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Storytelling tips and best practices

Writing & Voice

You asked: How do you tell a story in 3 acts?

The three-act structure is the most basic organization a story can have. The number three has a sort of magic to it. It feels unsettled, so it propels things forward. Beginning, middle, end. This, that and the other thing.

Aerobics for your voice: 3 tips for sounding better on air

To build a strong vocal presence for audio storytelling, you should practice a daily warm-up routine that involves body, breath and voice.

6 tips for catching your writing mistakes (and protecting your credibility)

No one is available to read behind you and it’s nearly time to hit “publish.” What do you do? Call on the copy editor within

Radio intros: 5 examples of success

Intros can make or break your story. They are hard to write well. It’s also hard to lay down laws about intros. Their success depends on the voice that delivers them and the nature of the story they serve. But we’ll try, based on a few examples below. (You should also check out Radio intros: 7 tips

Beyond the 5 W’s: What should you ask before starting a story?

We all know the classic “5 w” questions journalists ask: Who, what, where, when, why (and bonus, “how”). But you should also consider the six additional questions listed below, which complement those fundamentals. They are informed by journalism but focused on storytelling. Your answers to these questions may change in the process of reporting. That

A good lead is everything — here’s how to write one

I can’t think of a better way to start a post about leads than with this: “The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well No one wants a dead article!

How to write short

Short writing may not seem like a natural goal for journalism on the web. It’s easy to assume there’s infinite space to fill up, and if we’ve done all the reporting and have tons of material, well, why not? But just because there’s a lot of online real estate available doesn’t mean every story is

How audio stories begin

Once upon a time … … we sent radio stories out into the ether and judged their success by letters, emails, crude quarterly ratings and annual awards. Now, we can dissect listener behavior, minute by minute. With platforms such as NPR One, we can see the listener tuning in, becoming captivated or dropping out. It’s exciting … and terrifying. Visualizing

Reporter two-ways: Improvisation within a structure

Watch the webinar For many public radio reporters — even some of the most experienced ones — the prospect of a two-way can be daunting. You’ve been gathering facts and collecting tape, and now, you have to sit down in front of a hot mic and communicate what you’ve learned in conversation with a host. If

Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own

A reporter-in-training once told me she wanted to give up on reporting. On one assignment in an unfamiliar community, people didn’t want to talk to her.  She felt out of place — and presumed people wouldn’t talk to her because she wasn’t like them. She thought it was different for me, a person of color.

How Joe Richman makes ‘Radio Diaries’

Joe Richman created Radio Diaries in 1996. He began giving tape recorders to “ordinary” people and working with them to tell stories about their own lives. Joe also produces audio histories. A distinguishing feature of his work is the lack of an authoritative, reportorial voice; Joe is a master of the non-narrated audio story. His work has

How to inject ‘documentary flair’ into your story

If you’ve ever covered something like a school board meeting and thought, “There’s no way I can make this interesting,” let Linda Lutton prove you wrong. This post is based on a Third Coast Festival presentation she gave at the 2015 PRPD conference about how to infuse documentary-style radio into everyday reporting (even when you think you don’t have

6 NPR stories that breathe life into neighborhood scenes

This post was first published on the website Storybench. For scenes to succeed in any medium, they have to engage your senses. You smell the diesel fumes, feel the breeze on your cheeks, hear the anger in the collective voice of a crowd of protesters. These appeals to the senses are important, but often secondary

poh-TAY-toh, poh-TAH-toh: Guidance on sourcing pronunciation

Ever want to know how to pronounce an unfamiliar word? A person’s name, a place name or even a regular noun?  Ideally, we want our reporting to reflect keen research and familiarity in all aspects of the story, including pronunciation. Mispronouncing a key word in the script can make the speaker sound uninformed, even if

Active sound: How to find it, record it and use it

This guidance comes from an NPR seminar by Robert Smith and Jeff Rogers in March 2002. It is just as relevant today. Many of the ideas and advice were provided by Terry Fitzpatrick, Howard Berkes, Jonathan Kern, Sora Newman, and the APRN Focus News Workshop. Active sound makes a report sparkle. It is sound that isn’t

NPR’s Korva Coleman: Newscasts without panic

Korva Coleman has been an NPR newscast anchor for 25 years. She originally compiled these recommendations for PRNDI’s 2015 conference in Salt Lake City. They are intended for any public radio newscaster, in big markets and small.  1. Prepare yourself before you get to work What news do you listen to? What websites and newspapers do

Writing through sound: A toolbox for getting into and out of your tape

Note: If you’d like to watch the webinar version of this material, scroll to the bottom of the page.   We make dozens of small decisions while writing an audio story. Many of them pertain to how the reporter/narrator gets into and out of tape. The most common way we write into tape goes something like

What NPR One can teach us about radio intros

This information was gathered and written up by Sara Sarasohn, Managing Director for NPR One, in the spring of 2015. At the bottom of this page, you can watch our webinar for member stations. We are just at the beginning of understanding how to use the metrics in NPR One to learn about effective radio techniques.

