I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how narrative techniques are used within journalism to engage users and then keep them reading/listening/watching/clicking. By way of illustrating this, specifically with relation to audio, I wanted to blog in some detail about how narrative is used in a very good example I came across last month: a Freakonomics podcast.
Before you read any further, listen to that Freakonomics podcast and pretty much any Guardian Media Talk podcast…
… OK, done?
Right. These are great case studies for how podcasting uses three core principles of narrative:
- Setting, and
The two also illustrate different editorial demands: the Freakonomics podcast is a good example of exploring one issue in depth; while the Guardian podcast is about breadth: reacting to a number of current events and reporting across them.
I’m going to focus on the Freakonomics podcast because it uses the same basic techniques which are employed by Media Talk, but also some others beside. It’s also technically pretty straightforward.
That’s good because their approach also makes for good journalism, moving beyond the superficial to a deeper exploration and understanding – which is key when we talk about narrative.
Here’s how the Freakonomics podcast uses character, setting and movement particularly well to attract the listener and keep them listening:
The hook: a great introductory story
After an initial introduction by the presenters that gives us a feel for the show and their personalities (the first ‘setting’ and ‘characters’, if you like) we start with a story. It’s a story of people dying unnecessarily. It’s a good story – and it has characters, settings, and movement: a problem, a journey, and a resolution.
Why start with this story? Because it grabs the listener from the start, and it provides an immediate reward.
But it also sets up a tension, at around 5.40: why are we being told the story? What does it mean?
This is the first hook of the podcast.
Movement and relevance: bringing things up to date
We then change setting, moving to a recent story about modern medical hygiene.
The characters in this story are weaker (that’s probably why we started with the stronger story). But it has something the first doesn’t: a problem that affects us directly.
This is the central tension of the whole podcast – our second hook (at around 7’20, when the show theme and introduction is finally played). And we will have to wait until the end of the podcast for its resolution.
From the end of the beginning we move into the beginning of the middle. That central tension hanging in the air gives us a reason to listen to the end, but we also need continual movement within the middle period to keep us interested.
And so we move to a new story: the subplot, if you like (in this case, about financial literacy), which will, eventually come together with the initial story.
We hold on to find out how this tension between the two stories will be resolved.
Style and structure
Having looked at the over-arching structure of the podcast, I want to look more closely at how style is used to add extra interest to that.
Because there is a lot more to note about the telling of these stories.
A useful technique when looking at media production is to think about the choices that have been made by its producers. For example, you could tell these stories in any number of ways – handing over the narrative to an expert; narrating it yourself; reconstructing events dramatically.
But the producers make a choice in the first story which is worth analysing: they switch relatively frequently between interviews and narration.
The effect of this is to reinforce the listener’s sensation of movement: the narrative moves along quickly, and the contrast between voices creates a tension that helps maintain our interest.
Once the first interviewee’s story is established, we move to a second. Again, this adds to the sensation of movement, with a new character, and a change of setting.
Note that the speaker is introduced after they speak, introducing a brief period of tension as the listener wonders who this new voice is.
Also: under the sound of speakers, we sometimes hear music or other sounds. This helps establish the setting of the story they’re recounting. Something as simple as classical music (out of copyright, which is handy) can establish a period or a place. Generic comedic sounds can turn tragedy into comedy.
As the story moves into its middle phase, interviews become less narrated. At 9’20 we have a telephone interview. And instead of ‘cutting’ through narration, the style is more conversational, and the interviewee has more space to talk.
Interviewees are sometimes arranged in sequence so that their views are at odds. We have conflict. Put another way: having established the problem in the beginning, we are now introducing characters onto the stage to fight that problem out.
This helps solve one of the hardest problems in storytelling: the fat middle; how to get from the beginning to the end without losing interest.
