How to Use the Power of Story in Your Podcast

October 18, 2021

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GUEST

Ron Dawson

Owner, Blade Ronner Media


Podcasting is one of the most effective uses of content marketing to promote your brand — but in order to succeed, you’ll have to give people a reason to choose you over all the other podcasts out there (and there are a lot!). One way you can do that is through thoughtful storytelling.

Podcast storytelling is an effective method to create a show that will help yours stand apart. It’s worked for countless shows before you, and it can work for you too.

In this post, I’ll cover ways in which you can use storytelling effectively for your podcast. Spoiler alert: Your show doesn’t have to be a true-crime thriller or an emotional radio drama to take advantage of podcast storytelling.

Setting the stage

Before I get into how you can use storytelling, I feel the need to, well, tell you a story.

When I was about eight or nine years old, my brother and I lived with our single mom in Altadena, California. Altadena is a small bedroom community just north of Pasadena in Southern California. We lived just a block or two from the “world-famous” Christmas Tree Lane and each winter, people would come from miles around to drive down the half-mile-long street with their lights off as they enjoyed the holiday lights.

My mother was a nurse, and she spent long nights working the night shift at Cedars-Sinai Medical, widely known as “hospital to the stars.” It was landing a job there that prompted her to fit all she could into the trunk of her yellow VW bug, buckle her two rambunctious little boys into the backseat, and drive cross-country from Philly to Hollywood by her lonesome. She was only 26 at the time. (In fact, my mom was “26” all throughout my elementary school years — at least that’s the answer I remember her giving any time someone asked her age. I don’t think she was really 26 that long. 😁)

A couple of times a week, she would have to work all night long. Unable to find (or afford) a babysitter who was willing to watch two semi-rowdy boys all night long, she would have to take us to the hospital with her, where we’d spend the night under her desk while she worked.

I cannot tell you how special those nights were. We’d stay up till about ten watching TV with our mom before she would leave for the hospital (Wonder Woman starring Linda Carter was my jam! I mean, come on!) Then, when we got to the hospital and her office, we’d set up our blankets and pillows under her desk and it was just like camping in a tent. The next morning, when she got off, she’d take us to the International House of Pancakes for breakfast (nowadays they just go by IHOP. Lazy!).

My mom was special. Imagine working all night long at a hospital, dealing with Lord knows what. Then, when I’m sure all she wanted to do was go home and sleep, she would instead take us out for pancakes, eggs, and bacon. At the time I’m sure I was just thinking with my stomach (as in: Mmm, mmm!), but now I understand just how generous that gesture really was. My mother passed way too soon at the age of 62 (turns out she did age past 26, after all). It’s now been 13 years since her passing. I still cannot talk about her for too long before tears well up in my eyes. I really miss my mom.

Why storytelling is important

How did you feel as you read the story about my mom? What thoughts or feelings did it bring up for you? How did it affect your thoughts or feelings about me?

I hope I’ve shown you firsthand through my own words that storytelling allows you to immediately create a bond and connection with your audience. I told a version of that same story on one of my Radio Film School podcast episodes about filmmaking. That’s right — I talked about my childhood on a podcast about filmmaking.

It might surprise you that on this particular podcast, the subject matter was never really about f-stops or frame rates. There was no discussion about how many pixels my or my guests’ cameras had. I didn’t get into cool Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere techniques.

Instead, I told funny, personal, and often provocative stories about the kinds of things that made filmmakers want to tell stories in the first place.

The story of my first crush on a girl served as a metaphor for falling in love with filmmaking. A story about how one of the biggest fights I ever had with my then-wife was over a drop shadow served as a comical intro to an episode about how pain plus time equals comedy.

One episode after another, I started out with a story that served as a jumping-off point for a series of interviews and interview snippets related to a central theme.

Why did I start every episode that way? As you most likely already know, stories have a way of tapping into the human psyche and condition in a way that resonates. Since the dawn of man, stories have been used to convey information in a way that draws people in and helps them better retain what they heard.

That’s why the best sermons start with stories. The best stand-up routines are rooted in story. The most memorable speeches have some storytelling elements. And if you utilize stories in your podcasting, you will reap the rewards.

Crafting the perfect podcast story

The Irish-American author Frank McCourt is famous for the quote, “Everyone has a story to tell. All you have to do is write it.” This sentiment is largely why I’ve been fascinated with documentary-style media for my entire creative career. I genuinely believe everyone’s life is worthy of a movie; you just have to tell it the right way.

I guarantee that you have it within you to craft engaging stories for your audience that will help you stand apart from the rest. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look, how to fit your stories into the show, and how to create them.

Where to look for stories

A good story can be found almost anywhere. The best place to look will depend on the kind of show you’re producing. My favorite wells of inspiration have included:

  • Childhood and coming-of-age stories
  • Funny work and business anecdotes
  • Hard life lessons that are funny now, but maybe not so much when they first happened
  • First-time experiences (e.g. first kiss, first time traveling abroad, first time flying, etc.)
  • Other people’s stories you’ve heard that had an impact on you (get their permission if appropriate)
  • Travel stories
  • Major life milestones (e.g. weddings, birthdays, buying a home, moving away from home, graduation, going to college, etc.)

What all of these have in common is they tend to carry a strong emotional component. They evoke memories that stir up in your listener their own common experiences. If there’s a strong emotion attached — whether it’s amusement, sadness, or anger — chances are, it has what it takes to be a good story.

How to fit stories into your show

Next, you want to figure out how the story fits in your show. You may be wondering if you have to have an audio documentary anthology like Radio Film School in order to effectively use podcast storytelling. I’m happy to report that you absolutely do not.

