financial show as well. We're talking about now numbers and were talking about the economic concepts. But what we're really trying to do was talk about the emotions and the feelings and the drama that is sort of behind those numbers as well. And interesting stories that are behind there. So that's absolutely true. Anybody else have a reaction to what the feelings were about the caller. Yeah, Willow,
I thought one of the things that was really powerful there was the pause. Like when he asks is he hitting you, she says no, he says are you sure, and then there's this really long pause and that's when you know the answers not what she's saying.
Yeah absolutely, that's something I think also that I'm gonna be talking about that a lot. You know sort of like the power of shutting up. And Dave Ramsey was great there like. The impulse, the human impulse when you're doing an interview or when you're talking to somebody or anything is to fill the silence. And filling the silence is often a form of inauthenticity. Because you're filling it with small talk, you're filling it with chit chat and so to have the bravery to just sit there and say I'm not sure I believe you and then shut up and listen to see what happens. Any questions from the chat room.
We have people chiming in the chat room sharing their views on this. Now Kristi says, the brilliance was in Dave's listening. He was completely present and he shifted gears on a dime giving her space. Paul says I'm not gonna lie, I teared up. That was really moving.
Yeah and that was the second thing, when she talks about Dave Ramsey. How did you feel about the host in that interview? Yeah, Amanda.
What I found most surprising about my own reaction was that I don't believe in God and yet, when he said you are not designed by God to be with this man that was so moving to me, right. Yeah, the fact that somebody could say something I don't even really, that has no association for me, and yet it really got me.
I think what you were responding to is the same thing that I was responding to which is like, it might not be something that resonates with you but you got the sense that that was exactly what she needed to hear. And that's what's so moving about it. There's somebody who's connected in this way with that person. And so that's the other part of the power of audio is that you are forming such an authentic, and if you're if you're being honest and if you are getting true, honest, authenticity, you're forming a really. really powerful connection. Through that authenticity. She's revealing something about her, he is opening up. She's revealing something about herself, he is opening up and allowing himself to be kind and feel something back towards her and you can hear it happening. Yeah, Jeff.
I think because I couldn't see either of them my feelings about them are based solely on what they're saying and how they're saying it. And I think that that's really important is that you don't get caught up in some preconceived ideas of who someone is because how they look.
Absolutely, and I think that's another huge thing. At This American Life we did a couple years ago, like five years ago, we did a This American Life TV show. We and so we thought OK, that's fine, we're whatever master storytellers. Were gonna come in and you know just dominate this medium and we got our asses handed to us. We don't we didn't know really very much about how to do television and one of the big issues that we faced was we we had sort of taken for granted the fact that when you're just hearing the voice you as a listener automatically put yourselves in the footsteps of the person who's talking. Whereas with TV I realize this is why people are really good looking on TV. Is that everybody wants to become the good looking person. Like we all want to be, oh yeah, I'm the good looking person on TV. That's why everybody's really looking and important to be because that's the only way you can sort of generate sympathy for a character. And what you're what you're really doing is you're judging. We're like judgy creatures and we judge visually. And so, when you went on TV, you sort of like draw all sorts of assumptions about people just based on how they look. Then those are all, again, you're doing the same thing that you did with me in my in my bedroom, you are creating the person who you want to hear in your mind. So you're creating a version of somebody that I'm betting looks a lot like you. Because that's what we do. But that allows you to have much more sympathy to the person because you're just hearing them. So that's another thing. It's weird, you know I talk about this a lot. Irony doesn't really work that well on the radio. I'm talking about the classic irony. Where you as a listener don't know something about the character that they don't know about themselves. And that is something, so like on reality TV, we watch the Kardashians and they think they're being whatever, smart and we think they're being idiots and that's what we love about that show, right, there's this hate watching sort of you know thing and that's why people watch reality television. That does not work in audio. You don't want to judge somebody that you're listening to when you're listening, and you don't want them to not know. So that's another thing where in authenticity doesn't work. If somebody is lying to themselves, and you hear it, it's not a pleasant feeling unless it resolves. And that's another thing that's happening in that clip. That woman is lying to herself, and you feel it and then it resolves and she acknowledges the truth about her situation and that's what makes it's so powerful. So one of audios great powers is harnessing honest emotion. Once you allow that emotion to come forward, or once you acknowledge that emotion, it binds you closer to the people that you're listening to. I want to play another clip, that also gets at the power of raw, honest emotion in audio. And this is a story that aired on NPR awhile ago and it's a short clip and it was a simple report on the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee. And it was one of things that they used to do all the time, they just had a little, like a host would come on and say now to the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee, we join the action late in the last round. There's only two challengers left and one challenger, this kid had flubbed his word and so it had gone to the one remaining contestant Rebecca Sealfon, a 13 year old girl.
[Woman via recording] Since Rebecca is the only contestant remaining at the end of round she will now be given the next word on the pronouncers list and if she succeeds in correctly spelling this word she will be declared the champion
Euonym is eu meaning good?
