What the 'Serial' Podcast Can Teach Us About Storytelling

Storytelling is an important part of being human. We all love to hear stories, but can we tell them? Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, will explain how to hook your listeners.

Lisa B. Marshall
3-minute read
Episode #337

Here’s an interesting email from a listener:

I listen to your podcast - Quick and Dirty Tips for Public Speaker and I love it!

I want to start a podcast on my own— to tell short stories from a discontinued story book in India. I just do not know where to start! Can you please give some tips on how to tell stories that can keep the audience hooked?

Thank you,  Siri

Well, Siri, you’re asking a great question. The mind remembers stories much easier than it remembers facts, because stories engage the listener on many levels, creating mental images, stimulating other memories, and generating emotional responses. This creates a bond between storyteller and listener. Stories are a crucial part of every culture. They are how we relate to each other. They draw people together through shared experience.

Congratulations for wanting to share your culture’s stories with a wider audience. I have done several episodes about storytelling that might help you: How to Tell Better Stories, The Importance of Sharing Stories, Everyday Storytelling, and Storytelling Lessons from the Superbowl. Take a look at them for some general storytelling help. But your real question is how to tell stories that will keep people hooked.

There are several aspects to creating a successful storytelling podcast. One is delivering the story in an engaging manner. The other is hooking them so they’ll come back for more.  

Telling a story in serial form is one way to keep your audience, and leaving the story unfinished, to be finished in the next episode, is another. Scheherazade was the most famous master of the “unfinished story.” In One Thousand and One Nights (known in English as The Arabian Nights), she started an exciting story each night and left it unfinished at a cliff-hanger, only to finish it and start another the next evening. This could be an excellent framework for your podcast, as well.

Telling a story in serial form is more common and quite successful in our modern era—witness the daytime soap operas. But a better comparison for you is the wildly popular podcast, known simply as "Serial." In “Serial,” the narrator, Sarah Koenig, tells one true story over the course of an entire season. Koenig’s background as an investigative reporter helps her tell the stories, because of how she drives the story forward: with questions.

Each week Koenig asks questions that you want to know the answers to. That’s what keeps you coming back for more. In the first season, she explored the case of a high school girl, Hae Min Lee, who was murdered. The boyfriend, Adnan, was accused. She explored possible answers, but each answer had a tiny flaw, which led you to have some doubt that it was the “right” answer. She even explored dead ends, following leads that didn’t provide an answer at all.

The addictive part was exploring each question until she had to move on to the next question. Each of these smaller questions of course was fueling the biggest question: was Adnan really guilty of the murder?  

Telling a story in serial form is more common and quite successful in our modern era.

In essence, "Serial" followed the rules of sequential storytelling: each week questions were asked, questions were answered, then a new question was asked, leaving each episode with an element of cliffhanger suspense (not unlike Scheherazade). That’s the recipe for getting your audience hooked. You see that all the time in a TV series that you regularly watch: they purposefully leave a question unanswered that motivates you to watch another episode. That’s what gets people hooked! That’s exactly why some people now binge on series.

But as I said, there is a second aspect of storytelling besides ending on a cliff-hanger: it’s making it engaging so people will want to listen in the first place. That is the crucial component. How do you do that? Well… That’s going to have to wait until the next episode!

This is Lisa B. Marshall, moving you from mediocre to memorable, from information to influence, and from worker to leader! I invite you to read my best-selling books, Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview, listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk, and invest in your professional development via my online courses Powerful PresenterExpert Presenter, or Influence: Maximize Your Impact.  

As always, your success is my business!  

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.