GUIDE – Evaluation Criteria for Audio Narratives

NOTE: These are the criteria I used to evaluate audio narratives for students in the Fall 2013 section of New Media Storytelling, but they also work well as a set of tips for developing audio narratives.


A or A- Very Proficient
B+ or B Proficient
B- or C+ Some Proficiency
C or C- Low Proficiency
D+ or D Doesn’t follow assignment
F Missing or submitted too late

To count as “Proficient,” an audio story will meet all of the relevant proficiency criteria under each evaluation category below. Stories that exceed the criteria will move up the scale, while those that fall below the criteria will move down the scale.

See also: CU’s Uniform Grading Policies and TAM’s Grading Policies.


Proficiency Criteria

  • Reveals the emotional journey of the main character (or protagonist), whether that’s the narrator or someone else
  • Introduces a question, conflict, or other “motivating occasion” for the story that moves the protagonist towards a “turning point”
  • Provides some degree of resolution for the protagonist

Tips for Revision

What is the central plot of your story? If a listener who hears the story for the first time wouldn’t be able to easily recognize the core plot, revise your script.

The plot is what the story is about: the emotional journey the main character goes on through the story, rather than the literal sequence of events. Most plots follow some kind of “arc,” with the moment at the peak of the arc serving as a “turning point” — when the main character had a realization, made a decision, changed his or her mind, went through a transformative experience, or otherwise finds some resolution to the “conflict” that drove the story up until then.

Here’s a way to think about the difference between plot and structure: movie trailers usually give you some idea what the “plot” of a movie will be, but it’s not until you see the movie that you can tell how the plot is “delivered,” through structural elements. Many movies follow the same plot, such as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again,” but they vary significantly in how they’re put together through structural elements. So the plot of your story may be similar to that of a classmate’s, but the structure is likely to be quite different.



Proficiency Criteria

  • Organizes the story based on dramatic impact, rather than on the literal sequence of events
  • Uses literary techniques to create interest and anticipation in listeners, such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, narrative hooks, shifts in perspective, and so on

Tips for Revision

What structural elements and literary techniques do you use to organize your story? How might you make more effective use of them?

Might it make sense to organize your story into “acts” with titles, the way Ira Glass does for stories on “This American Life”? Even if you don’t want to read these act titles out loud, they might help you improve the focus of each part of your story.

Structure is how the storyteller presents the plot, using an overall structure as well as structural elements. The overall structure refers to the sequence of events or actions (i.e., what happens in each “scene”), while structural elements build anticipation and interest in the audience and/or emphasize key themes.

Most structural elements have their roots in literary techniques, such as: narrative hooks, foreshadowing, flashbacks, shifts from present to past and back again, plot twists, framing devices, and so on. For more options, see the Wikipedia entry on Literary Technique.



Proficiency Criteria

  • Dramatizes the story in way that helps listeners create a “mental movie” of the story as they listen
  • Brings listeners directly into the moment with the speaker, rather than creating distance by “telling” rather than “showing”
  • Uses literary strategies to frame story: characters, dialogue, scenes, settings, compressed time
  • Provides sensory details relevant to the story, such as sights, smells, sounds, taste, and/or touch
  • Hints at the story’s deeper messages, but leaves listeners to draw their own conclusions rather than stating them explicitly

Tips for Revision

How much of your story helps listeners form a “mental movie” of your experience, and how much focuses on more abstract concepts that are hard to visualize? The most effective audio stories focus almost entirely on the former, which is “storytelling,” and much less on the latter, which is “essay writing.”

Storytelling uses strategies from fiction, like dialogue, characters, plot and sensory details, whereas essays use explanatory language. Take a look at this “flash fiction” piece, “His Brother’s Bite,” to see what I mean by strategies from fiction. This story is told as though it was true, and for all we know, it’s based on a true story. But consider how different (and less interesting) the story would be if it were written as an essay instead.

One of the reasons stories are so powerful is that they’re not as blatant and explicit as essays, and they don’t have neat and tidy “morals” to wrap them up (unless, of course, they’re fables). You don’t need to spell out what the story “means” as long as listeners can get the general idea from the story itself. In other words, resist the urge to “editorialize” and let the story do most of the talking.

If you worry that a listener might not “get” the message or deeper meaning of your story, don’t simply tack on a “moral” at the end. Instead, revise the story so that it more clearly hints at the story’s meaning, without stating it explicitly. Consider what you can learn about human nature and human experience from movie and TV shows, without ever needing the writers to come right out and tell you what they’re hoping to convey.



Proficiency Criteria

  • Is written for listeners, not for readers
  • Features fairly short, simple sentences that follow a straightforward structure
  • Follows the rhythms and patterns of spoken language
  • Uses words and figures of speech familiar to listeners

Tips for Revision

Which best describes your story: a script for a “spoken word” story delivered orally -or – a personal essay read aloud? If the latter, then give some thought to how you might rewrite the story to make it less “writerly” and more like the sort of story you might tell a friend.

