It’s back. The podcast that blew up all podcasts. The elite in storytelling.
“Serial” landed this weekend and if you are anything like me, you’re already starting to ache for episode 2. Listening to the first episode, I was struck by one thing in particular: vocal tone
The ongoing jeopardy experience throughout this podcast is that you are working out the authenticity of every contributor. The fun is in spotting the liar. But without being able to see their body language or facial features, you have one thing to go on…. their voice.
As the series goes on you will be listening out for any over detailed descriptions, individuals who add or take away from their original story (remember Jay from the last season?) or if anyone counteracts the story you are buying in to (“there is no payphone at Best Buy”).
In “DUSTWUN” (S02 Ep01) there is a great moment where narrator, Sarah Koenig references the soldiers’ stories and says the one consistent is that none of them saw it coming. They all express surprise at Bowe leaving the camp. In the montage of the soldiers’ voices that follows, what you listen for isn’t the words, but their vocal tone.
I still think it’s amazing that your ears can instinctively tell so much without even hearing the words. You are listening for tightness of the throat, overly forced tones, exaggerated dancing intonation & excessive “erms” or unaccountable stutters. All signs that someone is lying.
Even down the phone I was listening for Bowe to trip up. He says he wanted to be like Jason Bourne…. Really? Is that right?… his vocal tone seemed so relaxed and honest so it must be right?
The actual master of the piece, is Sarah Koenig herself. I know that there must be a script – so much detail and pieces to pull together, it needs it. The opening sequence, as she describes the video of Bo being released by the Taliban, is exceptional in its picture painting. And her relaxed cliff hanger at the end of the piece: “Hello?” she says followed by “That’s me talking to the Taliban”… is inspired.
The thing she does best is tell the story so authentically: her words and her tone sound like she is talking to me as if I was with her “in the pub”. When she breaks from the script you hear a more conversational Sara, but you always, always believe her. Not only does the script leave room for her own doubt, making her more believable in her vulnerability, but her delivery is real. It makes for a deeply engaging experience.
Finding your authentic presenting voice can take years to master, there are various techniques that can help you, but mostly it’s “On Air Miles” and practice that masters it.
Without deviating too far from Serial, there is a great interview between Ira Glass (Sarah Koenig’s colleague and “This American Life” creator) and Alec Baldwin on his podcast “Here’s The Thing” where they talk about vocal delivery. Ira plays Alec a piece he did for NPR and dissects it beautifully. It’s really worth a listen…
Serial Episode 3
You know when you are going about the daily grind, and then something leaps in to that space and makes you smile ? It can make your day completely different, and give you a story to tell your mates later. It happened to me yesterday – so I am telling you the story now 🙂
On the Cross Country train from Manchester to Birmingham the announcer came on the tannoy to announce the next stop…
But there was something different about this announcer. He had broken from the mono syllabic style and was chatty. His vocal tone was real and relatable. I could see the ears on the people in the carriage prick up.
In the next announcement he told us that the train would be stopping so “if you’re getting off here make sure you have your luggage, belongings, and any people you need to take with you”… He made another joke and people in the carriage LOL-ed.
In the next announcement, he did an impression of Mr Bean…
(This brought the house down)
His final bit began with the words “standard train announcement now…” And finished with a line like “thanks for travelling with Cross Country Trains, not that you had much of a choice cos this is the only one that runs this line”….
The coach gafawed, and the woman two seats behind me said (I kid you not): “that guy deserves a promotion”!!
Now I’m sure that any train driver getting a promotion will be judged on their skills and experience as a train driver, but to me it signified something. Personality, being “real”, has an affect on people.
My friend John Ryan (see his radio website here) experienced something similar the day before…
So he wasn’t about to give his train driver a promotion – but he was moved enough by it to write a Facebook status about it… and he made us (his mates) laugh in the process.
Authentic personality is a magnet. It means taking your listener out of their daily grind and lifting their mood, or doing something that means they want to talk to their friends about it (this is the best kind of marketing).
The train companies are doing it, it won’t be long before everyone is. Now more than ever radio should be authentic and brimming with personality. It matters.
I’m working with the BBC Academy on personality driven content. It’s really interesting to hear the challenges they face in terms of engagement, and how it really relates to the challenges often felt within Commercial Radio.
The main thing that stands out is how you get personality into format. For commercial radio its the short links and commercial reads, and for BBC Local Radio, its breaking from the format of news reporting and adding personality.
If you watched the talk I did at Next Radio, you’ll know of the “Ten Things” exercise I do. This is where I ask the presenter to list 10 things they know to be true about themselves. I ask for passions, wants, needs, fears, worries….anything.
It never fails to help me as a producer or coach, to get under the surface of what makes presenters tick. Similarly it can help you to get to know your own passions, build story arcs, attach yourself to content or music you are playing out. Knowing these things means you can begin to work at getting personality into the format you are working with.
In addition you can do this about your audience: Ten Things You Know To Be True About The Audience”. The idea being that you should be able to find intersections between your wants, needs and fears, with your listener.
Sarah Kay is the inventor of this exercise. A poet who works with teenagers to enable them to express themselves through poetry. This is the exercise she does with a group, and when they start to share she finds that there are intersections between the people in the room. For example “I hate having to tidy my room” could be on more than one person’s list, and *boom* you have an intersection – a place where you connect.
Doing a list of what you know to be true about the audience, could create a similar experience between the presenter/content maker, and the audience. No doubt your own wants, needs, fears, loves and annoyances, will correlate somewhere with your audience’s, and enable you to make engaging personality driven content.
Here is Sarah Kay’s beautiful talk, including an amazing poem at the start….
As a presenter you are at the sharp end of communication. Your job is to connect with your audience and keep them listening longer (15 minutes longer at least *ticks Rajar book*). It’s an art, and it’s an underated artform. This blog is dedicated to changing that.
I love presenters: people who can put their head above the parapet and share their lives. They hold stories together, they break the news to the world, they change your mood, and they become your virtual friend. The only other artform that does that as rawly is stand up comedy.
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Over the last 15 years, I have coached & trained presenters, produced radio programmes (BBC and Commercial), written and made adverts & jingles and I have had the privalegde of running a radio station in a competitive market. The one ethos that runs through every discipline is: connect by getting real.
In 2014 I did a talk at Next Radio on “How To Be An Authentic Radio Presenter”. Powered by Brene Brown, Sarah Kaye and Jimi Hendrix, this is the epicentre of what I do, think, preach and love.