My grandfather was not a podcaster. That’s a rather obvious statement, as I myself am now a grandfather, and podcasting has only been around for 20 years or so. Regardless, my grandfather was an amazing storyteller.
My mom—his daughter—has been writing up some of the stories she pulled from him over the last decade or so of his life. Reading those stories, many of which I’d heard over the years directly from him, it makes me a little sad you’ll never hear them. Because Gramps would have made for one of the most entertaining podcasters ever.
Any skills I have as a storyteller, I credit directly to him. He had the knack for storytelling and was exactly the kind of storyteller I continually strive to be. You hear evidence of that on every single episode of Podcast Pontifications, and I know he’d be proud. (Also: I’m not crying, you’re crying.)
You’re a working podcaster, so I don't have to tell you how important storytelling is to our craft. It's very likely that you are already a good storyteller on your podcast, especially you’ve been podcasting for a few years and your show is going well.
But not every podcaster is as confident in their storytelling abilities. Many struggle with storytelling on their shows, either because they have an actual deficiency when it comes to storytelling or because of that pesky imposter syndrome that won’t shut up as it tries to convince competent, capable podcasters that they’re worse at storytelling than they really are.
Improving Your Storytelling Skills
So how do you get past that? How do you, the working podcaster, get better at storytelling, arguably one of the most important—if not the most important—aspects of podcasting? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, all things remaining equal, the podcaster who is better at the craft of storytelling will out-podcast someone who is not.
Storytelling is one of those crafts that you can always get better at, even if you’re great. I’m no slouch at telling a story, but I work at the craft of storytelling every day.
However, I’m not a teacher of the art of storytelling, so I’m reticent to give you “how-to” advice on becoming a great storyteller. But I am a practitioner of the art, so I can at least share with you four things I do that help to continually refine my skills as a storyteller and a podcaster.
I consume great stories from great storytellers.
I listen to a sizeable quantity of high-quality fiction podcasts. I also listen to a lot of quality audiobooks, and almost every night I read a few chapters of a great story. I also read articles and posts written by great storytellers. I listened to a lot of history podcasters who are way better at telling stories than my high school history teacher. (No offense, Mrs. Beaver.) Whenever I can, I tune in when great science communicators are talking.
I fill my eyes and my ears with great stories as much as I can so I can soak in the rhythm and the scent, if you will, of a quality story. Sure, the mechanics are important. You need to know how to properly structure a story, of course, especially when you’re just starting on your journey of learning to tell great stories. But the reason I continue to expose myself to excellent stories is to steal ideas, if I’m being honest.
I’ve developed a rhythm and flow for Podcast Pontifications, but I need other storytelling techniques I can employ when telling different stories in different formats. Like when I’m a guest on someone else’s podcast, I’m sharing stories with friends, or even when I’m onboarding a new client.
If you don’t have it, the ability to tell great stories will not spontaneously generate in your brain. I was fortunate to have near-constant exposure to great storytelling as a kid. But even with that head start, I make it a point to continually surround myself with great stories still today.
I outline stories before I tell them.
I always hated the outlining process. At least, I hated the way that I was taught to outline by the school systems. (I don’t blame you for that, Mrs. Beaver.) I’ve yet to see a good term paper that would make for a great podcast.
But then I was presented the opportunity to write the first edition of Podcasting for Dummies, and I was shown the outlining light. My publishers required an outline before they’d let me write a single word of the actual book. Not just a few headings and bullet points that kinda-sorta showed the topics and processes I’d cover in the book. No, they required an extremely detailed outline that would form the scaffolding of not just the book, but each chapter. And each section of each chapter. It wasn’t quite a 1:1 ratio of outlined bullet point to chapter, but it wasn't too far off from that.
I still follow that paradigm today with episodes of Podcast Pontifications. Case in point: My outline for today's show, written out before I spoke a single word into the microphone, consisted of 46 bullet points totaling 886 words. Yes. For an episode that’s less than 10 minutes long.
Overkill, you say? Maybe. But those 886 words in 46 bullet points made it very easy for me to fill in the gaps when I hit the record button. My brain was freed from the worry of getting my point across, or if the story I was telling was flowing properly. Of course it was! All of that was in the outline. I just had to follow the path, letting the creative parts of my brain flesh out sections as they happened. No nagging from the analytics side of my brain, made happy by the same outline.
Outlining is underrated. Try it again.
I keep some favorite stories in my back pocket.
If I were to stick a microphone in your face and demand that you tell me a story on the spot, could you do it? An intimidating prospect, to be sure, made a little less terrifying because you’re a podcaster and are used to having a mic in your face.
Try it on me the next time you run into me at a podcasting event. I have a few different stories I can quickly pull out, once I read the room for appropriateness. I might tell you about when I was kicked out of the stands at my very first college football game and was luckily not arrested for my actions. Or I might tell you about the shared midlife crisis my wife and I went through that led us to sell everything we owned so we could travel and live abroad for over three years. Or I might start the non-joke I’ve made my own and can extend for over 15 minutes, entertaining everyone around me except for my wife who forbids me from telling the joke ever again in her presence.
Knowing these stories inside and out and telling them slightly differently each time, time after time, keeps my storytelling brain well-honed. I’d wager it’ll work for you too if you let it.
I practice my storytelling skills.
As with any skill, you have to practice. Yes, even those who have mastered their craft—regardless of what that craft is—have to practice.
I practice my storytelling skills on you four days a week right here on the show. But I also practice my storytelling skills when I make guest appearances on other podcasts, where I’m unlikely to be working from an outline. I practice my storytelling skills with every presentation I assemble and deliver, either in-person or virtually. When I can, I like to take part in local storytelling events, like Ignite.
I also talk to myself, out loud, a fair amount. I’ll read something that sparks an idea in my head that leads me to orate an entire persuasive speech while waiting for the kettle to boil. These are often not about podcasting. For example, yesterday I pitched a solution to climate change to the UN. Or rather, I paced around my living room giving that speech to the cat while I waited for a client’s file to render. That’s practice.
I practice, often out loud, because I know that practice builds my storytelling muscle. Apologies to the physicians and biologists out there. Yes, I know that the brain is not muscle tissue. I’m speaking metaphorically.
Our human brains have been shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of stories, either created or consumed. We need stories. And, in turn, we need to tell stories. Faced with the choice to either give advice or tell a story, storytelling wins every time. Think about that the next time you sit down to prep for an episode of your podcast.
Speaking of stories, I’d like to share with you a couple of messages listeners sent in yesterday. Dave Jackson of School of Podcasting fame and the actual Podcasting Hall of Fame fame used the Fountain podcast listening app to send me 500 Satoshis and the message “boost to you!”. Thank you, Dave.
And Nick from… well I don’t know. I just have the first name of Nick along with their Fountain-delivered 500 sats alongthe message, “Some very wise words - great listen!”. Thanks, Nick!
If you received value from this episode and are using Fountain or another value-for-value enabled listening apps, send me a boost with a message—a boostagram—and I'll read it out to here on the show.
And if you're not using one of those value-for-value enabled apps because, yeah, I get it, they are the opposite of intuitive, You can buy me a virtual coffee at BuyMeACoffee.com/evoterra. Heck, you can even buy me 12 if you like!
No episodes tomorrow, as I like to keep my Fridays sacred. But I shall be back on Monday with yet another Podcast Pontifications.