The 5 Storytelling Steps Demonstrated [audio]

The 5 Storytelling Steps Demonstrated [audio]

by Tracy Johnson

There’s an art to relating your personal experiences on the air, but it’s also science. The science is in the structure of a story. There are 5 storytelling steps. Let’s examine and demonstrate them with radio Hall of Fame team Jeff & Jer.

Some personalities are naturally great storytellers. They have a gift for making the listener feel special. Others (most) have to work on it.

Fortunately, there are some guidelines that can not only help you improve communication skills, but will tighten and sharpen every radio show as well. It’s understanding how to construct a break effectively.

5 Storytelling Steps Defined

First, here’s a short summary of each of the main parts of a well-told on-air story: The hook, set up, dress up, payoff and black out.

Here’s how they work together.

Step 1: Hook

A magazine attracts attention to their story by the headline. Your hook serves the same function. On magazine covers, the headline is designed to get you to pick it up and turn to page 123. The hook seeks to capture audience interest.

To do so effectively, you have to make in personal (for them), relevant and fast. There’s no time to waste.

You have 7 seconds to get the hook in and lure them deeper into your contest. The hook should rarely be about you, but rather to set up your story that supports the hook.

The hook is probably the most important part of your story. If you don’t capture attention in the opening line(s), listeners will be gone by the time it gets “good”.

Step 2: Set Up

In the magazine metaphor, the set up is the first paragraph of the story. Once you get to page 123, the setup lures you into the rest of the article. Your set up should advance the story and frame the rest of the details that lead the audience deeper into your content.

The second step of storytelling is really the first step toward the payoff.

This is where you develop the topic so they understand where the segment is going. In the Set Up, your story becomes personal. This is where you introduce a main character and the conflict that character faces.

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A good set up suggests drama. Think of it as a bridge from that opening line to the twists and turns that build interest toward the thrilling conclusion.

A set up should have enough detail to hold interest and move the story forward. In most cases, such as the Jeff & Jer segment below, a personal story works best in the set up phase, particularly if you plan to invite listener participation later.

Step 3: Dress Up

In this step, the break accelerates toward payoff. This stage is the most dangerous time in the story. It’s important to add color and interest while maintaining momentum.

How will you embellish, exaggerate and enhance the content?

In the Dress Up phase, add detail and color. How does every element move the story down the path toward payoff? But be careful! The wrong details can be a distraction.

Detours and dead ends often happen because personalities fail to plan their break through this stage.

Step 4: Payoff

There are two critical elements of the process. The first is the entry point (Hook). The second is the exit. Every break must have a destination. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you arrive?

The Pay Off is the next most important step.

Before the story begins, plan the outcome. In fact, this is where you should target most of your show prep time. How will your story end? It’s much easier to perform spontaneously if you know where your break is going.

Some bits don’t have a natural punchline, including the example below. That’s okay, as long as there’s a direction and a plan for getting out to it efficiently.

Step 5: Black Out

Once it’s over, it’s over. 

Many great breaks are ruined when talent goes for one more pay off. That one extra joke or one more phone call can turn a good break into an ordeal.

It’s always better to find your exit and take it rather than hoping for one more payoff that doesn’t come.

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Storytelling Steps On Display

Here’s an excellent example of all of the storytelling steps. This is simply great break construction from Jeff & Jer:


This break is effective because Jeff Hooks the audience in the first line of the break.

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

He then adds a couple of anecdotes from his personal life. This is the Set Up.

It’s so much more effective than starting with his stories and concluding that “That’s why it’s fun to lie to kids.”

Step 3 is the Dress Up. This is where the listeners contribute stories, moving the segment forward.

They leave the listener wanting more by knowing “when to say when,” hitting the Pay Off at the right time and fading quickly to Black Out.


Storytelling structure is a fundamental element of radio performance. Use the five storytelling steps in your show prep process and you’ll be amazed at how your audience responds!

Personality Profile: Jeff And Jer

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A Classic Example of An Amazing Story Arc

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