Want razor-sharp focus in your audio stories? This group activity can help

Thinking about your story’s driving question before you begin reporting can lead to a better final product. (Jenna Sterner/NPR)

This is a story-shaping exercise NPR Training has used with groups of audio journalists to give stronger purpose to the early reporting process and, ultimately, the final product. You can use it exactly as described or adapt it to your needs. Just make sure someone — either a peer or a newsroom leader — can play the role of facilitator. And note: While the exercise may also be useful for reporting in other mediums, this version is focused on audio.

Read on to learn more about the purpose of the exercise, or jump to the step-by-step guide.

A lot of feature pitches and assignments begin as topics, not stories (NPR editors discuss what makes a good pitch here):

“We need to do a story on this new environmental policy.”

“I want to report on homelessness in our city.”

“Let’s do something on the history of this issue.”

“This new album/book/movie is big — let’s cover it.”

That’s OK — as a starting point.

Too often, though, the resulting audio feature remains a broad topic that never quite finds its story. The focus isn’t clear and it sounds more like a collection of quotes than a purposeful story with a beginning, middle and end.

So how can we take a topic and wrestle it into a story?

The traditional answer is: We go out and report, and we figure out what the story is.

Reporting is essential. But in audio storytelling, the front-end thinking is just as necessary. It can be the difference between great and meh. You need to hypothesize from the start about the story’s focus and structure and imagine the sorts of “tape” you need. Gathering audio takes time, and it’s not easy to go back and get something you need.  So for the sake of efficiency — and, hopefully, creativity — you’ve got to think ahead.

This exercise is a way to do that.

The key to the exercise: The driving question

The best feature stories are trying to answer a central, driving question. It may or may not be stated explicitly, but you know what it is, and the audience can tell what it is from listening.

Think of a driving question as the fuel that feeds a story and pushes it forward. Asking some version of “How did we get here?” or “What is the significance of …?” or “Why is this the way it is?” gives a story purpose.

So how do we identify the most effective question? Here are some criteria you can apply:

The scope is narrow but not too narrow. We can’t cover everything, no matter how long the story. On the flip side, you should not be able to answer the question in a sentence or a paragraph.

Too broad: What is going on with homelessness in our city?

Too narrow: What does the mayor say about the homelessness issue?

Just right: What has been the impact so far of the city’s new initiative to reduce homelessness?

It asks “why?” or “how?” These words open doors to a narrative.

Good example: Why has homelessness increased so much in the past five years?

You can at least begin to answer it. Sometimes, our ability to report on a topic is limited by lack of access to people or data. Or, we simply don’t yet know the answer. And while informed speculation may be OK, pure speculation is not.

Problematic example: “What will happen if we don’t solve the homelessness problem?”

Why driving questions work

Centering a story around a question is not the only way to articulate an angle. But questions are particularly useful because they  unlike statements (i.e. “Homelessness has increased in our city propel the reporter and the listener forward. Listeners stick around because the reporter is promising to reveal something: an answer, or, at least, a journey to find it.

Identifying that one question also helps you narrow your focus. Because listening to audio stories is a linear experience  there’s no easy way to slow down or back up  audio news pieces demand a clear purpose. Otherwise, listeners get lost. That means leaving things out. We have to ask ourselves if all the elements of our story are contributing to answering the driving question (or the subsequent questions that follow naturally from that starting point).  

NPR science editor Carmel Wroth, who has used this exercise multiple times, points out that “the process of choosing a good question that … leads to an interesting (and manageable) story is often harder than it sounds.”

So she started using a set of prompts to help reporters zoom in on the driving question:

  • What’s the problem?
  • Who is affected?
  • Who is doing something about it and what are they doing?
  • What obstacles are they hitting or what solutions are they creating?
  • What question do you personally really want to know the answer to?
  • Can you answer this question in four minutes? If not, what question could you answer?
  • What is the most specific version of the question you could ask?
  • What’s most important, new or different about this topic?
  • What does my audience need to understand? What is relevant to their lives?

The story-shaping exercise

What you’ll need

You can adapt this exercise to your needs, but there are a few essential ingredients:

  1. At least four people. At most, 20. More than that and the group conversation gets challenging.
  2. A facilitator who can keep time and guide conversation.
  3. A story idea in its early stages for each participant. The reporting and tape-gathering shouldn’t be finished but each participant should have knowledge of their topic.
  4. At least 60 minutes away from the grind. Ideally, 90 minutes.

You can also use this worksheet throughout the exercise (print it or use it as a fillable PDF).

Step 1: Brainstorm the driving question (3-5 minutes)

What might be the single, driving question for your story? There should be a lot of options. In the spirit of non-judgmental brainstorming, write everything that comes to mind, even if it seems silly.

Each question a participant writes could present a different pathway for the story. At the end of this step, each participant should take a moment to scan through what they wrote and identify one or two questions that seem most promising.

Note to the facilitator: Set a clock for this exercise to keep participants on track.

