Last week Alex Blumberg, from This American Life, Planet Money, and now StartUp, ran a free course through CreativeLive. The topic: Power Your Podcast with Storytelling.
The course was based on a class Blumberg taught at Columbia University. Based on their tuition rates and his talent, it’d be foolish to miss. Blumberg did not disappoint. It was 14 hours full of reasons why story is so important, how to properly execute quality story in an audio format, and plenty of examples of everything.
The following are my notes from the 14 hours of classes. All the information, including the screenshots, are Blumberg’s as presented through the CreateLive platform. If you are interested in getting a downloadable version of the entire course, you can get it from CreativeLive here. *If you have not heard of CreativeLive yet, you should. They consistently produce free live courses from leading experts on topics like photo & video, art & design, music & audio, money & life, and more. If you like learning, you won’t be disappointed.
Last, I wanted to see how the things Blumberg talked about played out in his work for a practical example. In result, I analyzed episode 02 of his new StartUp podcast. I broke down the exact timeframes of the 23 minute 05 second podcast into all of the narrations, interviews, music, and other audio used. You will find my visual breakdown with downloadable pdf at the end of the blog.
Power Your Podcast with Storytelling w/ Alex Blumberg Notes
These were points Blumberg repeated throughout the course:
- Trust your gut. You know when something is interesting or if it isn’t. If you are confused during the interview, your audience is confused. If you are bored while interviewing, your audience will be bored when listening. Ask questions to clarify and redirect the conversation to something more interesting.
- Have a plan. Know who you’re interviewing, what you’re going to ask them, and have everything prepped and ready.
- Figure out the formula for every story: I’m doing a story about X and it’s interesting because of Y.
- Something new has to happen every 45 seconds to 2 minutes.
Alex Blumberg’s Gear List
Blumberg said he used transom.org to decide on the following equipment.
Headphones: Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphone
Digital Recorder: TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
Microphone: Audio-Technica AT8035 Shotgun Microphone
Cable: Any XLR Cable
High-end suggestion: Mogami Gold Studio 03 XLR to XLR Quad Conductor Patch Cable 3 feet
Low-end suggestion: Hosa HMIC003 Pro XLR Microphone Cable, 3-Feet
Editing Software: Avid Pro Tools 11 (with DVDs) -Channel Audio Software
That is the equipment Blumberg uses. Many alternatives exist.
The Power of Audio | The most honest medium
- Audio conveys honesty.
- You can hear the truth despite what is actually being said.
- Ex. A woman called in to the Dave Ramsey show and it was clear she was in a verbally and physically abusive relationship. She denied it was happening but the tone and cadence of her voice said otherwise.
- Wait time is crucial.
- However we feel will be how the audience feels. If I’m bored, the audience is bored.
- Numbers and scale do not convey across audio.
- Ex. You can say 4,000 people but it doesn’t register the same as showing a picture or video of 4,000.
- We care more about what is close to us as humans than what is distant.
- Ex. Stories about our hometown or people we know personally connect with us more than events happening in other countries. The trick is to connect the audience with the larger story.
- When starting out, choose someone you enjoy and imitate them. It will help you find your voice.
The Art of the Interview
What are you going for? Focus on narrative and emotion.
- You want to ask questions that will get them to tell a story or get emotion.
- Don’t ask yes or no questions. Instead, ask things like:
- “Tell me about the time when…”
- “Tell me about the day of…”
- “Tell me the story of…”
- “Tell me about the day you realized…”
- “What were the steps…”
- How did that make you feel… (make them articulate how they feel/ encourage them to reflect)
- If the old you could see the new you, what would the new you say?
- If you had to describe the debate in your head… (find conflicting feelings) You seem very confident now, was that always the case? (Zero in on the weakness)
- What do you make of that…
- If people start talking in dialogue, ask them to describe the conversation they are referring to.
- You want to make the interviewee feel safe but know they are giving real answers to real questions.
Overall, you want your interviews to contain elements of a story. Remember, you have to describe the setting, emotions, and details to your listeners.
Nuts and Bolts
Tips for finding guests/ interviewees
- Find people with direct experience. Don’t use the person who wrote a book about “the thing” find someone that did “the thing.”
- You don’t need the current expert. Try an expert from a few years ago.
- Audition people- interview the best talker/ who will be the most honest for the interview.
- Ask for time you need/ but take what you can get.
- Ex. If you need 60 minutes, ask for 60 minutes. If they can only give you 30 minutes take it.
- If you are going over, be polite and professional by asking to have another 15 minutes or whatever reasonable amount you need.
- Do basic research on who you’re interviewing.
- Write your questions and organize your sections. It should flow like a story and have a logical progression.
- Check your kit, your batteries, your directions.
- Confirm by email that you’re still on the day before or the day of.
At the Interview
- Be in charge. Tell them what to do.
- You asked them to interview, not to spend 10 minutes making small talk.
- Sit side by side or around table, not across; strong hand writing and weak hand microphone. Being across the table makes it hard to interview them and your arm/ hand will get tired reaching across, holding the microphone every time they talk.
- Embrace your weird appearance- wear headphones!
- When you get to end of allotted time, politely ask for more time.
Don’t go in without a plan.
If you leave out key details, go back and re-interview. Contact the person and see if you can follow-up with whatever questions you may have missed.
The Story Formula
I’m doing a story about X
And it’s interesting because of Y
If you want to hear more about the story, you’re on the right track.
Example of the formula:
- I’m doing a story about people having superpowers and it’s interesting because we all want superpowers. -That’s boring. OR
- I’m doing a story on people choosing super powers and it’s interesting because no one ever chooses to fight crime. -The unexpected Y makes it interesting.
-Common mistakes include using fancy language or reaching too wide. Be clear, simple, and specific with your story formula.
