Mia Ryder-Marks is a journalism graduate at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. She writes on community engagement and social justice issues.
Whether it is standing in chaos during the 1940’s London air raids, or in a cramped diner in Manhattan, you do not need to buy a plane ticket or invent a time machine to experience either – just pop in your headphones and tap play.
From short-form narratives to extended monologues, audio stories are enticing the ears of millions around the globe. Anyone can tell an immersive and powerful audio story, all it takes is a perfect recipe.
Ingredient 1: Write for the ear
The script is the base of an audio story. Similar to flour for a cake, without a solid narrative, the piece will crumble.
It is important to keep in mind that you cannot write for the ear like you would write for the eye.
The narrative needs to be clear throughout the piece because listeners do not have the ease in going back to a certain part like they would with a written story. So select carefully the words you choose. Audio has an open-door policy and welcomes anyone who wants to listen, so make sure you use language that everyone can understand. This is not the time to show off your exquisite vocabulary, use everyday words.
Keep it concise. "In audio, good sentences are short. They are punchy. And they usually convey a single thought,” recommends the Poynter ‘Writing for the Ear' course.
If you do go a bit overboard, keep what is needed and cut the rest. University of Oregon professor Damian Radcliffe says: "One of the biggest things people don't realise is how much (audio) goes on the cutting room floor."
So, keep your sentences, ideas and narratives bite-size!
Ingredient 2: Verbal visuals
Just because your piece is concise, it does not mean it cannot have flavour.
Painting a picture for listeners through imagery and descriptions is critical. Imagine you are explaining something to people who have never experienced it; what do you see, smell, hear, feel, or maybe taste. These are all crucial elements that will enhance the overall experience.
Ingredient 3: The hook
Just like the aroma from a freshly baked pie, how are you going to draw people in?
People often listen to audio while doing something else – like sitting in their car during rush-hour traffic or cooking a meal. A hook is a perfect way to catch a listener's attention, no matter how many things they are doing.
The podcast S-Town is an excellent example of using a powerful hook. The opening hook in their investigative episodes reaches through your earbuds and grabs you.
Ingredient 4: Incorporate other voices
Although not always needed, including the voices of those related to your story can be a plus.
Shaza Walid's audio piece ‘Whatever Happened to Hope: Egyptian Youth Post Revolution’,
weaved personal stories from youth's perspective, 25 years after the Egyptian revolution. Adding other voices made the story raw and relatable.
Interviewees can add thick layers of authenticity, as well as connection. BBC journalist Will Grant says: "These are rich tales of ordinary people's lives that resonate with people on the other side of the globe, that make us stop and listen."
Ingredient 5: Incorporate sounds
Although your words may tell the story, natural and ambience sounds are the final touch to an audio experience, like sprinkles or garnish. They can be the chef's kiss to a captivating tale.
Ida Hardin, an audio journalist, said that the best way to capture the true essence of a story is to "be present in the environment. Think of all the textures and layers you want behind the story and things you need to capture to make the story."
Grant took a ride through Cuba, and whether it was a car door slamming shut, or ambience sounds from a farm, the selected noises make the listener feel like they are riding shotgun beside him.
While editing your audio story, think about which sounds and clips you can weave through your narrative to allow listeners to be immersed.
"[Audio storytelling] is unpredictable, it changes your perceptions of things," Hardin told the University of Oregon's Top Audio Storytelling class.
Ingredient 6: Practice makes perfect
How you deliver a script is the end-all of an audio piece because it should not sound like a script or difficult to understand. Your voice will carry the narrative and to avoid sounding like a teacher from Charlie Brown, wet your pallet and loosen those vocal cords.
Also, practice your landing and how you will deliver your narrative. What may seem like a simple pause, could leave listeners at the end of their seats, hanging at your every last word.
Do not be afraid to do your homework – listen to how your favourite broadcasters or podcast hosts deliver their narrative, analyse their techniques, and model their style to fit within your preferences.
No two recipes are the same, just like an audio story. The best part of cooking up an audio piece is taking the ingredients that amplify your project and making it work for you.
Do you want to further develop your podcasting skills? Join our 'Introduction to podcasting' course led by former BBC producer Jack Soper.
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