Let Them Lead

Let Them Lead

The case for non-narrated audio storytelling

Experienced audio storytellers know that a great story can certainly be told without the help of an all-knowing host or narrator constantly jumping in to “explain” bits of the story.

Yet nine times out of ten, that is the model podcasts default to.

Perhaps we have Ira Glass, podcast’s master narrator, to blame for this.

Or perhaps we must look more closely at our general need to control stories, rather than to let them unfold.

This is certainly an issue in the branded space, where the quest for brand safety and return on investment can too often mean that the “safe” (yet less interesting) road gets taken when it comes to storytelling.

The narrated “voice” of podcasting is in fact so ubiquitous it is easily parodied, as in this Saturday Night Live spoof of Sarah Koenig, host of the hit podcast Serial.

Why narration?

Narration is nothing if not an excellent way to rein in a story and make it behave.

Sometimes, you need that. But not always.

That’s right: You don’t always want your story to behave.

Why non-narrative?

Sometimes, you want it to beguile, engage, confuse, and surprise.

You want it to move people.

And sometimes, the best way to do that is to simply get out of the way.

Stop trying to control the story’s outcome with cleverly worded narration, or with branded messages (implied or overt).

Just. Let. Go.

It’s scary – but sometimes it’s worth the risk to achieve a high degree of authenticity.

Listeners enjoy being taken on an immersive journey, deep into someone else’s world, led there not by a narrator telling them what to think, feel, and do, but by voices in the dark.

Non-narrated storytelling is powerful because it lets us look right under the hood of an experience – giving us a first-hand sense of being there, witnessing events as they’re happening.

A story without a narrator?

Scottish documentary trailblazer John Grierson defined documentary as “a creative treatment of actuality.”

Non-narrated documentary treats “actuality” in many different ways.

For instance, it may vary from a “fly-on-the-wall” style where the microphone picks up candid conversations to collective “self-driven” podcasts where the subjects tell their own stories, warts and all.

In both cases, the narrator, or authorial voice, appears to take a back seat.

For some brand storytellers who are used to controlling every nuance of their messaging, the uncertainty of this can feel a bit like “the sailors have mutinied, locked the captain below, and now nobody knows where the ship is bound.”

It can be scary.

However, just because a story has no obvious narrator does not mean it is “off the map.”

In the hands of a skilled creative team, these kinds of stories can be well-planned, well-captured, and well-structured in the editing stage to create a powerful impact.

The influence of the storyteller is subtly exercised throughout – but most profoundly in the editing stage.

Producing a non-narrated, documentary-style podcast just requires a bit more patience.

Producers must create the right conditions to “catch” the story, ask the right questions, then allow interview subjects the time and space to express themselves fully.

Sometimes, the producer needs to pose the same question multiple times, or to multiple people, to get a comprehensive answer.

Capturing a story this way takes skill and intuition.

It’s the difference between fly fishing and using a dragnet.

What about in a branded setting?

In a branded setting, non-narrated storytelling may mean some extra time gets built into the workback schedule to allow for the story to “evolve.”

The exact arc or outcome of the story is likely to remain more nebulous until the recording and editing phase is over.

This may mean that brand stakeholders have less visibility into the story’s outcome in the beginning.

During production, they may take more of a backseat as they wait for the story to take shape.

But brands that demonstrate enough creative bravery to involve themselves with this highly authentic and powerful form of storytelling can benefit from the way it engenders trust in the listener.

They can then position themselves as facilitators of important, authentic stories that get right to the heart of issues they wish to engage with on a brand communications level; issues such as mental health, racism, creativity, human rights, immigration, or interpersonal relationships.

And they can do this without seeming disingenuous.

To achieve this marvel, brands simply need to learn to “ride the waves” – that is – to trust the process of storytelling.

This means trusting their show producers to do their job, which is: to ensure conditions for interview subjects to express themselves fully, to listen closely to what is said during an interview, and then weave all the gathered responses into a cohesive story without the addition of narration.

And producers can achieve this by trusting their subjects enough to tell their own stories.


 Examples of non-narrated storytelling:

And for an excellent explanation of the rationale for non-narrated audio storytelling, check out Shereen Goes Quiet, where Transom.org’s Rob Rosenthal interviews Shereen Marisol Meraji, producer of “A Strange and Bitter Crop”.

Jen Moss is Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of JAR Audio