Tips to Upgrade Your Audio Storytelling

If you want your audience to see it, first they have to be able to hear it. A powerful narration, a memorable interview or a rich soundscape can transport your listeners right to the heart of your mission, hold their attention there longer, and foster greater empathy and support for your cause.

So don’t let your audio be an afterthought. Enhance your nonprofit’s videos, podcasts and even photo slideshows by following best practices for producing great audio at each stage of the production process: Pre-production Planning, Production & Recording, and Post-production Editing & Mastering.

Pre-production Planning

Whether you’re producing a regular podcast or a call-to-action video, there are several audio elements you must weave together to make a good story. It’s important to know what they are and how you can use them to advance your story, so you can develop a plan to capture them.

Here are the crucial elements to consider before you start recording:

  • Narration—This is the “voice over,” often provided by a host or narrator, that moves the story along by filling in missing information and gaps in a timeline, or introducing interview subjects. A narrator can play an omniscient role in your story, or she can be a character herself. Think Sarah Koenig, host of the hit podcast Serial, who both narrates and plays the role of the investigator. Consider ahead of time how you plan to use a host or narrator in your story, and whether you have a staff or board member capable of doing the job, or if you should hire a professional.
  • Interviews—These come from additional characters, beyond the narrator, who help drive the plot forward by offering their own perspectives to the audience. They may include a lead researcher or subject matter expert, an individual or community member who is directly affected by an issue, or any number of other perspectives. It’s important to carefully consider who your most important interview subjects are to include so that your final product isn’t a series of “talking heads,” as well as what you really want them to convey to your audience. Make a full list of possibilities and prioritize who you will interview.
  • Actuality—This is a documentary film term for all the other speech or dialogue you may capture while recording outside a studio or set. For example, if you’re interviewing a Starbucks barista, you may choose to lead into that segment with a brief track of him shouting out someone’s order above the general buzz of the café. It’s real life as it unfolds. Too much of this audio “b-roll” in your final product would, of course, be distracting. But thoughtful and deliberate use of actuality can help set the scene for your audience, and bring energy and authenticity to your story. Think about your characters and scenes in advance, then brainstorm the kinds of audio and/or video b-roll you can collect to enhance them.
  • Natural sound—Frequently shortened to “nat sound,” this includes any environmental sound you capture to convey a sense of place, such as coffee grinding in a café or balls bouncing on a basketball court. Like actuality, when used deliberately it stimulates your audience’s imagination and makes your story more vibrant. But be careful not to let it overpower your interviews or narration. Be an active listener when you’re out on a shoot to make sure you’re avoiding, minimizing, or recording additional natural sound as necessary.
  • Foley—These are every-day sound effects, like footsteps or the creak of a door opening, which also lend reality and texture to your media’s soundscape. Unlike natural sound, however, foley isn’t recorded live in the field. Instead, it’s reproduced in a studio for quality control, or purchased from a stock effects website like Sounddogs.com, AudioJungle.net or SoundSnap.com. Consider using foley to punctuate the key elements or climax of your story, so they are as realistic and memorable as possible.
  • Soundtrack—Don’t forget your soundtrack! That moment when Kate and Leo are “flying” on the bow of the Titanic wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without the perfect musical score to accompany it. Music, perhaps even more than your visual or other audio content, is a powerful tool for reaching your audience on an emotional level and unlocking their empathy for your cause. Think very carefully about how you use music in your story to convey feelings of joy and sorrow, or to heighten dramatic tension.

Once you’ve brainstormed, or even scripted, all the audio elements you need to effectively tell your story, it’s time to go out and capture them! Check back soon for part two of this three-part series, “Tips For Audio Production & Recording.”

Ariel Surowidjojo

Former account manager Ariel Olson Surowidjojo loves watching small things with lots of potential grow—like her daughter (Senoya), her porch hanging garden, and the many nonprofits she’s privileged to serve. Ariel feels most at home on her yoga mat and most alive when she’s looking down from a mountaintop or standing knee-deep in a tide pool searching for hidden ocean creatures. She’s worked as a social change communicator for nearly a decade and still can’t persuade her dad to get on Facebook.
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