Delivering a stellar audio performance is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Without proper preparation and training, mistakes are easy to make and there’s a high risk you’ll end up with a recording that’s garbled, unclear, boring, or all of the above. For one thing, there’s the pressure of knowing you’re being recorded. For another, recording audio — be it a podcast, radio segment, or voiceover — is not like having a normal face-to-face conversation. The setting is different, the flow and pacing are different, and often you’re reading off a script but trying to come across as conversational. As with any kind of performance, you’re unlikely to do a great job if you’re diving into it cold without a plan.
Fortunately, this is one area where show direction and coaching can really help. Even if hiring a director is out of the question, making some effort to support and guide your host can hugely improve their delivery and go a long way in making your podcast sound more engaging.
Andy Sheppard is a showrunner and sound designer at Pacific Content. He’s hosted and directed a lot of shows over the years, so I tracked him down and asked him to give me a break-down of why directing is so important and share a few tips. His answers have been edited for clarity.
SR: What’s the role of a podcast director? Why are they so important?
AS: Well, it comes out of radio. A lot of podcasters who are doing stuff on their own won’t have directors, and a lot of radio hosts self-direct, but the advantage of having a director with you, someone in the room, is to sort of stand-in for your audience. And if you’re talking to a wall, the wall doesn’t react and you don’t really have a sense of if what you’ve said has landed. If you need to elaborate, if you need to change the way you’re performing, having a director or even just someone else in the room is really useful. When you’re speaking and someone else is listening, there’s still interaction between the speaker and the listener, so it really helps with pacing and if you’re trying to have a conversational tone and perform more naturally and authentically.
SR: You say directing is part psychology, part theater, and all collaboration. Can you elaborate?
AS: So, you know, reading a script is a performance, improvising a chat within an interview is a performance. And if the performance is not engaging, then the listener, the podcast listener is not going to stick with it. So how do you keep it engaging? Well, part of the psychology of it is to be a cheerleader for the performer to make them feel good, to make them feel comfortable, to make them feel at ease because sitting in a studio, talking into a microphone is kind of an unnatural thing. And it causes some people to get nervous — some people will sort of close down a little bit. They become less dynamic. Some people, when they get nervous, they get frenetic and they lose track and they sort of go all over the place. So part of it is managing the emotional state of the host, I think.
And the cheerleading is, you know, you want to support the host’s ego. There are a lot of the things that I talk about are dependent on how much experience a host has had. So some people who are totally green will feel really uncomfortable in front of a microphone and they’ll feel really self conscious. And so the role of the director in that situation is to really support them and make them feel good, improve their confidence. So that’s the kind of psychology aspect of it. You still have to deliver critical information, right? Like you still have to say, well, what you just said, I didn’t quite understand it. It was a little too fast, a little too monotonous, a little too dry. Let’s try it this way. So you’re, you’re providing constructive feedback, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine a person’s confidence. In all of this, there’s no there’s no replacement for actual experience. Like a lot of people, they just get better by doing it. What a director can do is help them to get better, faster. So, you know, you can skip a lot of the learning by providing feedback and information that’ll help them improve.
SR: How is directing a podcast host different from directing a radio host?
AS: It depends on the show. The radio aesthetic also tends to be different than podcasting. Generally speaking, it tends to be less formal, and it can be less formatted because time is not the same sort of consideration in a podcast as it is in a radio program — especially a live radio program, right? Then again, in the Venn diagram, I think there’s more overlap than there is difference. I think, you know, a news radio show is going to be different than a personal interest show or two guys sitting in a basement doing a podcast. But I think there’s a lot of places where documentary radio is very similar to documentary and podcasts. So I think there’s a lot of overlap.
SR: How do you make sure your host sounds natural and not as if they’re reading from a page?
AS: Yeah, it’s super hard to fake authenticity. Like, if you want to see it fail, write a bunch of questions and have people ask questions as part of the script, and most people who are not experienced hosts, they try and pose a question and it sounds fake. And that’s because usually a question is generated in your mind, not off of a page. And as soon as you start reading something, if you’re not an experienced host, reading off a page is difficult to make it sound conversational. Some of the techniques we use for that are to block the scripts or to separate out sections of the script. So that you’re reading it in thoughts rather than in paragraphs. So writing is a big part of it.
Writing a script to be spoken is very different than writing a piece of prose to be read. It’s a very different approach. The other thing is just making points. So instead of writing a full script, you’re just, you know, “I need to touch on this point,” “I need to touch on this point,” and “I need to touch on this point,” and that forces your brain to generate the information in the way that you speak so it sounds more natural. So that’s what a lot of — I’m sure that’s what Radiolab does or Invisibilia, for example. the conceit is that they’re having an off the cuff conversation. And really what they’re doing is they’re following a series of steps, but filling in all the words to hit those points.
SR: How do you normally prepare for a session and are there exercises or warmups that you like to go through with your host?
