August 11, 2023 / Esther Choy

Esther Choy listens to a storytelling podcast and analyzes its story structure

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” said Greek philosopher Epictetus. When we listen, we learn. Through active listening we can learn new skills, gain new perspectives and a deeper sense of empathy, and even grow our own leadership communication toolkit. So the question becomes, what are we going to listen to this summer?

While you are waiting in security lines at the airport or road tripping with your family to a National Park, you can choose to build up your leadership storytelling skills by listening to storytelling podcasts. Deconstructing good stories helps us become better storytellers because we become better at identifying the ingredients needed to tell our own stories. The following three podcasts will help you identify story structure, show you how to use stories as illustrative examples, and demonstrate how to use long-form stories that help you share complex ideas with your audience. All three are also just plain entertaining.

Storytelling podcasts for story structure: The Moth 

The Moth is the grandmother of storytelling podcasts. Started in 1997 as a place to tell true stories live without notes, it is now aired on more than 500 local NPR stations. Each episode features three to five storytellers. The content, the voice, the humor, and the narratives range drastically from story to story and episode to episode, but one thing that doesn’t change is just how satisfying each story is.

While you listen, pay attention to the story structure. Use the IRS © storytelling method to help identify the three main parts of the story. IRS is a method that can help anyone can build their own leadership stories, but it can also be used to analyze why storytelling podcasts like the Moth are so effective. Here’s how:

I – Intriguing beginning. The beginning of Moth stories usually start in media res (in the middle of the action) or with some kind of hook that contains surprising juxtapositions. In Mike Birbiglia’s story, he starts by describing the woozy feeling of being in love for the first time, then he casually shares some surprising details about his new girlfriend, like the fact that she already had a boyfriend. This conflict of interest intrigues the listener by posing the question, how will the storyteller deal with this kind of girlfriend? How will the relationship end?

In the episode you listened to, how does the storyteller make you interested in their story? What techniques did she use? Intriguing beginnings tend to be 10-15% of the story, leaving room for providing context, backstory and a conclusion.

R – Riveting middle. The middle of the story is the longest part of the story, often at least 65% of the story. Often in Moth stories, the middle provides background and context to understand the significance of the intriguing beginning. With the central source of tension identified, the storyteller works to maintain that tension and include engaging details to bring the story to life for the listeners.

What details did the storyteller share that helped you stay engaged?

S – Satisfying ending. Here’s where the storyteller wraps up the story, bringing together the themes and answering the questions of intriguing opening. The satisfying end, around 15-20% of the story, shows the storyteller’s growth or lessons learned. In a recent, particularly gripping story about wilderness survival, Woniya Thibeault, ends her story with the realization that asking for help took more courage and allowed her to be the role model she wanted to be bringing a satisfying end to themes of grief, motherhood, and living off the land that she explored in her story.

In the episode you listened to, how did the storyteller wrap up their story? What made it satisfying?

Becoming adept at listening for story structure will help you become a better storyteller. IRS is a fundamental storytelling structure that works for all stories – podcasts, books, movies, commercials, and especially leadership stories like business presentations, pitches and even introductions.

Storytelling podcasts for illustrative stories: Hidden Brain

Shankar Vedantam, host and executive editor of the podcast, starts off almost every episode with a story. The story may be about the person he will be interviewing that day or it may be a separate story that illustrates the theme of the show.

In a recent episode, he uses the example of Tower Records, a phenomenally successful business of music stores, whose innovative owner turned a blind eye to the advent of streaming music, believing that CDs would remain king for decades to come. We all know how that ended. Vedantam ends the story with a question: “How could someone so successful ignore a serious threat?… How often do we make that same mistake too?” He uses this story to launch into the theme of the episode, learning from our mistakes.

When you listen to Hidden Brain, try to imagine the podcast without the storytelling intro. What would be missing? Throughout the interview, listen for other stories that help illustrate the researcher’s learnings. How do stories help you learn about this often complicated psychological research?

On this show, all the guests have personal stories that tie them to the work they do. Academics, like the researchers on Hidden Brain, often come across as erudite, full of jargon, cold and clinical. But Vedantam highlights their personal stories to make their research come alive.

Making a personal connection during a presentation makes you more relatable and trustworthy. When you are the one presenting, explaining, and persuading, how will you make a personal connection with the content you’re sharing?

Storytelling podcasts for long-form narratives: S-Town

If you have some complex information that you need to share with an audience, S-Town is the storytelling podcast for you. This show investigates the complexity of the main subject, John B. McLemore, a clockmaker and troubled genius, in Alabama who contacts reporter Brian Reed at This American Life about a murder that he believes was covered up by the police in his small town. Through three years of interviews and investigations, the podcast hosts uncovers questions more mysterious than the murder McLemore first called about.

Entertaining, well-edited, and incredibly complex, S-Town is a study in how to share complex topics with a general audience. From the inner-workings of antique clocks to the intricacies of small-town politics, outsiders, insiders, mental health and social stigma, S-Town carefully and engagingly unpacks topics that may appear too boring or too complicated for a wide audience. With more than 100 million downloads, it is one of the most popular podcasts of all time.

In each segment, the podcast provides three crucial components to keep the story engaging. Their stories are always informational, conceptual and emotional. Listen for these components as you enjoy the mysteries of S-Town.

So this summer, pop in your earbuds and listen to these great storytelling podcasts, soak yourself in story structure, in emotional and persuasive connections. Enjoy!

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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