At a recent game night at my friend Mio’s house, he often interrupted the game and shouted commands to his Amazon Alexa. Every now and then, he’d turn to face the speaker-personal-assistant-device and say: “Alexa, play ‘Ice, Ice Baby’.” Seconds later, Vanilla Ice’s opening lyrics, “Collaborate and listen…” came on and set the mood in the room to ’90s retro.

Hearing him talk to Alexa got me thinking:

What does it mean for a print journalist like me to write and edit for the ear rather than the eyes? 

With the rise in text-to-speech, voice search technologies, smart speakers, AI personal assistants, podcasts and audio courses, more and more writers need to examine the fundamental differences between writing for print and “writing for radio,” between writing for readers and writing for listeners.

How our brains process meaning from what we hear differs from how we recognize words on a page.

When reading, a reader can skim through sections, using headlines and font types to track main ideas. They can go back to sentences or phrases they thought they misread. They can race through dependent clauses without blinking, stringing multiple ideas together.

The difference between writing for listeners and readers

According to a 2015 research paper published in Scientific American, when we read, we visualize words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud. In essence, while reading, the mind sees, hears and comprehends. When listening, audio perception is much more selective, picking out sounds keenly curated to alert us to imminent dangers. For instance, we can single out our mother’s voice from a crowd of voices at the airport.

When using our ears only, all the visual cues littered in the pages we read don’t hold muster:

  • You can’t drop hyperlinks to supporting pages without context. Auditorially speaking, hyperlinks (often highlighted in a different font color) would not stand out from other words in a sentence unless the hyperlinked words were screamed or whispered.
  • Statistics, infographics and charts wouldn’t work without specific descriptions. Try asking a listener to make sense of a verbal description of a bar chart on the spending deficit while driving their car in the middle of Atlanta traffic. Nope.
  • Visual layouts of white space and line breaks would render a listener thinking they’re listening to dead air.

Dear no, not dead air. No content creative wants dead air.

Let’s turn to experts in audio storytelling to guide your ear…

In pondering the scenario of what the differences are between print and audio storytelling, I went to NPR Training, the hub of masterful radio storytelling, to gather tips from the best at their craft.

There were lots of helpful hints and guidance about how to find your voice, and how to use sound editing as a way to tell a story people want to listen to. Here I’ve cherry-picked a few maxims given by experts which could be adapted to content marketing in ways that could make your content worth a listen.

To my delight, this art form of writing for radio, got me into a zen state of mind. Like writing a haiku, writing for the ears is sparse, gripped with emotion, and punctuated by a simplicity so irreverent that it makes print journalists seem a tad on the gaudy side when it comes to being so voluminous with words. (No radio person would have written that sentence.)

From Alison MacAdam on NPR’s Training Team: “Like you’re describing the story to a friend or your mom…”

Allison MacAdam’s advice to approach your audience like describing the story to a friend or your mom comes from a place of urging writers to read their work aloud. I got the same advice from my mentors and editors while writing for the local newspaper.

If you run out of breath reading your first sentence, stop. Say it. Then write it like you said it. In print, the lede attempts to answer who, what, where, when and how, all crammed in the first sentence. Because of radio’s more linear nature, stories heard have to have some natural pauses to them.

Spoken language comes off much differently than print in that: Sentences are short and simple. Each sentence contains one idea, maybe two ideas max. We drop the clauses and don’t expect punctuation to do any heavy-lifting for us. Instead, intonation is delivered through the tone of your story.

From Chris Joyce on NPR’s science desk: “Campfire stories… Seduce and tease listeners at the beginning…”

Chris Joyce’s manifesto on writing for radio is brimming with fundamentals for any writer. He hints at how writing for the ear harps back to campfire stories, where scene setting, foreshadowing, suspense, potential horror, and a gripping revelation is a means to seduce your audience.

How does one do that? He says it starts with raising a question in the listener’s mind: What happens next?

The secret to audio storytelling telling is to always keep the listener asking: What happens next?

Once you’ve raised the question, each actuality (a radio term for scene or description of a situation) leads the listener through a series of single point moments which attempt to answer the question raised. Each single point builds on the other until multiple perspectives of a story are revealed through sounds, quotes and narration.

From Robert Smith on NPR’s ‘Planet Money’: Story structure, arc, acts and signposts

Building on the advice of Chris Joyce, Robert Smith attempts to show story structure in four simple drawings.

Taking a flat story where the story is a he-said-she-said between critics, Smith says give the listener a question that drives their curiosity. In essence, by taking one topic, one locality, one Matzo factory, can we widen the question to larger things about the economy, for instance?

You can do so by dividing your story and your quest for answering the larger question into a series of “acts” with a beginning, middle and end. Each time you raise the bar by trying to draw out a linear way to measure impact: What’s at stake? What does it mean? What has changed?

Finally, he says, give listeners “signposts,” descriptive narration that helps move your scenes along. In order to not lose your audience, you as the narrator must guide them by telling them where you are going and why you are going there.

From Hannah Bloch on NPR’s international news: Every word has to pull its weight.

Hannah Bloch’s guidance on how to write short is incredibly relevant as readers and listeners are bombarded by too much information. Every minute is precious, and if readers don’t see a through-line to learning something new, provocative, profound or insightful within the first few seconds of a radio show, you’ve lost them.

So as a content creator, she says know your story inside and out before you start writing. If you know what is important, the story will have two to three main points and start off strong to the point with every word is pulling the reader in and making it worth it for them to stay.

Writing for Listeners and Amazon Alexa Audiences

Bloch lines up a slew of examples of efficient writing. For instance, many stories in the 500-word-count range make up for about 4-5 minutes of air time, with additional time for audio and quotes.

Video didn’t kill the radio star, not by a long shot… so keep listening

This initial delve into understanding the differences of writing for print and radio has whetted my appetite to learn more about the expanding landscape of writing for audio.

As tech companies explore AI and deep learning, their source of investigation starts with how humans process language and learning. Who else would we turn to other than storytellers to explore how the mind listens? ClearVoice hopes to explore more ways storytellers, writers and audio content creators are reshaping language for listeners.

For an excellent collection of examples from more pros comparing print to radio stories, please visit this other wonderful NPR resource on audio storytelling