Storytelling Skill: Drop Audio Breadcrumbs

Storytelling Skill: Drop Audio Breadcrumbs

by Tracy Johnson

Isn’t it amazing how drama causes us to do things we ordinarily wouldn’t? An artist leads an audience through a maze of entertainment anxious to hear how a story will turn out. On the radio, I call it dropping audio breadcrumbs to keep listeners engaged, leaning in to hear more and more.

The Pay Off has more impact because of the breadcrumbs along the way.

The Breadcrumbs

You are probably wondering why breadcrumbs are a metaphor for engaging listeners in a radio break.

The classic children’s story Hansel and Gretel features children worried about finding their way home. So they drop breadcrumbs along their path.

In a similar way, audio breadcrumbs help listeners follow a story, keeping them interested on the their way home, along the path to pay off.

Research proves the value of the concept. In the Content Superhero Seminar on Demand, data collected from dial tests conducted by Strategic Solutions Research clearly shows the importance of building mini-pay offs into a break. Ongoing studies prove audiences are constantly evaluating content, making subconscious decisions every 30 seconds or so whether or not the content is worth their time.

Yikes. Listeners re-evaluate content every 30 seconds? That’s pressure. But it underscores the importance of three key concepts:

  1. Don’t waste time,
  2. Keep a storyline moving forward, and
  3. Build momentum toward a conclusion.

Many personalities and programmers will hear this and immediately rush to conclude the problem is talking too long. That’s not the point. In fact, the opposite may be more accurate. Breadcrumbs can increase drama, causing the Pay Off to be more satisfying.

An Example with Clark Griswold

Here’s an example from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, provided by Tad Lemire, host of Tad & Drex on Cox Media’s B98.5/Atlanta.

Watch this video as Clark builds toward the story’s “reveal”.

The drama builds as Clark Griswold raises anticipation by dropping breadcrumbs. He keeps the viewer interested throughout, leading to the great expectation to find out what’s in that envelope.

This storytelling technique of using Drama with Delayed Resolution produces a more satisfying result when the surprise is revealed. It takes a little longer, but it leads to the Pay Off.

3 Ways To Create Audio Breadcrumbs

So how can today’s radio personalities build anticipation inside a story? That requires a more detailed discussion, but here are three simple ways that can help.

You might also like:  7 Ways To Be a Better Personality With Cinderella Storytelling

Build Drama. Don’t Rush. And Pause.

After introducing a story with an effective Hook, lead the audience deeper with a proper Set-Up. These two steps in the storytelling process are designed to get the audience invested in the storyline.

But don’t rush through the third step (Dress Up) to get to the end. Let it breathe by injecting colorful details that add expectation. This is what causes listeners to feel they must stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion.

An easy tactic is to use the power of the pause. Nothing on the radio is louder than silence. It causes an audience to lean in for an important moment.

To Be Continued…

For longer segments or stories with multiple layers, twists and turns, stretch the story to another break.

Many shows rush to a conclusion because it feels the break is getting extended. Alternatively, they actually do talk too long, stretching a segment for an extra 3-4 minutes. Either way, it’s a bad result. Either the story doesn’t resonate or the show’s balance is destroyed.

The best time to break for commercials is at a high drama point. Riding the story to the end leaves a show starting over in the next segment. But breaking at the right time is like dropping a breadcrumb at a turning point in the storytelling maze!

Build expectations to keep listeners to another quarter-hour.

Learning to build drama was a key growth factor for Jeff and Jer. Jeff told me:

We had to learn to delay the payoff. Dropping listener breadcrumbs makes it bigger. It’s another form of exaggeration.

If the material is strong enough, we can create a cliff-hanger to lure an audience across a stop set, to another hour, or serialize it to the next day, or in some cases even throughout the week.

We learned to advance a bit to just the right moment where people have to know the outcome, then find a way to bounce it to the next break or next day. This creates drama in a big way.

For a great example of how and when to break for commercials in a Jeff and Jer segment, go here.

You might also like:  What Causes Tune In

Leave Something Out or Get It Wrong

Many personalities want to sound smart or authoritative. Or thorough. Fight that feeling! You’re not trying to win an argument. The goal is to win another quarter-hour or two.

Two techniques can add interest in a topic.

Leave Something Out is the practice of leaving breadcrumbs that lead toward a conclusion. Dave Ryan is a master of it, as described in more detail here.

A related tactic is to Get Something Wrong.  Listeners naturally want to connect dots and fill in gaps. Getting a detail just a little wrong can actually cause them to lean in and be more engaged.


Learning to drop audio breadcrumbs starts in the preparation process. Identify the Pay Off or high point of the story. Then build in a strong Hook. With the start and end points locked in, it’s much easier to navigate the maze between. Lead listeners to the end by dropping easy to follow breadcrumbs.

Capturing attention is hard. Keeping attention through a break is just as difficult. Navigating the story path should be the primary goal every time you open the microphone.

Content Superhero: What Causes Tune In Seminar on Demand

More Breadcrumbs Techniques

The Power of the Pause

How The Bert Show Drops Breadcrumbs

Content Superhero eBook

When to Break For Commercials

Keeping Momentum on the Path to Pay Off

How To Set Up A Great Story

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