Show, Don’t Tell

You have probably heard of the old rule of thumb in writing that you should always try to show your reader something rather than tell it to them. “Augusta, an aging woman who was recently widowed, sat on a bench staring off into nothing” works better than “The old lady felt lonely”. It lets a reader empathize, paint their own picture and participate a little more in the story by filling in the subtext themselves. There are exceptions, but generally, it’s a good rule. How, if at all, can we apply that rule to podcasting?

It might not make a whole lot of sense at first glance. We can’t show anything in podcasting, right? In film they have lots of tools for ‘saying’ things without actually saying them. The lighting can set a mood, tiny details in an actress’s facial expressions can reveal what is really going on, that thing called mise-en-scène can tell a lot about how the characters are feeling. How do we do these things in a podcast though? Here are a few of my thoughts on that.

I have used the example of an interview-style podcast below, but many of these ideas could still be applied to a single host talking, a roundtable conversation, a fictional podcast, etc. (even if only to get us thinking). Also, please feel free to add more to this in the comments below…

i) Mise-en-scene

We have this in podcasts too. In film, mise-en-scene is everything going on in the background of a shot that isn’t the main action. Cinematography (or how the action is framed), props, locations, etc. can all contribute. As podcasters, our main action is (generally) spoken words but what can weframe our main action with?

We hear it on NPR-style shows all the time… Before an interview the host walks down a street with crunchy leaves under their feet, he/she opens a creaky gate, knocks on a door and coyly mutters “Hello?!?”. And then they overdub a studio-recorded segment introducing who they are about to talk to…

Most listeners wouldn’t think much of that 20 second preamble — maybe it is just filler or something?! It isn’t. It is telling the story. As a listener, you put yourself in that situation and it (whether consciously or not) engages you to participate by painting a picture in your head. All those creaky gate sounds set up the stage on which the main ‘action’ (e.g. the interview or story) will take place.

There is a fine line to walk with this, but the point is that sometimes in somestories, things like having to interrupt the interview in order to wait while a train that shakes the whole house goes by… sometimes interruptions like that can actually help to support the main action. The stuff happening in the background can really add to what is happening in the foreground. If it reveals something about one of the people talking, or it sets up a scene that our listeners can imagine themselves being in, ‘accidental’ or ‘non-essential’tape can really help to tell a story.

ii) Sound Design

Another more obvious way to show without telling is the clever use of sound design. For example, do you include a ringing sound when you are calling up a guest? Do you use the default Skype ringtone or the sound of an old rotary phone? How do either of those affect the way your listener imagines the person you are calling? Is the story you are telling about hip young tech startups or a generation of aging luddites? These are subtle questions to be asking, but working toward having all these things considered will definitely step up our shows.

Sound design also includes music. Music adds meaning to words whether we want it to or not. Even if the only music in a podcast is a 30-second intro, the tone of that music affects how listeners interpret what gets said.

Take a simple sentence, “The train reminds me of one fateful night when I was 21 years old”. It is an ambiguous sentence, listeners have no idea what might have happened on that night, but we can help them to fill in the subtext using music. Edit in some soft piano music underneath and it might seem very warm & nostalgic. Edit in something sinister and those exact same words will mean something very different.

Try it right now, repeat the bolded phrase above while listening toDebussy and then repeat it while listening to Béla Bartók.

The right sound and music can change a really simple 3-second spoken phrase like “Hi, my name is Bob” into an entire novel of backstory.

“Hi, my name is Bob… and I live underneath the train tracks because it is all I can afford right now. I am a patient man because I sit silently and wait while the train rattles my home rather than shout and get upset about it. I am a nice guy because of the cheerful way I answered the door after you came through my creaky gate. I am also the type of guy who finds a lot of joy in simple pleasures because, rather than dwelling on the train, I tend to focus on the lovely Debussy music playing in the background of my flat”.

Bob can say all of that in the same 3 second “Hi, my name is Bob”, if you let sound & music do some of the talking.

iii) Editing

For me, one of the most interesting ways of showing without telling is in how I edit. Telling a story in the most engaging way is often not chronological.

Let’s stick with Bob. If the story that Bob is telling (e.g. our ‘main action’) is about how he lost his cat Bob Jr. and then found him again 1 year later, we can add a lot to that story just by thinking about what order we present it in. We’ve set up Bob as a nice guy. Hearing about a nice guy losing his cat and then finding it again is ok but listeners may not think much more deeply about it than that.

What if we start Bob’s story at the end with him talking about the day he re-united with Bob Jr.? What if a listener’s introduction to Bob is him talking really excitedly about how amazing it was to have his friend back, how he didn’t even notice the train shaking the house that whole day because he was just so excited to be petting Bob Jr. again?

As a listener, that makes me laugh and I really like Bob from the get go. I want to imagine Bob’s whole life. I want to think about Bob petting his cat for an hour every morning. I don’t know if Bob does that, I’m just imagining that that’s what he does (and me imagining what Bob does is good). We’ve shownthat Bob is a really sweet guy without having to say it out loud (simply by starting the story at the end).

Then, when we get to the part where Bob spent a year wondering where his cat had gone, it is heart-breaking in a way that it wasn’t before. We want Bob to have his simple pleasures back. We want Bob & Bob Jr. to be re-united real bad (and even if we know that they do re-unite in the end, we feel it more this way). Rather than a nice guy who lost his cat for a bit, Bob starts to represent how we’ve dealt with our own struggles and we can’t help but fill in the blanks that aren’t explicitly stated.

(This may be an exaggerated example but you see my point — audiences already have all of these thoughts and subtexts in their heads and we can tap into them by editing in a way that allows them to relate using their own experience.)

We haven’t told the audience anything extra, Bob’s story is the exact same. However, the order we’ve presented his story has allowed listeners to create a lot of unspoken details about who Bob is, how they can relate to him and (if I’m being really philosophical) what Bob has to say about the human condition.

Bob Jr. is a wild beast who disappears on crazy benders sometimes.

Not all of us are interviewing cat owners who live under train tracks, I know. Not all of us want to reveal insights into the human condition (thank god). Even if your podcast is about reviewing different breakfast cereals in your underwear — what I’m getting at is that there are ways to say things without actually sayingthem and doing so often makes things more fun for listeners. Start your show with your alarm clock buzzing and the sound of you stumbling across the room to shut it off rather than just yawning “I’m tired” into a microphone. Those both say the same thing, but the first one let’s us figure out that you are tired, the second just tells us.

Those are a few of my thoughts on how we can show rather than tell in our podcasts. Some things do have to be explicitly stated and that is ok. Wherever possible though, it is a good idea to trust our listeners to pickup on subtle cues from things like mis-en-scenesound design and editing in order to actively fill in the blanks. Listeners are smart. They have healthy imaginations. It is good for us to be using and encouraging those where possible.

Whatever kind of podcast you make, I think it is always useful to ask the question, “Are there ways that this can say more by talking less?”

Cheers pals.

Keep in mind, this is advice I still struggle to implement. It’s a lot of work to craft all of this, I know, so if you have any other thoughts or advice, please comment below!