How to Tell an Audio Story While It's Unfolding—5 Tips From Buffer

New to narrative podcasting? Learn how to tell an audio story while it's unfolding with 5 tips from Buffer.

In 2019, Buffer decided to embark on one of the most challenging yet rewarding creative journeys they’ve ever attempted.

The plan was to follow the founders of Gin Lane, a successful creative agency that helped launch brands like Sweetgreen and Smile Direct Club, while the agency itself launched a new direct-to-consumer company called Pattern Brands — and to document their story as it unfolded in real-time.

Buffer called this podcast Breaking Brand, and to date, the show has racked up over 25,000 listens, 2,500 unique listeners, an 18-to-19 minute per episode average listening time, and an average episode completion rate of about 83%. Wowza!

Below, we share some of Buffer’s top tips for telling an audio story while it is unfolding. Take these tactical tips and get inspired to pursue your own narrative adventure.

1.) Find a story that grips your niche audience

Telling a story as it’s happening in real-time doesn’t guarantee people will connect with your show. For that to happen, you also need to tell a compelling story — one that targets a niche audience, has an interesting hook, and is chock-full of conflict.

Buffer hit all three of these marks with Breaking Brand. Their pool of potential customers spans an incredibly broad range of business professionals — from directors of social media at enterprise companies to solopreneurs. But with Breaking Brand, they decided to target the solopreneur side of the spectrum so they could resonate with this niche audience as deeply as possible.

When it came to their show’s hook, they selected an angle that was so unique and compelling, it could lure in even the pickiest of podcast listeners. Why would a creative agency that has launched over 50 startups and created nearly $15 billion in market value drop everything to build a brand-new direct-to-consumer business of their own? Buffer knew that solopreneurs would eagerly tune in to find out.

“Why would a creative agency that has launched over 50 startups and created nearly $15 billion in market value drop everything to build a brand-new direct-to-consumer business of their own?”

The story was also binge-worthy because of its high stakes. The protagonists of the story had a lot to lose by closing down their well established agency to start a new business. Buffer bet that people would be drawn to this conflict, eager to see how Gin Lane fared.

2.) Hire an agency or freelancers

Following a story firsthand is a daunting task to begin with, but if you’ve never produced a narrative-style podcast before, it’s one of the hardest creative endeavors to undertake.

Here are a few of the tasks you’ll need to cross off your list:

  • Planning a compelling, coherent story over multiple episodes
  • Following the protagonists around
  • Interviewing show subjects
  • Booking studio time
  • Editing audio
  • Adding music and sound effects

So before you dive headfirst into a story that’s currently unfolding, consider hiring pros to help tell your story. Buffer had never explored a story while it was happening in real time — let alone launch a narrative-style podcast — so they hired Message Heard to help them craft the show.

To find an agency that can help you craft your story, check to see who produced your favorite branded or original podcasts, and reach out to them. If you’d rather pursue more affordable options, consider sifting through a freelance marketplace like Fiverr or Upwork.

If you’d rather create your show in-house but still want some external professional guidance, consider signing up for a podcast workshop, such as The Showrunner Sessions, which is run by Jay Acunzo of Marketing Showrunners. Acunzo will teach you a process for crafting compelling episodes, offer 1:1 instruction, and facilitate Q&As with other aspiring podcasters.

3.) Map out your story’s plot points before production

Heavily investing in your story before you produce your series is crucial to being able to course-correct when things don’t go as planned.

At Buffer, mapping out all their plot points and character introductions before the production phase allowed them to adjust their story accordingly when a point of tension that they thought was there actually wasn’t. They had the end goal of the series in mind, so they were able to adapt on the fly.

When planning your show, map out your story’s structure first. In our article, Learning from Popular Television: 5 Key Story Structure Elements, we dive deep into the Hollywood story structure and analyze five different hit shows to teach you how to model your show narrative after Hollywood’s most compelling stories.

Here’s a quick rundown of the story structure we cover:

  • Exposition: The world or situation the hero lives in, their status quo
  • Inciting incident: A major event that disrupts their status quo, creates a pressing problem in the hero’s life and compels them to solve it to return back to their normal life
  • Progressive complications: Obstacles that hinder the hero’s chances of getting what they want, escalating the story’s conflict Turning point: A revelation that helps the hero realize what’s required to succeed
  • Crisis: A tough decision that will either set the hero on the path to success or failure and they’ll never return to their regular life again
  • Climax: Gutsy move necessary to succeed, often revealing the hero’s true character and changing their worldview forever
  • Resolution: Indications of how much the hero has changed

After you set your structure in place, fill it in with the rest of your plot points. But you must also remember to save some space for random flairs of creativity. Sometimes, those are your best ideas.

4.) Pitch your ideas to your subject before each recording session

If your podcast follows a brand’s or a person’s journey toward achieving a goal, some of your favorite ideas may inevitably not come to fruition due to scheduling or time issues. However, you have a show to make. You still need to get your audio.

“If your podcast follows a brand’s or a person’s journey toward achieving a goal, some of your favorite ideas may inevitably not come to fruition due to scheduling or time issues.”

The best way to overcome this challenge is by coming up with multiple ideas before a recording session, and then asking your subject if the ideas are feasible. After that, you can create a schedule that will allow you to record several pieces of audio at a time.

At Buffer, they would pitch more ideas than they needed to Pattern Brands before recording sessions. After some inevitably got cut, they still had enough approved ideas for each session.

If there’s one way to ensure that you won’t record enough footage for your show, it’s showing up at your subject’s office and asking them if you can record something on the spot. Prepare your ideas beforehand, so you don’t learn this the hard way.

5.) Have the guts to cut

“Have the guts to cut” is a timeless writing tip made famous by the iconic novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Even though his nugget of advice has to do with scratching out sentences, it still relates to telling an audio story.

For instance, at Buffer, they had to map out their story three to four times before it felt right. Then, during production, they had to cut ideas, including some that they were passionate about. Storylines that initially seemed to support the overarching narrative either ended up not making sense or could potentially serve as too much of a distraction to the primary story.

When you’re telling a story that’s constantly changing, channel your inner Vonnegut, and don’t be afraid to cut your audio as needed.