Is with onym meaning name?
Euonym E U O N Y M Euonym.
That's correct. (audience applauding)
Rebecca Sealfon won the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee yesterday along with $5,000 to go toward college tuition, she took home a laptop computer, books, and other prizes. This is NPR's morning edition.
I thought I cut that clip out. So Let's talk about that. (audience laughing) How did that make you feel? Tell me your thoughts about hearing that. Well, first of all let me just say, everybody wants to hear how that ends, nobody really cares about how euonym is spelled. So, you're not listening to the end of that tape because you want to learn how euonym is spelled. Yeah Sean, go ahead.
It kinda made me, when she was getting super excited, I was kinda scared like something as wrong. I was like what's going on. The I figured it out, she just knows it.
So that was pretty powerful.
It's almost like the drama like there was actual victorious emotion. Like Michael Jordan clutching the trophy. Except it a spelling bee and a 13 year old. Yeah, what else?
There was definitely a little bit of crazy in her right?
Yeah, I mean I guess that sort of contradicts a little bit my irony comment. Because you do get the sense that maybe she's not entirely aware of how she's coming across, that's true. But also it just is very honest emotion. There's no holding back. She's not being at all like holding it back. What about you?
I was nervous the whole time, from the moment he passes it off to her because he was in shock. But the moment she starts screaming, like she's gonna screw it up, even though she clearly knows it. It's all gonna go bad, so I'm waiting for that moment.
You're waiting fir that moment, yeah Ryan.
There's so rarely in our adult lives times where we get to feel that level of unbridled passion and excitement. It comes through so clearly in that clip, where you just you feel everything that she's feeling and you're remembering times in your own life when you felt that way.
Rght, right. And it's possible yeah Espirit.
I actually, it made me want to know what her backstory is because I felt like this money is probably going towards college and maybe she's the first person to be able to go to college like, it led me to want to know more about her.
Well that's interesting because you're creating, again, you're creating a whole story in your mind now around her based on her saying five letters. but the way she saying those five letters has led you to create it's in entire image in your mind about her, because so much emotion is being conveyed. I hear so many different emotions. I hear like victory, I hear like years of hard work finally paying off, I hear somebody who is not entirely socialized, necessarily, but a bunch of different things that are going on in that in that clip that you hear, but it's all very raw and very honest. Yeah Jeff.
I know this isn't a technical class, but as someone that works with audio lot too I thought that the audio starts to clip, it's so loud it catches everyone off guard. Actually thought that that kind of helped build the scene in my head. Yeah whoever was trying to mix the audio couldn't even keep up with it.
The emotion was that powerful.
Some here who are sharing too. Rachel D says it conveyed how much she had invested in this moment in winning. You can almost picture all of the work that came before that moment. And Bethany says I'm choked up and I'm flashing back to my failure on the word pneumatic in the regional spelling bee in elementary school. So people can relate to this.
Pneumatic, wait what number are you on? What? Can you spell it now. (audience laughing)
She got it right in the chat. (audience speaker drown out background noise) So a little backstory about that particular clip. When I was teaching my class at Columbia, this, I have a theory about that clip, which I'm gonna tell you right now is probably entirely wrong. But I find it such an entertaining there that I'm gonna share with you anyway. So my theory about that clip when I was teaching this course at Columbia and I wanted to get a good examples of sort of like a powerful, emotional, moments on tape. And I had been, I'd heard this story on the radio in my car when I was driving, and I remembered it as like this very very powerful moment, so I was like I'm gonna go get that clip and play it for my class. So I went on to the web said, the NPR website, and I started going back, looking for the clips and playing them. There's all the spelling bee stories and I would play them, and it felt like I had just heard it. Like last year or the year before. So, I was going back and I played the one from last year, and played the one from the year before and I kept going back and back. I kept my back, back, back. Finally, I got it and it was like a clip from 1997, that was a story from 1997. That I'd heard, and then I realized as I was looking back it was the first story that NPR had ever done on the spelling bee. But then there's a bunch of stories after that. I went back and I realized that in 1997, and then there's another story appears in and then another story in 1999, another spelling bee story. So I got the idea that the producers had been like, oh we gotta get back to the spelling bee, 'cause that was drama, right there. So, the next year the morning Edition people are like, okay we gotta go back to the spelling bee this year. And then other people, this is a theory, can't prove it, spelling bee momentum started to happen right. So 2002, the spellbound documentary comes out. Wins a whole bunch of awards, won an Emmy, sweeps the nation. 2005 the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens on Broadway, wins two Tony awards, is still touring to this day you can see it in a town coming near you. Spelling Bees are on ESPN, spelling bees are on our broadcast like nationally on national television and I believe you can trace it back to that moment in 1997 when Rebecca Sealfon won The 1997 Scripps Howard Spelling Bee. So that, my friends, is the power of audio. (audience laughing) Again that don't, that's probably not true. But it's a wonderful theory don't you think.