The Formula and Tips
- Ask yourself, what is the thumbnail of the story I’m telling?
- “Just because it’s a worthy cause does not mean people will care.” It might be inspiring but not interesting.
- Rephrase the “Y.” It can be the same story but with a more interesting angle. A good “y” will get you in the door right away.
- To tell a good story you have to know what the audience wants. Understand WHO your audience is and what they want from you.
- Shutting up is really, really key. Let the interviewee tell his or her story.
Editing the Interview
- Determine our story formula.
- Define the turning point moments.
- Actions & Details- sequence of the story
- Punchline or resolution- sometimes something you don’t expect
- Offer moments of reflection (optional)
-Look for punchlines and details when interviewing and editing to work around.
-Try to repeat the story diagram/ formula every 1-2 minutes. Something new has to happen every 45 seconds to 1.5 minutes to keep the listener engaged.
- Understand a story is leaving details out. You are telling a lie of omission.
- So be true to the intent of what people are saying.
- Find the human moments, the things the audience will connect with.
- Sometimes parts need to be edited out. If something isn’t good enough, remove it. It’s ok to “kill your darlings.”
- Drawing a good story out during the interview will help save time in post-production.
So much of this is paying attention to your gut.
You have to start somewhere…
- Everyone needs an editor, brainstorming, etc.
- Everybody’s first draft sucks.
- Give your work to others and have them answer:
- Tell me when you’re bored.
- Tell me when you’re confused.
Putting it all Together: The script
- Use clear simple language (concise) / Say as much as possible in as little as possible.
- Indicate where we’re headed, comment on where we’ve been.
- Simplify and clarify for the audience. Re-frame and simplify information frequently. People turn off audio because they don’t know where they are going. They lose faith that the story is going anywhere good.
- Give your audience a reason to listen.
- A little bit of formula is ok.
- Ex. The same 20 second intro on every cast.
Tips on reading a script:
- Write like you talk
- Write while talking out loud
- Throw out punctuation
- Know your own voice and sound like yourself
- Re-create how you physically are while talking
- Ex. hand motions, smile, etc
Music & Natural Sound
- Use music to “set you.”
- Music cues and resets your mind
- It’s dangerous and can be a crutch.
- Music can manipulate stories. If you’re making something sound profound with music, it probably isn’t that profound.
- “What do you guys think? Right choice, wrong choice? I honestly don’t know.” -Quote showing that even Blumberg with 15 years of experience doesn’t always know the best choice.
- There isn’t just one emotion in scenes. There are primary ones and overtones/ undertones. Find the emotions and use the music to pull on them.
- Natural sound needs to be natural sound at the place you’re recording.
Music is done really well when you don’t notice it.
Music Sources/References Suggested in the Chatroom
–BlogTalkRadio | 17 Places to Find PodSafe Music
–Spotify | The American Life Background Music
–SoundCloud | Birocratic
Other random points:
- All you have is words. Your listeners only know what you or the interviewee tell them. You have to narrate.
- If you don’t necessarily care about ______, give your audience other reasons to care (characters, setting, etc). Find ways to get them invested.
As noted in the beginning, that is a lot of information to process. I thought it’d be helpful to diagram out an episode of Blumberg’s new podcast, StartUp, to see how he edits his own episodes. The following is a timing breakdown charting the times of narration, interview clips, background music, and other audio used.
Click here to download Analysis of StartUp Ep. 02
I hope this was helpful. If you want to watch this course in its entirety, go to CreativeLive. To learn more about Alex Blumberg and his new endeavors, you can visit his website, follow his Twitter, or listen to his podcast. To learn more about what my team and I do, head over to ComeAliveCreative.com.
Have anything you want to add? Something from the course or that you’ve learned in your own experience? Please leave it in the comments below.
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Chandra Achberger says
Thank you Jeff for this amazing resource. I took extensive notes too and now I’m inspired to combine yours and mine. Thank you.
Jeff Large says
Thanks Chandra! If you were to get your notes edited and organized, I’d be happy to see what we could work out. I’m glad you found it useful. 🙂
Jennifer Newcomb Marine says
An excellent overview, Jeff. Much more succinct than my notes! Thanks for sharing this.
Jeff Large says
It took a few edits but I got there. You’re welcome. 🙂
Jeff – this is extremely helpful. I’ve been contemplating Alex’s class for a few days now. Armed with this information I’m going to purchase the class. Thanks for putting this together. Cheers.
Jeff Large says
It was a great class and I’m typically a hard sell. Blumberg brings a lot of skill to his craft. I think you’ll enjoy it. I’m glad you found the blog useful. 🙂
✎ Espree Devora (@EspreeDevora) says
Hey look, that’s me 😉 I feel so blessed to have been there. It was a dream come true and I learned an insane amount on how to be a better podcaster, story sharer. This is an INCREDIBLE write up!
Jeff Large says
Thanks Espree! I’m still jealous about you being there. 🙂 Alex is a very talented professional. It was great learning from him (even if it was via the internet).
Christopher King says
Super helpful. Im enjoying the sessions and this is exactly the take aways i need. Thank you.
Jeff Large says
Thanks Chris! Glad you liked it.
Bryan Zug (@bryanzug) says
Thanks so much for these notes Jeff – Blessings as you strike out into your new ventures – Have you ever come across Esther Meek’s “Little Manual for Knowing”? It is an interesting little exploration of the faith required to dive into the unknown and adventure through it – http://www.amazon.com/Little-Manual-Knowing-Esther-Lightcap-ebook/dp/B00KXJ636I/
Jeff Large says
Thanks for the suggestion Bryan. I love reading and will add that to my Goodreads.
Mark Gavagan says
“Boredom and confusion are the enemy!”