Radio storytelling is an art that requires a mix of descriptive language and well-crafted planning to bring a story to life in the listener’s mind. Cutting through the competitive clutter is one of the most difficult things personalities face. It’s a noisy world with thousands of entertainment choices trying to be heard. The only way to stand out is to turn up the volume and that has as much to do with how you say things as what you say.
Crafting the segment is the difference between a great story and one that falls flat. The topic is usually fine and even the ideas for execution are solid. But to win attention, personalities must turn up the volume. I’m not talking about being loud or shouting. It’s not about being the most outrageous or shocking. And it’s not just ranting and raving.
Here are some tips to help radio shows tell more dramatic stories on the air:
How To Turn up The Volume
As with most things, it starts with show prep. Find a story inside the topic by digging deeper into the emotions hidden beneath the surface of the topic.
Find a premise for the segment by planning carefully, then consider the structure, pacing, and tone of the story.
For example, if the topic is a high-profile celebrity breakup, don’t settle for low-hanging fruit (What do you think about it? Who’s right/wrong?). Find an emotionally charged angle that resonates, such as:
- Breaking up is always hard, but some breakups are worse than others because _______. This could lead to a phone topic about the worst possible ways to break up with someone.
- It’s stupid to break up with someone you’ve been going out with for a long time because if it were a real problem like a violation of principles, what took so long? Possible phone topic: When did you break up with someone and knew immediately it was a mistake?
- When you think it’s time to separate, just do it. Listen to your gut. That’s where I failed. Then tell a story about the time you should have broken up but didn’t.
Once a story with a strong angle is identified, turn up the volume and tell it with excitement. Here’s how:
Colorful, Powerful Language
General language is common and is usually ignored. Try to use descriptive, vivid language to paint a picture in their listeners’ minds and keep their attention. The best details move the story forward, create a bond between the audience and storyteller, or set a scene so listeners see themselves in the story being told.
There’s a great example here.
One easy way to do this is learning to inject stories with metaphors, similes, and descriptive adjectives. This can help the audience internalize the point with a common reference point.
Another is eliminating or reducing pronouns to force more attitude and power into the content. For details and examples, check out the Powerful Language seminar here. It’ll help you learn to be more provocative.
Show – Don’t Tell
Learn to speak with an active vocabulary of action words that add movement to “take listeners there”. Many personalities fall into patterns of telling stories in the past tense (this happened, then that happened) rather than the present tense. Once the background (set up) is established, describe the story as if it’s happening in real-time.
- Focus on using dynamic verbs that express action. Instead of saying “he walks,” try saying “he strides,” or “he saunters.”
- Use active sentence structure when speaking to be more concise and impactful. This phrase is passive: “The ball was thrown by him.” This is active: “He threw the ball.”
- Use specific nouns to replace generic ones. For example, instead of saying “the vehicle,” say “the classic red Corvette.”
Then, add color with supporting details.
Here’s an example. This is a common, ordinary way of describing a scene that does not capture a listener’s attention:
I was getting on the highway, and a policeman pulled me over for driving without my lights on.
Here’s how to take the listener to the scene using the techniques described:
It’s dusk…not quite night, but the sun had gone down, and I’m merging onto Highway 492 at Elm Street. On one side is a little old lady in a dingy Corolla weaving between lanes driving like nobody else is on the road. And on the other side is a stream of traffic flying by at 80 miles an hour. In my rear-view mirror…flashing lights. Who does the cop pull over? Me. Because my car’s automatic lights aren’t on yet.
Word efficiency is critical in storytelling, but this does not mean shortening the story or taking shortcuts to facts. In many cases (like the example above), being colorful and descriptive takes longer than reciting the facts.
Rather, it’s about not wasting time. Communication is weakened by long, run-on sentences that don’t move the story forward. This is, of course, mitigated with proper show prep. Knowing how the story will unfold and end creates a structure and avoid detours and dead ends, allowing more time to turn up the volume on the important aspects of a story and build momentum for the Pay Off.
Becoming proficient at being efficient is a skill that can be learned through repetition (the more you practice it the better you get), evaluation, and airchecks. Study your performance to trim things that fail to make the story more important. Then brainstorm what could be injected into the story to make it more interesting by using the Three E’s of Storytelling.
Cut Back On Adjectives & Adverbs
Study the stories you love and you’ll notice there are few adjectives and adverbs. That’s not an accident.
Amateur storytellers assume they can simply exaggerate a story with adjectives like “biggest, best, and fastest”. But this actually reduces connection by adding unnecessary detail or clutter without color.
For example, “And there was a ginormous bull” is not nearly as interesting as “I came face-to-face, three steps from a bull the size of a Range Rover”.
Replacing adjectives and adverbs with colorful language produces a clearer, more straightforward narrative that is easier to follow. Making this a habit forces you to choose precise and impactful words to describe characters, actions, and emotions. The result is a greater emphasis on the core elements of the story.
Describe the scene with action, but try to avoid adjectives and adverbs to paint a word picture that leads the listener to conclude that a “party was over-the-top” than just, “Man, this party was over-the-top”.
Stories are a journey, not just the transfer of information. Many personalities sound more like a journalist reporting on a story than an entertainer sharing an experience.
Engage the audience with creative language that comes alive. Turn up the volume on language, and the audience has a better chance of hearing, remembering, and sharing the story.