In the Freakonomics example interest is also maintained in a number of ways other than conflict. One is the way the podcast introduces mini stories within the larger story (how the research was done; how a character discovered flawed claims – complete with ‘detective’ soundtrack); and a third is a mini-quiz (with a comedic/’countdown’/’game’ soundtrack to make it less dry).
The peak of the conflict comes with a hosted debate between two characters who hold different positions on the problem (flagged up as a “puzzle” in the lead-up, which again uses ‘debate’ music to establish the setting).
It’s worth listening to how the host prompts the debate and summarises positions, and when the characters get to speak directly to each other.
Even within the debate there is structure: we start with consensus before moving onto disrupting that, and a final consensus.
To host a debate like this you need to know people’s positions first and plan the debate around those.
The end phase
Having resolved that conflict, then, we move onto the beginning of the end.
And to signal that change, we have a change of setting too: we have an interviewee walking us through a hospital. The sounds are key to this, often recorded separately so they can be heard more clearly in the edit.
The end of the podcast uses a common technique in storytelling: returning to the start. The problem established in the beginning – hospital hygiene – and the problem established in the sub-plot – financial literacy – are both resolved with both final lessons and consensus, and at the same time, the question hanging in the air of “What do these stories have to do with each other?” is also resolved.
What’s more, the resolution has meaning beyond just a story: we have learned something.
Just to reinforce this, after that resolution comes a fade-out, rising title music, and credits. Small things that tell us definitively: The End.
Principles of narrative in a news podcast
But how do these techniques translate to a more traditional news podcast? The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast is, as I say, more about breadth than depth: a collection of short stories rather than a novel.
But it uses many of the same techniques at a smaller level. We begin with a table of contents, which serves to establish a little bit of tension, including teasing clips of tasty quotes.
We again have two voices (often both journalists) to tell a story instead of one, to introduce contrast and a little tension, and some structure of questioning that sets the scene before exploring more problematic issues, and ends by looking forward.
Each change of story is accompanied by an audio sting to signal that change of setting – and sometimes that change of setting occurs within the story – as when, for example, we move from an interview or report to the reaction to it.
The peak – two-thirds into the podcast – is the discussion where we move from hearing 2 voices to hearing 3.
So you can see the same techniques used, but in a much shorter space of time, and in a more routine manner. The format is more restrictive, but also allows for more effective production. It’s the right tool for the job.
Rounding it all up
That’s a lot to learn, so let me try to summarise these techniques that are used again and again:
- Firstly, think about establishing tension:
- through problems and questions;
- and through conflict and contrast.
- Secondly, think about movement:
- This is done through regularly resolving those tensions and establishing new ones (while keeping the main tension hanging until the end).
- And secondly, through moving from setting to setting.
- And thirdly, by having stories within your overarching story or stories (which is really the same as using tensions, but is worth identifying separately). Notice how narration is used frequently to move the story forward – mainly because there’s a lot of material to get through. Don’t add narration for the sake of it if your characters can move things along themselves just fine.
- Thirdly, note how audio is employed beyond the core content.
- Music is used to increase tension, describe character, establish setting, and even the genre of mini-stories.
- Silence and volume are equally important: a moment’s silence can indicate a change of pace or setting. A sudden rise in volume can indicate the end of a section.
- Finally, remember that all the above relies on those characters. It is the actions of characters that creates the movement; it is characters who introduce us to new settings. We need to hear those characters – and you need to find them.
Suggestions on building narrative into a podcast
Listening to those podcasts again with those points in mind, here are some suggestions on how you might plan to organise a podcast of your own on a single issue story:
- What’s the central tension you are going to introduce at the start and resolve at the end?
- Is there a secondary and related tension you can run alongside it and resolve simultaneously?
- What’s the best mini-story to begin with? End with?
- Who are your main characters? And when do they need to enter and leave the stage?
- What are your settings? And how might we move through them as the story develops?
- How can you maintain movement in your middle section? Do you have more mini-stories?
- What extra audio might you need to signal setting, character, genre or movement?
Any other examples or suggestions welcome.