Write how you talk #3: NPR’s Carrie Johnson

Correspondent Carrie Johnson came to NPR in 2010, after a long career in print. She tackled the challenge of transitioning to radio, in part, by developing an unusual approach to writing out her tracks (the reporter’s narration). If you’d like to hear the story she’s annotating, it’s at the bottom of this post. Full transcript is here. Carrie explains

On deadline? Follow these tips to get on the air fast

Say it’s 9:00am and you just got an assignment. It has to be on All Things Considered by 4:00pm. You may have to throw your dreams of perfection out the window, but you can still produce a satisfying story, if you use strategies like the ones described below. These tips are adapted from former NPR

An accuracy checklist to take with you

The checklist that follows is a reminder of things we all know we should do. It’s meant to be particularly useful to correspondents and producers. They collect the information we put on the air and online and they are expected to do all they can to make sure that what we report is accurate. Think

How to use sound to make a news spot pop

Robert Garcia is Executive Producer of NPR’s Newscast Unit. Here, he shares examples of stand-out news spots, and why they work.   Deceptively simple  A very simple Memorial Day remembrance story. Seemingly. Craig Windham masterfully weaves in the music and atmospherics from the Arlington Cemetery ceremony with clips from the President’s speech and beautiful, crisp

Writing for radio: A manifesto from NPR’s Chris Joyce

The two elements of a story are tape and copy. There should be a nearly equal balance between the two, at least in terms of their importance to the story. One can think of tape as the photographs, although that’s not a perfect analogy. Perhaps the analogy of two dancers executing a complicated tango; both

What does a radio script look like?

Truth be told, not every broadcast radio script looks the same! But there are elements every script should share in order to make sure nothing goes wrong in the editing or mixing process. This post should give you a sense of the basic components of a public radio script. The real-life example is a story by NPR Congressional

Radio 101: The life of a story from concept to air

If you are new to radio, this post should help demystify the process. This guidance comes from Jonathan Kern, author of “Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production.” It has been lightly edited.  First, you need a story. That may seem obvious, but often people begin by proposing an idea – the

How a long audio story is different from a short one

Jonathan Kern was a longtime NPR editor (among other things) and author of “Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production.” What he describes as “long” are long pieces for news magazines — roughly, 6 minutes or more — but this guidance is helpful if you’re crafting an even longer story. The basics

Radio intros: 7 tips to keep listeners from turning off the radio

There is no perfect template for a radio intro. In fact, that’s the point: Intros should surprise you. They should grab your ear and demand you listen, in part, because they don’t all sound the same. And of course, in a news program, they should tell you — clearly — what a story is about. How to do

How NPR’s Sam Sanders is finding his voice

I think the goal is for all of us doing radio to make is sound effortless. To keep our essence in our reads and make the listener think we’re “just talking,” while knowing that the journey to that “just talking” place takes a lot. A lot of thought. A lot of practice. And a lot of time.

Write how you talk #1: The basics

As Robert Siegel is quoted in the book Sound Reporting, “This is one of the most commonly offered pieces of advice… and it’s one of the most commonly ignored.” Why is it so hard to write how we talk? One reason: It’s not how we’re taught. We learn to write with book reports, term papers,

Steve Inskeep: Three songs that will change how you write for radio

When it comes to writing for radio, where does Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep find inspiration? In great lyrics. The structure of a great song parallels a beautifully written radio story. That was the subject of a talk Steve gave to the staff of Morning Edition. He played examples of songs that get right to the

‘Once upon a time’ … and other devices for starting your story

It doesn’t matter how many phone calls you make, how much reporting you do, how much awesome tape you record. If the beginning of your story doesn’t grab listeners, they’re gone. And by “beginning,” we mean the first minute or so, intro included. The following ideas are prompts for getting started, but also structural frames