If you wouldn’t tell a friend the story the way you wrote it in your transcript, then consider rewriting the script! The same applies to individual sentences. If any of them would sound kind of odd coming out of your mouth while you’re having lunch with a friend, then they’re probably going to sound odd in your oral delivery.

Think of the script as your guide to how to tell the story, rather than as a “written story” you plan to read aloud, if you see what I mean. The kind of language, sentence structure, and style that works well for a story meant to be read doesn’t always work so well when the story is meant to be listened to. You might even mark up your script like “actor’s notes,” to help you remember how to deliver key parts. Elements that aren’t meant to be read aloud in a script are often marked off [in square brackets like these].

Tips for Script Markup

  • break the sections into “acts” (even if you don’t read the act titles aloud)
  • use bold, color, or ALL CAPS to remind you of what to emphasize or downplay
  • use other markers to remind you to make changes in volume, tone of voice, pace, etc.
  • insert notes on where to pause for a few seconds of silence
  • include periodic reminders to slow down

More Tips for Rewriting

  • rewrite for the ear, not for the eye
  • prefer short, simpler words over complex ones
  • avoid ambiguous words and phrases
  • construct sentences using simple or compound structures, but avoid complex structures
  • limit your use of introductory clauses or phrases
  • use techniques from speech writing, like repeating a word or phrase for emphasis
  • use a recurring phrase or motif to give the story coherence
  • keep verbs close to the subjects they go with
  • avoid elements that work well for reading but not for listening (like quotations)



Proficiency Criteria

  • Sounds like natural conversation, not like “reading aloud” or “overacting”
  • Overall pace is slow enough for listeners to follow
  • Emphasizes or downplays moments using changes in pace, volume, and/or tone of voice
  • Uses silence at appropriate moments
  • Story opens with the title and storyteller’s name (first name only is OK)

Tips for Revision

Use a natural rhythm. Improving your script will go a long way towards improving your delivery. But also pay attention to the rhythm you use so that you don’t use the same pattern for every sentence. If you don’t vary the rhythm, your voice will take on a “sing song” quality that is often irritating to listeners, or at least distracting, as it doesn’t sound natural.

Pace also matters. Beginning oral storytellers often rush through their stories, as though they’ve got somewhere else to go. Because this makes it hard for listeners to “process” the story, some listeners might even end up feeling anxious as they try to keep up, and that’s not the effect you want to have on your audience! A fast pace also seems less natural, especially if the speaker never breaks from that pace (leaving the listener to wonder if the speaker ever takes a breath).

So take care to vary your pace as appropriate to the story, the same way you would if you were telling the story to us live. If you were telling your story to us around a dinner table, your pace would vary, with some parts being slower and others faster, depending on what parts of the story you were delivering. If you find it hard to control your pace while you’re recording, try recording only small chunks at a time, so you don’t feel quite so rushed to get through the whole script.

Let your voice do some of the storytelling. It’s hard to write in a way that puts your intended emphasis or particular “shade” of meaning on a word or phrase, but it’s pretty easy to do that through how you use your voice. Consider how many different ways you can say this phrase to provide slight changes in meaning: “I didn’t want to go to work that morning.” We do this all the time in conversation, so pay attention to how you and your friends use voice to convey meaning and adapt some of those techniques for your script. But be careful not to “over act” with your voice, as that won’t sound any more natural than “under acting.”

The best way to improve your delivery is pretty much the best way to learn to do anything: practice, practice, practice!

Tips for Recording

  • if you tend to talk too fast, plan to record when you’re in a very mellow mood (possibly even after a beer or two — as long as you’re over 21, of course!)
  • if you tend to talk in a bit of a monotone, plan to record when you’re feeling particularly animated (maybe after one too many coffees)
  • if you tend towards a sing-songy rhythm, even after rewriting your script to use more natural language, invite a friend or two to join you and tell your story to them, the way you might’ve told it without a script
  • if you have a cold or sore throat, don’t try to record until your voice is back to normal (email me for an extension if you need one)


  • How to record a full draft (applies also to final versions)
  • if you want to borrow an external mic and/or use one of the digital media editing bays in ATLAS, reserve one through Tim Riggs (timothy.riggs@Colorado.EDU)


Proficiency Criteria

  • File saved in mp3 format
  • Story opens with the title and storyteller’s name (first name only is OK)
  • Voice recording is clear, crisp, and easy to hear
  • Free from distracting background noises or echoes
  • Additional sounds (music, sound effects) are secondary to voiceover, with appropriate volume and ducking
  • Audio file properly embedded into and playable on blog post, with introductory note and storyteller bio

Tips for Revision

I highly recommend using an external mic for the final recording, as well as doing the recording in a space with good sound quality, like a closet or car. See the “Tips” page below for more details.