Claire Navarro has taken on a huge task with her podcast Hold That Thought. Each week she interviews a professor about research at Washington University in St. Louis. I know I’m going to learn something cool each time I listen.
But even with fascinating subject matter, hosting a show like this is tough. Claire told us she wants to make research interesting to listeners tuned out of the academic world. So when we dove into an episode for Second Ear (our monthly mini-workshop for producers), we used that lens to talk about writing, hosting, interviewing, and mixing. Here are her original version and the revised version. Take a listen and read about our process and more below.
When I listen to Hold That Thought, I occasionally get the sense that Claire has so much material that it’s hard to know what to do with it. Each researcher has investigated a number of compelling topics, and it’s hard to incorporate them all.
Our advice? Find the story. Instead of profiling a professor and his research, devote each episode to a single story — one with a beginning, middle and end, with characters, conflict, and surprise — and let that guide the structure. Be okay with the fact that a lot of great research won’t make the cut.
Once you know what that story is, get to it. Hook the listener as quickly as possible. Don’t dillydally with a long formal intro before getting to the meat. Then never let the suspense fade.
Then we talked about writing and hosting. Claire has taken on a beast writing about academia. Her voice has to carry drama when the research gets dry. And, especially for radio, she has to translate jargon to colloquial speech. Claire already knew she had to write like she talks, but she pointed out that she’s so entrenched in the academic world, words like “collaborate” and “examine” do sound colloquial to her. So Genevieve and I suggested to try again what she already knew: sit down with a friend — maybe even take a shot first — and just tell the story. Let yourself be silly. Record yourself. Then listen to your tape and pay attention the words you used. You can even use that recording in the final mix.
In her second version, Claire takes this to heart. She introduces the show in just one line. Then she jumps into a story about herself. And what a difference! I feel like she’s talking to me, Erika.
Claire wasn’t going to have time to interview her subject again, but we talked through ideas for next time. Interviewing professors can be a challenge. They’re used to talking about their research a certain way, so you have to help them break habits. And then you have to dig around to excavate the story that will drive your piece. For a story, you need emotion. Claire understands that as well as anyone, and she works to make every limited minute with her subject count. Here’s what we talked about.
- When you meet her for the interview, project the emotions you want to get out of her. If you want to her to sound excited, be excited, interested, animated. You’ll set the tone.
- Ask how she started. How did her own story lead to this work?
- Ask what surprised her. How were her own notions challenged by the data?
- Ask how the research is personal. Was there a moment when she got emotional about her findings or while working with the kids and their parents?
- If it’s not personal to the researcher, who is it personal to? Who will this affect?
- Ask for an “aha” or breakthrough moment.
- Ask her for the funniest moment she remembers. Even if it doesn’t end up being relevant to the story, it might loosen her up. And if it’s really funny, it might be just what you need in the final version.
- Ask who would disagree with her and then have her respond to their criticisms. Or find the opposing researcher beforehand, interview him, and play the tape for her so she can respond.
- Set up hypotheticals. For example, if she could tell parents one thing to do to improve their kids’ reading, what would it be?
- Set up metaphors. If this looked like x, what would y be?
- Tell her to pretend she’s explaining the experiment to a ten-year-old.
- Ask what she couldn’t put in the published paper that she found interesting.
- Find an example, perhaps in pop culture. If it’s video or audio, play it for her. Have her react. Is the example connected? Is it missing the point?
- Ask her to describe scenes vividly. Slow her down to take it moment by moment. Ask for senses — taste, smell, sight, feeling.
Finally, we told Claire what we tell everyone: make it shorter. It will force you to tighten. Plus, it’ll make the story more attractive to purchasing stations. Claire made it look easy. She got her ten-minute story down to under five.
Stay tuned for more from our next Second Ear producer this month! Follow us with #SecondEar on Twitter.