Step 2: Explore where the story could lead (30-45 minutes)

The goal now is to explore the potential of the questions you’ve chosen. This is an exercise in editorial imagination  with the help of partners. You’re not making final decisions, you’re testing out the concept. What will it take to tell this story? What kind of story might this become? What would you have to leave out in order to answer this question? And most importantly, is this the best driving question to choose?

Sometimes, you’ll find that the answer is no. This is not a failure! Better to figure it out now than when the story is due. And luckily, you have a list of other questions you brainstormed, so you can choose another angle to consider.

Here’s how this part of the exercise works:

  1. Get into groups of two or three.
  2. One participant begins by laying out the premise of their story and their chosen driving question.
  3. The group weighs in, offering feedback and questions.
  4. Use the additional prompts on the worksheet to give more shape to the idea and test out its premise. (More on those questions below.)

Note to the facilitator: Each person in the group should get equal time to talk through their story and bounce ideas off their partners. Facilitators need to alert the teams when it’s time to switch to another participant’s story.

This work is done with partners for a reason. Not only is it helpful to bounce ideas off another person, but it’s also essential to consider your audience from the beginning of the editorial process. While the partners aren’t perfect stand-ins for the listening audience  they know more about the editorial process and possibly more about the topic  their job here is to imagine they are tuning in to your story as listeners. What intrigues them?

Here are some tips on how to use the worksheet prompts:

Prompt 1: Describe 1-2 pieces of must-have “tape.”

Start basic. The point of this prompt is to ensure that your story will actually answer the question it’s exploring. What audio will best answer the question? For example, if your central question is “How is X policy affecting people in my city?” one “must-have” bit of tape is of those affected by the policy. That may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not. With a less-focused reporting process, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s essential and what’s secondary.

Prompt 2: What kind of story is this?

English majors, this is the moment to pull out your old lecture notes. There are certain genres or archetypes that listeners understand without thinking. If I tell you a story is a mystery or a journey or a David vs. Goliath tale, your mind is already prepared for a certain experience. You can capitalize on narrative techniques like these in your reporting, not only as a way of making your story more compelling but also as a way of focusing your process.

Of course, you can always change your mind during the reporting. The story can and should evolve as you report it. But you have to start somewhere, right? Prompts like “what kind of story is this?” provide you with creative constraints that bring organization and focus to an otherwise unstructured process.

Prompt 3: What will you leave out?

This is a question we don’t ask ourselves enough. We feel such a powerful obligation to report comprehensively that we are more likely to stuff a piece too full than winnow it down. But we can’t do everything, in the average 4-minute radio news story or even in a long podcast episode. To make the listening experience comprehensible, characters, scenes, action and facts need to fit together organically in a narrative arc and feel as though they are serving the same, clear purpose.

Consider what elements do not help to answer your central question. In our theoretical story about homelessness, let’s say we want to understand what a day is like for one homeless person staying in a particular, overcrowded shelter. What does not fit into that story? What might detract from the focus? An interview with the mayor might feel important, for example, but it might pull the listener away from the story you are telling.

By the way, in a real editing situation, this prompt can be especially helpful to talk through with your editor before you’re in the midst of a complicated edit. That way, you can establish the outlines of an agreement and avoid debating what the piece is about late in the process.

Note to the facilitator:

There’s going to be a delightful hubbub in the room as the groups talk. It may be hard to get their attention back! But it’s important to make sure each partner gets equal time to share their stories. So raise your voice and let them know when it’s time to switch.

Also, reassure your participants: The point is not to fully shape a story in the course of the exercise. This is a journey-not-a-destination kind of experience. The process of trying to explain a story concept makes the subsequent reporting and writing process stronger and more intentional.

Step #3: Get the group back together

The conversations happening throughout the room have likely gone in a wide range of directions. Some participants have struggled to articulate their story’s premise while others have made substantial progress. It’s helpful to bring everyone back together and debrief.

There are a couple of things a facilitator can do at this point. You can ask participants to:

  • Explain their process of thinking through a story with the entire group. What was the journey like from a topic to a story? How did the idea evolve through conversation? This is an opportunity for the group to hear how others approached the conversation.
  • Share a takeaway from the exercise. This helps to reinforce lessons learned and surface differences in the process.
  • Assess the exercise. Did it help? What was hard? Where did obstacles occur?  How could the lessons be applied for real in their next stories?

If the facilitator is pressed for time, they may be tempted to end the exercise without doing this step. Here’s are a few reasons that reuniting the group is worth the time:

  • Showing your work. As with any group work, this is a good chance for accountability and reinforcement.
  • Course correction. Sometimes the facilitator may find that a small group’s conversation traveled down a rabbit hole and lost its way. Group discussion can provide the participants with a chance to get back on the right path.
  • Cohort-building. We’re all in this together, right?

So what happens when you do this exercise?

Here are a few of the impacts we’ve seen from journalists who have tried this out:

  • Staff says they have a new understanding of  and a vocabulary for  narrowing an audio story’s focus.
  • Editors and reporters spend more time brainstorming about a story’s focus early in the process.
  • Story edits become easier because the editor and reporter establish shared expectations about the story’s focus earlier in the process.
  • Multiple editorial leaders have told us they immediately receive more focused story ideas from their reporters.

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.