The Perfection Of Imperfection

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(By Tim O’Brien) Computers are wonderful things. They enable podcasters to do things that never would have been possible in the world of recording tape.

Depending on how proficient you are with a keyboard and a mouse, or sometimes, just a touch screen, you can splice and dice audio so efficiently that you can turn a raw interview that was awkward and aimless into something concise and directional, and maybe even entertaining.

More often than not, listeners can’t tell where certain edits were made and when. But if you talk to any podcaster who prides herself or himself on their editing skills, they can tell you.

So, what kinds of things do podcasters usually edit out? Let’s start with those long pauses between words and thoughts, often accompanied by the short and long versions of “uuhhh.” These are usually the first suspects to be targeted for removal.

Podcasters know that when we edit our rough audio into something more listenable, it’s cleaner, tighter, and more polished. But how far should we go? How many “uumms” and “uhhs” do we need to take out? All of them?

I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule on this, but I do know you want to make sure that your podcast sounds natural. And in a natural setting, we don’t speak perfectly and rapidly, and we do take breaths. Because of this, since birth we have been trained to listen to and comprehend others based on natural, imperfect human speech patterns.

For this reason, when I edit the Shaping Opinion podcast, my first priority is not to mess with the natural pacing of the interview. If the guest is contemplative, I try to make sure I don’t cut those pauses too short, and I do leave in some of those filler “umms” and “uuhhs.” In my approach, I take so much time editing during production that you can pretty much assume every filler word, pause and stumble, or repeating of certain words was intentionally left in the final product to preserve its authenticity.

On the flip side, I do tend to take out the vast majority of “umms” and “uhhs” that could serve as distractions. I won’t let a pause longer than two or three seconds stand. I take out all coughs or verbal ticks that don’t help.

The priority for me is to edit so that the sense of natural conversation is preserved, while eliminating the potential for distractions from the stories we tell. Everything must reinforce the experience we are trying to create for our listeners.

The listener doesn’t expect perfection in speech patterns during an interview so to try to remove all of them can create a hyper pace that is in itself a distraction. The brain needs a certain amount of time between words and thoughts in order to comprehend and absorb the content. While that time may be minuscule, like a half-second or more, this is very important for listener engagement.

Sometimes that’s where the imperfections in the way we speak actually serve to aid the communications process, not hinder it. It’s a delicate balance. In the end, sometimes the perfect response we want from listeners means not trying to perfect everything.

Tim O’Brien is the producer and host of the Shaping Opinion podcast and the founder of the Pittsburgh-based communications consultancy O’Brien Communications. He can be reached at 412.854.8845 or timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. I concur completely! I like to edit out ums and pauses that disrupt the flow of the conversation, but there are times when pauses or the “you know?”adds to the conversational tone of what the interviewee is saying. An editor has to really listen for what’s being communicated to get at these. It’s editing that can’t be done on video and tone that can’t be reproduced in text. That’s why podcasting is such a strong and meaningful medium.

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