(Updated November 2019) We have an innate need to tell stories. Stories provide a way to express our thoughts and feelings and hopefully arrive at common ground with our audience while doing so, despite physical or metaphorical barriers – that’s why storytelling and podcasting go together so perfectly.
Good storytelling can be particularly powerful in getting our message across. If anything, it renders information more memorable: we’re much more likely to take in and remember a story than a list of bullet points. Once we’ve been caught in a web of personalities and emotions, that message lodges itself more easily into our brains.
Even more importantly, we’re more likely to get behind and promote the message of a story that compels us. We become more understanding and sympathetic to its particular point of view.
Storytelling and podcasting, happily ever after
It’s no wonder stories and podcasting go so well together; podcasts are an ideal vehicle. It’s the intimate nature in which they’re experienced and consumed: hosts speak to you personally, coming directly through your headphones, to your ears, and into your mind. There’s an interactive element to it, too; podcasts are, of course, built upon words (with the occasional sound effect or song), with hosts sketching a picture in order to activate listeners’ imaginations. Listeners pick up on the given clues and complete the picture in their minds.
Podcasts also lend themselves very well to experimentation. Despite their nearly 15 year history, podcasting still feels like a yet-to-be-explored medium that can be turned upside-down, looked at from the side and played around with. Plenty of hosts have pushed its boundaries, taking nonlinear routes with their content and incorporating external pieces and mediums throughout.
How to build a story yourself
So how does one go about telling a story?
There’s a very basic structure to follow: all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Almost always, a conflict is presented in the beginning or halfway through that has to be overcome. Different elements, like personal anecdotes, common references, and setting descriptions are added along the way that audiences can latch onto and understand. And a lot of it comes down to research, in the end: going through the proper preparation, delving deeper, and finding fresh angles that can help you move the story forward in a more informed, creative way.
Now, you may be thinking, “my podcast is a talk podcast with different guests on every episode –” or “I have a business podcast that has to do with carpentry – how could I possibly build a story off of that?”
It’s true that some genres lend themselves more easily to storytelling. True crime and investigative journalism are perfect candidates – in fact, it’s what their entire success is based on. But there are definitely ways to apply these frameworks to your podcasts no matter what kind of content you’re tackling.
If you have a business podcast, for example, you can start with a loose story arc for each of your episodes. Introduce a common conflict at the beginning, and then show users how your particular product can overcome that conflict. This can be told through a single story or fleshed out with a number of them presenting different scenarios. For example, if you’re a car salesman, you can tell a one about an upcoming road trip, your old clunker breaking down just before it begins, and how your own product offers the solution.
If you host a general talk podcast that doesn’t cover a specific theme, that’s okay too. You can use your own personal story as the lens through which your listeners approach your podcast, or create stories around each topic you present. When you hold interviews, prepare questions for your guests that encourage them to tell their own anecdotes.
Tune into some inspiration
There are some truly exemplary podcasts out there that really show how well-crafted storytelling can bring out better content (and some that can help you do that, too, like the wonderful Write Now with Sarah Werner).
Here are a few to pick up some tricks from:
Bundyville: The Remnant now in its second series, is a co-production between Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting, its host is freelance journalist Leah Sottile. The podcast explores the world beyond the Bundy family and the armed uprisings they inspired getting to the heart of extremist violence that results from the conspiracy theories of the anti-government movement. The New Yorker says it “lends a rich and often surprising context to these events”
Meat is a podcast about our bodies and the lives we live because of them. Our bodies: a wall between our ideas, dreams, desires and the real world. Each episode tells a story that starts with someone’s body and how that body creates the story that follows. Independent radio producer Jonathan Zenti hosts the show which is currently recording its second season.
Launched in October of this year, Catlick is a historical true-crime podcast and is the lost story of how spies, villains and midnight vigilantes nearly destroyed the South’s grandest city. Tune in weekly as new episodes land to follow the story.
So, there you have it. It’s likely you’re already telling stories in your podcasts, but just weren’t aware of it. Now that you are, you can reinforce those structures and be more strategic in the way you relate to audiences and focus on reach.
What’s your story, and how are you going to tell it?