The 5 Storytelling Steps Demonstrated

The 5 Storytelling Steps Demonstrated

by Tracy Johnson

There’s an art to relating personal experiences on the radio. But every art is governed by principles and laws. There’s also a science to storytelling. The science of storytelling is in the structure of a story. And as you know, talk segments on the radio are stories. There are 5 storytelling steps, and each is important in crafting an effective break.

Some personalities are naturally great storytellers. What a blessing to have the gift for making a listener feel special by commanding attention in storytelling. Others (most) have to work at it.

Mastering, or at least understanding, the 5 Steps of Storytelling will improve communication and connection skills, on and off-air. It will also tighten and sharpen performance because effective storytelling demands deeper show prep.

Let’s examine and demonstrate each of the 5 Steps of Storytelling with radio Hall of Fame team Jeff & Jer.

5 Storytelling Steps Defined

First, here’s a short summary of each step of a well-told story:

Step 1: Hook

A magazine attracts attention with the headline. The headline is a hook. On magazine covers, the headline is designed only to provoke curiosity so a shopper picks it up and turns to the story. That’s it. On-air, the hook’s sole function is to attract interest in what follows.

Hooks must be quick. The first 7 seconds are critical moments as listeners decide whether to pay attention or ignore the break. Just as the magazine story is useless unless a reader is attracted, great radio segments are wasted without a hook to deliver listeners to the rest of the break.

That’s why the hook is the most important part of a story. I’ve often told clients that if we could have only a great hook or a great story, I want a strong hook.

Get more details on crafting a hook here. And, check out my seminar on-demand to learn how to make hooks sizzle.

Step 2: Set-Up

In the magazine metaphor, the set up is the first paragraph of a story. After turning to the right page, the Set-Up lures a reader into the article. On the air, the Set-Up should advance the story by framing details that lead the audience onward.

This is the first step toward Pay Off.

Personal stories, main characters, and tension (what is at stake) are established in the Set-Up. Think of it as a bridge from the opening line to the twists and turns that build interest to the thrilling conclusion.

Make sure to paint a picture by using details to move the story forward. In most cases, such as in the Jeff & Jer segment, a personal story is formed in the Set-Up step, particularly if listener participation is to follow.

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Step 3: Dress Up

In this step, the story accelerates through twists and turns toward the Pay Off.

The key to maintaining momentum in this stage revolves around the Three E’s of Entertainment: Embellish, Exaggerate, and Enhance.

A lot can, and often does, go wrong in this step. The wrong details can become a detour or dead end, which kills stories. This usually happens when personalities fail to plan how the story will proceed.

Step 4: Pay Off

There are two critical elements in getting to the Pay Off. The first is building anticipation by increasing suspense. The second is protecting the outcome so the Pay Off is surprising.

Plan the outcome. Along with the hook, this should command the bulk of show prep time. It’s much easier to perform spontaneously when the destination is known.

Some stories don’t have a natural punchline, including the example below. That’s okay, as long as a plan for getting out is in place.

Step 5: Black Out

Once the story is over, it’s over. 

Many great breaks are ruined when the storyteller goes for one more punchline.

That one extra joke or one more phone call can turn a good break into an ordeal. It’s always better to find an exit and take it rather than hoping for another out that doesn’t come.

5 Steps Of Storytelling Demonstrated

Here’s an excellent example of all 5 storytelling steps from Jeff & Jer:

Breaking It Down

This break is funny, charming and reveals character traits of the cast, especially Jeff. And it’s a terrific example of how to structure a story.

Here’s what I hear in it:

The Hook: Jeff hooks the audience in the first line of the break. It takes less than 5 seconds to attract interest.

The cool thing about having little kids is you can totally lie to them.

The great thing about this hook is that it’s externally focused. As soon as Jeff introduces this line, listeners will have one of two reactions:

  • Yes, that’s right. It’s the only way to get through the day. I’m glad you’re just like me.
  • What? That’s horrible. You should never lie to kids. They’ll grow up to be bad people.

Set-Up: Jeff then tells a couple of quick personal stories that fit the topic.

The anecdotes are much more effective when coming after a strong hook. Imagine if Jeff started with, “Let me tell you a story about how we lie to our kids.” The impact would be totally different, wouldn’t it?

Also notice how Laura asks, “Didn’t you lie to your son about his birthday once?”. She asks for a second story. This is very powerful. Laura plays the part of an interested listener begging for another story.

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Dress Up: In this break, the Dress Up is where listeners add their stories. It’s like multiples stories wrapped inside a larger story.

Notice how each caller has a different type of story. And in all three calls, the show adds details, especially in the story about the ice cream truck. Each call is entertaining and advances the premise of lying to kids.

Pay Off: There’s not a single laugh at the end, but the show gets out on a high note. They leave the listener wanting more because they knew when the segment had peaked and exited quickly.

Black Out: The segment ends abruptly. Ideally, the break would end with a tease for an upcoming segment. But the key here is they get out on time moved on.


Storytelling structure is a fundamental key to great radio performances. Personalities should apply the 5 storytelling steps to every break. In Show Prep, start with the Pay Off. Identify how the break will end. Then develop a great Hook. With those elements in place, the Set-Up and Dress Up are much easier.

Learn more about storytelling and applying these 5 steps in my seminar Storytelling Basics or download a copy of the eBook Storytelling Basics.

Experiment with the 5 storytelling steps in the show prep process. As you learn to master storytelling structure, it will become easier and easier.


Personality Profile: Jeff And Jer

How to Storyboard a Topic

A Classic Example of An Amazing Story Arc

Storytelling Basics Seminar on Demand

eBook: Storytelling Basics

Complete Resources To Learn Storytelling Skills

5 Steps of Storytelling Demonstrated to Perfection

14 Storytelling Tricks To Make You More Interesting

More Details on Crafting Strong Hooks

Choosing The Right Details In Storytelling

Detours And Dead Ends Kill Stories

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