Narration if necessary, but not necessarily narration

A reminder that podcasters are creators of audio experiences

. 5 min read


There are a few changes in my life brought about by the pandemic that I want to hold on to: enjoying a slower pace of life; continuing to learn the Portuguese guitar, and never taking a chat with friends for granted. But there are some changes in my professional life that I want to push against and overcome. And the biggest one is losing a focus on sound and moving solely towards the written word.

We work in sound, not print, and I think audio has the greatest potential for emotional engagement of any medium. And that’s because of the participation of the listener. If we do it right, with the right combination of wild sound, effects, music, and words, scenes come to life in the listener’s mind that they help to construct as they picture them. That interaction is where deep engagement can happen. But the limitations of the pandemic, which has kept many of us in our homes and not able to go into the field, means that it is almost a necessity to rely on writing and scripting. Which is a shame. Because, I’ll say it again: we are not magazine publishers or novelists, we are sound creators. Narration can play a valuable role in our work, but we can’t forget there are other ways to tell stories.

Here’s an example of when I took my eyes off the ball during the pandemic. I was working on an episode of Teamistry from Atlassian all about IBM’s early attempts to get itself on the internet via the 1994 Olympics. I tried to make one of the climactic scenes, in which the IBM team is watching the men’s 200-metre final, as immersive as possible. I described in detail, via a script, the buildup to and running of the race. But I was too detailed. Our sound designer created a remarkable recreation of what it could have sounded like in the stadium, based on the script, including the starter’s pistol ringing out. But foolishly I also had the host say “the starter’s pistol rang out.” Why have both? There’s no need, the sound did the job. The script was unnecessary at best, distracting at worst:

Clip, “When IBM Nearly Missed the Internet”

I blame the pandemic for losing my focus, for forgetting that I am a sound creator. But in trying to refocus, I think there’s an opportunity to not only remind ourselves of the impact of sound but create even better sound-rich work.

I blame the pandemic for losing my focus, for forgetting that I am a sound creator.

I’ve been thinking about sound projects as falling into one of three categories: script-driven, sound-driven, or sound-only.

Script-driven seems the most common nowadays in the podcasting doc world. This is where the story is predominantly told through narration, with clips, sound effects and music used to help illustrate the points being made.

Sound-driven is sort of the opposite, where sound (clips, music, etc) tells the bulk of the story and narration helps tie scenes together or explain something not told clearly through sound.

And then sound-only has no narration or script; the story is told only through sound.

Here’s an example of script-first storytelling I’m particularly proud of from the first season of Teamisty. Script-first made sense here because we were talking about a historical event for which there was no captured sound (except a tiny bit which I managed to use off the top). Regardless of that limitation, we did our best to try to create scenes and immersive experiences for the listener, so that hopefully they were transported to the Antarctic a century ago:

Season 1: Episode 5, “The Brilliant Success of Shakleton’s Failure”

Despite Covid restrictions, an opportunity did come up last year to do a sound-first episode of Teamistry. We had chased a story about a group working to bring equitable internet access to Detroit. The approach to the story could have been the standard script-first: interview each key character separately and then stitch together the story with the script. But thankfully, we were able to hire a freelancer in Detroit to follow the group along one day for an installation. While there is still a fair bit of script-and-clip, the backbone of the listening experience is actually being in the space with the team while they work, and letting sound tell the story:

Episode 3: Season 4, “On a Mission for Equitable Internet in Detroit”

I have yet, at Pacific Content or elsewhere, to produce a sound-only audio piece. Partially because it is a daunting task, one that requires a lot more trust in the listener and a lot more work from us producers. But mostly because I haven’t come across a story that could be told that way. Still, I hope one day soon I’ll be able to give it a try.

Now, it may sound like this is all a value judgment, that we should rank approaches, in terms of quality and engagement, as #1 sound-only, #2 sound-first, #3 script-first. But that’s not the point. The story dictates which treatment is possible and works best. The point I’m making is that we too often default to script-first when sound-first may have been a more engaging, if more difficult, option. And that even within a script-first approach, we limit sound to only the occasional illustrative capacity.

The story dictates which treatment is possible and works best.

However, I don’t like to simply rant without also providing solutions. So I do have a couple of tactics for trying to get sound and scenes into your work, even with the limitations of Covid. For one, if you are interviewing someone over Zoom, ask them to bring physical items to the interview. It could be photographs or sentimental objects, anything connected to the story they are telling. And then get them to talk about those objects. There’s a good chance that you can go from information transfer (the typical effect of a Zoom interview) to scene building and story sharing.

I have one great example which, sadly, never made it into a Teamistry episode. While producer Rehmatullah Sheikh was interviewing Hot Wheels fanatic, Bruce Pascal, Rehmatullah was clever enough to ask if Bruce had any tracks and cars at hand to demonstrate. This led to a great little off-mic scene that really expressed Bruce’s passion for Hot Wheels and let the listener enter the room with him (instead of just hearing his voice coming from out of the void):

Another tactic—and I would make this regular practice—after the interview is recorded and transcribed, avoid the transcript. For much of the pandemic, because it was fast and easy, I built my narration scripts directly from written transcripts of interviews. But, once again, we are not writers. As you probably know, great audio doesn’t always transcribe well, whereas great-looking transcriptions don’t always sound right. So even though it takes more time, I listen to every minute of every interview, even if I conducted the interview myself. By doing this, I have found all kinds of sound nuggets that I would previously have skipped or ignored as just stumbles or clumsy speech.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. That’s why we need to constantly reevaluate and improve what we do. In all aspects of our lives.

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