How to Help Your Audience See As Well As Hear
We asked the experts at 99% Invisible and Accession for their advice on talking about the way something looks.
In an audio-only medium, discussing visuals can be tricky. If you've ever started a conversation while podcasting only to realize it required talking about the visual aesthetics of something, you may have found yourself in an awkward situation.
Talking visuals in podcasting is no mystery to Kurt Kohlstedt, digital director and producer for Radiotopia's 99% Invisible, or T.H. Ponders, creator of the indie art podcast Accession. Here's their advice on bringing visual discussion topics into your podcast.
Discuss what matters
Kohlstedt and Ponders both agree that the first step is making sure your audio descriptions are detailed, but within reason. Take Stephen Sondheim's oft-cited advice on writing: "All in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters." You want to make sure that you hit the most important details of imagery for your listener, and you also want to make sure the listener is getting a clear and uncluttered image in their head.
Kohlstedt's work on 99% Invisible often has to incorporate visuals; his podcast is about how design—everything from cemeteries to pool shapes to fashion—impacts peoples' lives. Episodes usually include tools, structures, and textiles the audience hasn't seen, so being clear is key. "Sometimes that means spending more time talking about the subject in question, but often—perhaps surprisingly—it's more efficient and effective to use broad strokes so that the audience understands the key visual aspects that are important to the story," he says. "It's not uncommon for us to spend time trying to describe something in detail, only to step back and realize we're making it harder and not easier to understand."
Even if your podcast touches only briefly on how something looks, try to focus on the key details that matter to your discussion. Draw comparisons your audience will likely understand, and focus on clarity.
Tap into feeling
When your entire episode focuses on visuals, you might need to look inward—or get creative—to express the importance of your subject.
Accession is a podcast about art, and each episode discusses what the piece of art in question actually looks like in a museum. While 99% Invisible has an educational edge, Accession tries to impart the listeners with the feeling the art is trying to give: "When describing a piece of art," Ponders says, "I want to make sure that the way I describe the piece parallels what the artist is trying to say with the piece. When a painting is realist, detailed, and intricate, I try to make sure that my description is as precise. Conversely, if a painting is more abstract, focused on color and emotion, I’ll use broader terms to allow the listener multiple points of visual entry, like the artist intended."
If you're still struggling to get the feelings of the visuals across in your audio, it might be time to get creative. Sometimes, Ponders takes a page from the fiction podcasts' playbook and adds in some sound design to heighten the listener experience. "When describing Archibald Motley’s Nightlife, there was no way to describe the energy of jazz coursing through the bar. It was only when I could add jazz music, glasses clinking, and sounds of dancers moving across the floor that the piece really came to life."
Use your website and socials to your advantage
The website for 99% Invisible is robust. For each episode—and even for stories that didn't make it in—there's a blog post with more descriptions, images, and videos. Think of it as show notes 2.0, a way to give your audience a visual guide as they listen along.
Kohlstedt has written lots of these posts. "I think of it a bit like the 'bonus' offerings on DVDs. Yes, I'm that old," he jokes. "In some cases, images are helpful to illustrate specific designs or places or to put faces to names. In other cases, embedded videos or music files can expand on episode content. [. . .] Optional extras for people who are really engaged and want more. Often, [host Roman Mars] will mention additional web materials of potential interest in the credits portion of an episode."
Supporting web posts are an easy way to give listeners the visuals that can help enrich their listening experience—and Kohlstedt says they're an underrated way to draw new listeners in, too. "[Web posts] can really help with respect to social media and other online sharing," he says. "A lot of people are used to seeing text, images, and videos and may be hesitant to commit to a 20-minute-or-more audio story. So for some, imagery and other companion elements can help grab attention and convince people to listen or share."
Ponders also acknowledges the usefulness of social media in conjunction with website posts. "One of the things I have really latched onto is using stories on Instagram and Snapchat to highlight details and closeup parts of an image," he says. "Because it acts a bit like a slideshow, I can provide adequate visual context." Using stories, threads, or other multi-post photo options on social media doesn't just help catch a listener's eye; it can also help you zoom into specific details you mention in the podcast, point by point.
Remember to be clear and direct—which includes tapping into the feeling of the visuals. Think about what your descriptions convey to your listener and what comparisons your listener will understand. Use your website and social media to share some of the visuals you discuss in your episode. You might attract some new listeners as well as enriching the experience for your current audience.