AS: There are all sorts of techniques that can help put a host at ease or an interviewee at ease. But oftentimes, especially when I’m working with hosts who haven’t had a lot of experience, I’ll go through similar exercises to what actors and drama students would be familiar with, which are breathing exercises to exercise your diaphragm or your lips or your cheeks. So that sort of thing. And it works really well if you come into a session and you’ve, like, just gotten out of the car, out of traffic, and you’re stressed and you sit down at a microphone. You’re not going to perform at your best. So it’s important to get relaxed and get grounded. A huge thing that I think is really valuable and I’m doing it here is actually moving your hands. That’s how people speak: with their hands. And that translates. It’s actually coded in your voice a little bit. And you can hear your gestures resonate in your voice.
And the set-up, where people sit, whether they sit at a desk or they’re standing where their microphone is positioned, where the script is positioned — all of these things can contribute to a host being uncomfortable. So there are ways to set it up so that you have freedom of movement and you can be expressive and authentic and natural.
SR: What about chemistry between the host and the director — is that something that’s pretty important?
AS: Yeah, again, I say it’s a luxury to have a proper director, but it’s very, very difficult. I’ve been in the situation of having a director that I didn’t feel comfortable with or didn’t trust. I think trust is the huge part — that you trust that your director is there to support you and not undermine you and that your director is not going to let you fall on your face. It’s a bit of security to have that kind of relationship with someone you trust. It enables you to take bigger risks, right? You feel more comfortable attempting things that you might not attempt if you were just on your own.
SR: Is directing more difficult now because of social distancing requirements?
AS: It is harder to direct over video but it’s not impossible. I find even just being able to see the other person is valuable, to see how they’re reacting, whether they’re understanding what you’re saying or not. That feedback is really useful. And it really does affect the pace at which a person speaks and how they organize their thoughts. So I’ve been directing a host during COVID over video. And what we did at the very beginning of the series, which started before the pandemic, is I traveled to Philadelphia and worked with her. Like we had a four-hour session and I ran through exercises and techniques. And a big thing is getting hosts comfortable being on the microphone. A thing that happens that’s very common for podcasters is people get in front of a microphone and all of a sudden they hear their own voice fed back into their ears and they start to get quiet and that tends to reduce the dynamism in their voice. Soit’s useful to have that kind of in-person interaction, at least at first. Then once you’ve established a rapport and you have a sense of what the host’s strengths and weaknesses may be, it’s easier to direct remotely.
SR: What are some red flags to be mindful of if you’re directing or coaching a host?
AS: I mean, it depends again on what type of podcast it is. If it’s a scripted podcast, if a host is having a hard time delivering a portion of script, if they keep stumbling over one sentence or a couple of words, oftentimes, you know, a director might get frustrated. Like, “why can’t you do this?” But oftentimes the problem is with the script itself. It may look fine on the page, but as soon as you go to speak it it’s like, “uh, this doesn’t track for some reason.” You know, you might write a subordinate clause. If you’re writing for the page, you might say… “born in 1787, so and so did this.” But no one speaks like that. So that tweaks your ear a little bit. Other times, you get word echo. Like if you repeat a word too many times, it feels weird. Most times people speak in fairly short sentences. So if you have a run on sentence, those get very difficult to perform. One of the most useful things I ever learned — and I mentioned this before — was blocking text into shorter bits. And that’s because your eye tracks much faster than your mouth does. So what happens is your eye is reading like five words ahead, and that’s where you start to trip up because you’re sort of speaking one part and reading another part and it overwhelms your brain a little bit. So if you break it down into these smaller chunks, it’s much easier to perform and it helps the pacing too.
SR: Any advice for those new to directing?
AS: A big part of the director’s job is to react, and sometimes you have to overreact. Especially over video, nodding and demonstrating that you understand what the host is saying or smiling at something that is funny or just being that sounding board can be helpful. You kind of have to overdo it a little bit. So when I used to work in radio, there was usually a control room and then the actual studio. So the director would sometimes be 10 feet away from the host. So we would really be overdoing it in our reactions. That’s less important if you’re sitting right across from each other, but I think it’s important as a director to keep your head up and keep engaged. Even if it’s something you know already, to act surprised by things that are surprising and to really take on that role of the audience.
- Not every show needs a director, but all hosts, even experienced ones, can benefit from direction
- Nailing a read is hard. The job of a director (or whoever is wearing that hat if your team doesn’t have one) is to encourage and support the host, act as their sounding board, and stand-in for their audience.
- There’s no substitute for practice and preparation, but feedback is crucial and solitary practice only gets you so far. Podcasting is a performance!
- Give your host room to move and be expressive with their arms and hands.
- Watch the audio level in your host’s headphones — too loud and their voice may lose energy, too quiet and they may miss problems.
- Block the script into easy to digest, short paragraphs, and add space between thoughts to help with pacing.
- If you’re hosting without a director, try talking to a photo on the wall, or your cat. Either way, pretend you’re speaking to someone about 6 feet away.