Storytelling in Stereo

Technically, you should never “tell” a story. You should put your reader, viewer, or listener smack in the middle of it. Make them feel like they are there, experiencing it firsthand.

When I ask students about how to best share stories, they usually say they combine words and pictures. But there’s one aspect most people miss.

Sound.

I don’t mean interviews or music or a reporter’s voice track. I mean the pure, ambient background sounds of our everyday lives.

Stop what you’re doing right now and just listen. What do you hear? Aside from the clack of my keyboard, I hear water running through the pipes above my office. I hear the beeping of a truck backing up a few blocks away. I hear co-workers chatting down the hall. I hear the wind blowing through the leaves in my window. I hear the splashing of tires rolling through puddles on the streets below.

Life doesn’t exist in a soundproof booth, so why should our storytelling?

Last night, the Oregon State Beavers football team lost a heartbreaker to Utah in double overtime. Part of that story is the words: explaining how the team lost. Part of the story is the images: Utah players celebrating; the Beavers leaving the field dejected. And probably the most important part is the sound: the stunned, dejected silence of Beaver fans; the shuffling of feet toward the exits.

You don’t even have to be a fan of either team to feel the emotions involved.

That’s why one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to young play-by-play announcers is something the great Vin Scully preached: shut up.

Let the moment – the sounds, the images – speak for itself.

Scully was always the master at this. In a game’s big moment, he knew how to step away, and let the pure emotions of the game wash over the viewer and listener. Then, after he gave the moment enough time to breathe, he stepped back in with a well-timed exclamation point.

Take a listen to Scully calling Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965. The best example begins at the 7-minute mark.

40 seconds of cheers.

(And I bet you didn’t try to fast forward through any of it.)

Scully understood the moment, and recognized that the story didn’t need him at that moment. So he stepped away and let it all happen.

When I started as a play-by-play announcer, I felt like I needed to command the broadcast. Insert a witty remark here, cite an obscure stat there, drop my signature catchphrase at certain times. But as I learned from listening to the greats like Scully, a play-by-play announcer is one part of the storytelling process. You guide the listener or viewer through the game, but you don’t overshadow the game itself. Scully said he always approached his broadcasts like they were a casual conversation with a friend. If you were at home listening to Koufax’s perfect game, you wouldn’t want your friend blabbering non-stop over the biggest moment.

The same thing goes for news stories. When I covered the story of the National Guard coming home to Medford, I lingered on a shot of a mom hugging her returning son. Viewers heard her sniffles, the sound of her rubbing his back, and the smack of a kiss on the cheek. I knew those sounds would tell the story much better than my voice explaining it.

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And in entertainment, the rule still applies. Think back to the third act of “Jaws,” when our main characters are on their rickety boat hunting the shark. When Quint has his fishing line in the water, and it begins slowly clicking, it’s a terrifying moment for viewers.

It puts you there on that boat, among the waves; the stillness has been broken by a small clicking, and the fear of a killer shark makes you aware of every small sound that follows.

Storytelling means transporting your reader, viewer, or listener to a different time and place, and the best stories make people feel like they are there. If it’s a newspaper article, describe those sounds, or include a video. If you’re creating something for TV or radio, make sure all of those video and audio elements are being used.

Involve all of the senses, and keep your ears open.

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