The current podcast I produce, Crossing the 180, is for the most part a straight 1-on-1 interview format with me and a filmmaker. But I still start each episode with some sort of story. The very first episode this season, I interviewed the filmmakers behind the kung fu comedy The Paper Tigers. As a prelude to my interview, I told the story of how my brother and I used to love watching martial arts movies and TV shows when we were kids.

You don’t necessarily have to have a “story segment” at the beginning of your show like I do with mine. The research you conduct about your guest might prompt you to add a story of your own mid-interview and have the guest comment. Or maybe the story you tell comes in at the end of the show and incorporates whatever was discussed during the interview.

Wherever you put it, your story needs to accomplish two things:

  • It should educate and/or entertain listeners. If the story is not interesting (or at least told in an interesting way), or if it doesn’t provide some form of pertinent information, it shouldn’t be included.
  • It should connect to that episode’s topic or guest. It goes without saying that there needs to be a connection between the story and the topic you’re discussing or your guest. You could use the story as a seed to ignite a bigger conversation during the episode, or you could have your guests share a personal story of their own as part of your talk — or any other way you come up with that makes sense for your process.

How to create the stories

I have found that if you want to make storytelling a key part of your podcast, unless you are particularly adept at riffing without a script, it’s best to have the story written ahead of time.

The secret, of course, is then to read it as if you were going off the cuff. This is an art that takes practice. But once you do it long enough, you’ll get better. And eventually, you’ll get to the point where you can actually do it entirely without a script.

If your guest is going to be the one telling the story and they’ll be reading it, give them specific directions on what to include and how to sound natural. This will ensure you get the soundbite you want for the show.

Examples of shows successfully doing story

The podcast The Office Ladies, with Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, not only does recaps of old episodes of The Office, but is also rife with stories about the making of the show.

Tim Ferris, Mark Maron, and Joe Rogan each have huge podcasts where they just interview people, yet stories (either by them or the guests) are often a huge part of each episode.

Life is Short with Justin Long is another interview-style podcast where Long and his co-host (his brother Christian) open each episode with a story that somehow ties in with the guest.

Last but certainly not least, we employed podcast storytelling on Wistia’s own A Better Workplace (on which I was the Story Producer). In fact, there were a few different ways in which we used this element:

  • In the first episode on Equitable Compensation, hosts Jane Jaxon and Colin Dinnie each told personal stories of being unfairly compensated at previous jobs they held.
  • In episode two, Double Standards and Stereotypes Part 1, both guest contributor Yolanda T. Cochran (a TV studio executive) and I each shared personal stories about experiences we’ve had being Black in predominantly white corporate spaces.
  • In episode three, Double Standards and Stereotypes Part 2, our guest Chrysta Wilson, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consultant, recounted funny and poignant anecdotes ranging from growing up on a farm in the South to her experiences consulting with large companies.
  • In our Pronouns and Gender Identity episode, DEI Consultant Stephanie Battaglino shared an excerpt from her book, which goes into her experience coming out as a trans woman relatively late in life while working at a Fortune 1000 corporation.

In almost every episode, Jane, Colin, or the guest has an opportunity to tell an engaging and relevant story. And I believe the show is elevated because of it.

Get Inspired
Intriuged? Hear these stories (and many more) by bingeing A Better Workplace, a DEI podcast by Wistia.

Make your own podcast “better”

Speaking of A Better Workplace, in my next podcast installment, I plan to dive deeper into the making of that show. It’s a show unlike any of the others Wistia has produced, and I’m confident you’ll be inspired by how we as a team made it happen.

Until then, I hope you can take these podcast storytelling insights and make your own show even better. Hit me up on Twitter and share your progress (and stories, obviously!) with me. I’d love to hear what you’ve come up with and help you share it with the world.

Happy podcasting!

About the author

Ron Dawson

Owner, Blade Ronner Media

Ron Dawson is Owner and Lead Content Strategist for Blade Ronner Media. He combines an eclectic mix of experience from a 25+ year career working for large and small companies. Prior to starting Blade Ronner Media, he acted as managing editor and senior content marketing manager of Frame.io’s blog, helping it grow to become one of the most respected in the industry.

Now he works with his clients to create results-oriented marketing and content. He currently serves as the managing editor for both the Film Riot blog and OWC’s Rocket Yard blog, and director of content for the social media sharing platform UNUM. He’s also the host and producer of the filmmaker podcast Crossing the 180, part of Pro Video Coalition’s Art of the Frame podcast network.

Ron is a prolific author on Medium, has written for numerous industry websites and magazines, is co-author of ReFocus: Cutting Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business, and is most recently the author of a satirical memoir (soon to be published). Once upon a time, he danced in a semi-professional Lindy Hop swing dance troupe.

About the author

Ron Dawson

Owner, Blade Ronner Media

Ron Dawson is Owner and Lead Content Strategist for Blade Ronner Media. He combines an eclectic mix of experience from a 25+ year career working for large and small companies. Prior to starting Blade Ronner Media, he acted as managing editor and senior content marketing manager of Frame.io’s blog, helping it grow to become one of the most respected in the industry.

Now he works with his clients to create results-oriented marketing and content. He currently serves as the managing editor for both the Film Riot blog and OWC’s Rocket Yard blog, and director of content for the social media sharing platform UNUM. He’s also the host and producer of the filmmaker podcast Crossing the 180, part of Pro Video Coalition’s Art of the Frame podcast network.

Ron is a prolific author on Medium, has written for numerous industry websites and magazines, is co-author of ReFocus: Cutting Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business, and is most recently the author of a satirical memoir (soon to be published). Once upon a time, he danced in a semi-professional Lindy Hop swing dance troupe.

October 18, 2021

Topic tags

GUEST

Ron Dawson

Owner, Blade Ronner Media

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