If you work in audio journalism and storytelling, you know that “listening is our gold standard,” to quote former NPR editor Sara Sarasohn. We all have opinions about what we hear and need perspective on what we create. We all aspire to do great work, but we can’t do it alone.
A listening session is one of the best ways to get constructive feedback and share best practices. What is it? Basically, a group of people in a room, listening to stories and discussing them. (But if it were that simple, we wouldn’t bother writing this post.)
There are a lot of ways to get value out of listening sessions, but it helps to do some thinking and planning ahead of time. What follows are guiding principles for a successful listening session and six different formats you can use.
Decide on one clear goal
Listening sessions can fail if their purpose is not clear. Before you gather people into a room, decide what you’re trying to achieve.
Here are some possible goals:
- To encourage a culture of healthy critique in your newsroom
- To workshop particular stories or review a special project
- To help people from different parts of an organization get to know each other
- To share best practices
- To explore a theme
- To dissect particular elements of a story
The choice you make about the session’s purpose will help you decide how you choose or solicit audio — and how to conduct the session.
The role of the moderator
Anyone can organize a listening session. You don’t have to be the boss, editor or project manager. As long as you have a goal that you can convey, the ability to synthesize ideas, and the willingness to keep the conversation flowing comfortably (without inserting yourself too much), give it a try.
Here are a few guidelines:
- Clearly communicate the goal of the session ahead of time.
- Request that participants volunteering a story that is not their own get permission from whomever reported or produced the story.
- At the beginning of a session, explain “rules of engagement” and set expectations.
- Establish the tone. Encourage participation that is constructive, sympathetic and honest.
- Push participants to be specific. “Good” or “bad” is not helpful. What makes it “good?”
- Watch out for moments in which a participant might get defensive or feel attacked. If that happens, gently take the reins and steer the conversation.
- Guide participants toward takeaways that transcend any one story.
- Watch the clock! An hour-long session will fly by. (I’ve found it hard to play more than four stories – each a length of five minutes or less – in an hour, when the conversation is flowing.)
After a listening session, ask yourself what worked and what didn’t. Did conversation veer off track anywhere? Did people seem to miss the point? Did you run out of time? Consider these questions and others, and adjust your approach next time. You don’t have to get it “right” the first time.
(Besides, how do you judge the “rightness” of a listening session? Mostly, it’s gut. And how your colleagues react afterwards. Did they express appreciation? Do they seem inspired?)
Listening session #1: Building a culture of critique
The best way to ensure meaningful critique is to solicit audio from participants that is NOT their favorite work. Suggest they bring stories of their own that challenged or puzzled them. This way, no participant is anxiously anticipating raves for their story; they are already invested in seeking constructive feedback. And participants who did not offer stories can approach the table with generosity, knowing their colleagues are willingly putting themselves in a vulnerable position.
When participants share their stories, give them a chance to articulate their concerns about the piece. That way, colleagues can help them with these specific challenges.
The downside: You’re not hearing the best work.
Listening session #2: Workshopping particular stories
In the cases when your “playlist” is already set, the challenge is focusing the conversation. Why do these stories need workshopping? Offer your participants a handful of specific questions about the stories. The questions (pick 2-3) should be designed to lead to meaningful conclusions and, hopefully, lessons for the future.
Here are some questions NPR Senior Editor Andrea de Leon uses to guide discussion about news stories:
- What is the specific focus of this piece?
- Did the piece make us care?
- Are the stakeholders all here? Are their points balanced?
- Is all the information here? Is there too much information?
- Is the piece written for the ear?
- Are there scenes in this piece? Visuals?
- Is every bite unique, dynamic and interesting?
- How could more sound and more scenes improve this story?
- Is the structure of this story the best it can be?
When you’re workshopping bigger projects, like a podcast pilot or a broadcast series, it helps to return to your initial goals and form questions around them. For example, ask, “Have we achieved the tone we wanted?” and “Will this speak to the audience we’ve targeted?” or “Are these stories engaging enough to keep listeners coming back?”
Keep your participants on track. There are loads of ways you could workshop a piece. Just make sure everyone is sticking to the goals at hand.
Downside: The conversation can get into the weeds.
Listening session #3: Helping people get to know each other
This is a good opportunity to curate a listening session. The point is for people to be in a room together, engaged in a project. It matters less that you emerge with clear takeaways about specific stories, and more that people learn about the variety of work that’s happening in your office.
Choose stories that sound different from each other and come from different parts of the organization. When setting rules of engagement, encourage “dumb” questions. This is a great chance for participants to ask something they might feel uncomfortable asking in a different setting.
Guide the conversation lightly to allow a free-flowing conversation. This is a chance for the people in the room to engage with each other. Your job as a moderator is mostly to keep things moving and help synthesize ideas and questions that arise.
At the end, consider a quick spin around the room to give everyone a chance to say something they learned from the session.
Downside: The conversation is not tightly-focused and critique is less likely.
Listening session #4: Sharing best practices
This is the moment to bring the best work to the table. It could be curated by you or submitted by participants. What’s important is that someone in the room be prepared to explain — specifically — what makes each story work. This is a great opportunity to decode storytelling, by opening up project files in your editing software or looking closely at language in the script.
Even though this session is focused on best practices, it helps to remind participants that they can still critique stories. In our craft, there is not always a right or perfect answer, and people should feel free to raise questions or engage the group in respectful debate.
Downside: It can be harder to facilitate healthy conversation when the stories have — at least by some participants — already been pre-ordained as good.
Listening session #5: Exploring a theme
This style of session allows a deep dive into a topic, coverage area or format. It’s a great way to focus on a newsroom priority (e.g. improving storytelling, experimenting with format, strengthening coverage of a major event). This session could be curated or could use solicited stories, as long as they speak in some way to the chosen theme.
Here are some examples of themes:
- Coverage area (e.g. political, science, arts)
- Kinds of stories (e.g. profiles, breaking news)
- Formats of stories (e.g. 4-minute features, interviews, newscast spots)
- A big, all-hands-on-deck story in your newsroom (e.g. disaster, scandal, election)
- Experiments or pilots (new subjects or formats your newsroom is trying out)
Use the conversation time about each story to extract broad lessons. You might even consider holding the conversation until after you’ve listened to all the chosen pieces. This way, participants can critique what worked and what didn’t from a perspective that’s larger than any one story.
Downside: Focusing on a theme sometimes makes it harder to simply discuss the quality of the work.
Listening session #6: Dissecting a story
You don’t always have to play entire stories during a listening session. In fact, you can break the piece into its parts and find new, helpful ways to discuss what worked and what didn’t. Here are two ways to do that:
- Stop each story you play at a pre-ordained time, perhaps two minutes in. Then ask participants about their level of engagement and interest. What makes them want to keep listening (or stop)? Do they care? Do they understand what the story is about? What do they expect to happen by the end of the story? This is a great way to talk about momentum, expectation-setting and structure in stories. (h/t NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce)
- Extract all the narration from the story and play only the “tape.” Is the story’s sound compelling and relevant? Does the order in which it appears make sense? Can you get a clear sense of what the story is about? Obviously, a session like this will pretty quickly demonstrate the quality of a story’s sound and whether or not it is used well.
Downside: You’re not judging stories in their entirety, which can be unsatisfying for some participants.
So that’s six ways to carry out listening sessions. Surely there are more — and we’d love to hear about them. Write us at TrainingTeam@npr.org if you have a strategy to recommend.