How To Tell Stories On the Air

Human beings are wired to love stories. It’s built into our DNA. And everyone who is in the business of impacting an audience is, at the core, a storyteller. Storytelling is at the heart of communication, and that goes for politicians, teachers, salesmen, pastors and even radio personalities.

So doesn’t it make sense that the better storytellers have an advantage on the radio? In fact, I often coach personalities to think of themselves as storytellers first, and radio personalities second. It’s that powerful.

When you think about it, storytelling skills are critical to the success of your show, but just as much to your radio station. Stories are memorable, can be retold and inspire the audience to take action. And that’s good for your brand.

Stories come in all shapes, sizes and lengths. Some are longer than others. Some are as short as just a few seconds. With the right preparation, you can get an amazing amount of content into a story. For example, check out this entertaining story in just 2 minutes. In fact, every time the mic is on, a story is being told. It’s just a matter of if it’s a good story or a bad one.

Story content is important, of course. But many times, programmers place too much emphasis on the material. The true success comes from the skill of the storyteller. How many times have you been captivated by a story about something you don’t even care about? It happens to me all the time. That’s because of a great storyteller is more powerful than the story itself.

Storytelling Fails

To illustrate, think of an awkward moment you’ve had relating an event that you thought was fantastic. Isn’t it embarrassing to share a great experience with someone, and they have no reaction? So you sheepishly mumble something like, “Believe me, it was great. Must be that you had to be there.”

That happens when you have a story that you thought was hilarious. You can’t wait to share it with your friends or family because it was exciting and really funny, but your audience just didn’t get it. They understood what you were saying, but there’s no reaction.

So you try again. And again, no traction. Eventually, you just say, “Well, I guess you had to be there.” Or worse, they say it just to get the story to end.

What happens to cause the “You had to be there” reaction? What goes wrong? It’s not that that your story was bad. Or even boring. The story is probably just fine. Instead, examine how the story was told.

And the only way out is to back-pedal by saying something like, “Well, I guess you had to be there.” That should never happen! Your job as a storyteller is to take them there in bold, living color.

As Shonda Rhimes puts it:

Storytelling isn’t actually about the story. It’s about the telling. It’s not which story you tell, it’s how you tell it. Maybe you’ve all heard the same story told by more than one person. You’ve heard a similar show idea – let’s do a show set in Washington in the political world, in and around the White House. That’s The West Wing, that’s Veep, that’s House of Cards… and Scandal. The story is made original, specific and special by its storyteller. The storyteller makes the story.

Many times, personalities place too much emphasis on the details in the story, rather than on the story’s essence. This happens often with news and information, where we spend more time on what happened, and not enough on the entertaining emotional content.

Storytelling Rules

Pixar knows a thing or two about telling stories. In fact, they have 22 guidelines that all stories must follow to be considered for their studio. It’s interesting to watch one of their films like Toy Story and track how the writers weave the 22 principles into their stories.

One of their guidelines (#7) is a trick comedians often use: To start at the end. That makes it much easier to stay focused in building the story to the conclusion.

There are as many ways to tell stories as there are story tellers. Style is unique to the performer and each personality will develop their own way of crafting stories on the air. But there are some basic rules that could help you tell better stories.

First, never start at the beginning. A story has to start fast, with action to make the audience sit up and take notice. Have you noticed that action movies almost always start with a chase scene or something blowing up? They want to get he audience involved immediately.

It’s the same with television shows, songs and books. Authors commonly are taught to “throw away chapter 1” and start with the action in the second chapter. This gets the reader into the story quickly, and the same can work on the radio.

Another key rule is to make listeners care. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin describes one of the most important aspects of writing a story to cause the audience to identify with the main character. If the audience doesn’t establish a rapport and relate to one of the characters, you’ll never get traction. They have to feel they have a stake in the story’s outcome.

It’s not the listener’s job to get interested in your break. It’s your job to attract them by pulling them into the story. This happens when they feel a connection with a character in the story. That could be the storyteller, or may be another character.

The Science of Storytelling

Every story comes in five parts:

The Hook is the opening line that gets attention and lures listeners to the next phase. It’s probably the most important part of storytelling.

The Set Up stage adds context to the break, and is usually where the main character and their conflict are introduced. When setting up a story, your goal is to advance the hook to lead the audience to feel a connection with the storyteller. There’s a great example of how to do that here.

The third phase is Dress Up. Here, the story is developed with details, taking twists and turns to build more drama. In this phase, colorful details that point toward the Pay Off are key to your storytelling success.

The Pay Off is the punchline, or exit of the story. However, you can’t just launch a story with one Pay Off at the end. That would be like a comedian telling just one joke. You need miniature punchlines along the way to keep the audience engaged.

Our research shows that the audience re-evaluates content every 30-40 seconds to decide whether to continue listening. Think of it as dropping some audio breadcrumbs along the way to keep them from losing interest. When you hit the audience with multiple nuggets of entertaining content, your story will move forward. I call this technique the Rule of Three or  1-2-3 Bam.

And the Black Out is knowing when it’s over, so you can easily transition to another segment or a tease. It’s the lesson George Castanza learned in an episode of Seinfeld. Remember how George figured out how to End on a High Note?

Making It Memorable: Exaggerate!

Great stories that are remembered and retold don’t happen by accident. It’s the result of careful planning and designing the story to hold attention.

And, a key element of that is exaggeration. After all, the facts are usually just not that interesting. Adding color makes the story come alive.

Jeff Detrow, of the famous Jeff & Jer team, describes it this way:

Great stories happen when you train yourself to constantly think, “How can I make this bit larger? How can I say or do something that will make it bigger, memorable to the listener?”

Making it bigger isn’t about adding more facts to the story, but digging deeper into key elements that add to the drama or friction in the story.

This was the “aha” moment that helped Jordan Belfort turn his Wolf of Wall Street story into a best-seller and blockbuster movie.

When Belfort was in prison, he met Tommy Chong. Chong encouraged Belfort to pass the time by writing his life story, then proceeded to critique and coach him through the process.

In the book Catching The Wolf Of Wall Street, Chong constantly sends Belfort back to the beginning to find his character’s voice in writing the book. The advice that finally causes Jordan to get it:

“There are two things about writing you can never forget: First, it’s all about conflict. Without conflict, no one gives a shit. Second, it’s about the most of.”

Sharing this story with my client, the light came on. He finally realized what it meant to apply the Three E’s of entertainment

The Three E’s in Personal Stories

It’s not about presenting the facts of the story. It’s about creating a story from the facts. That means adding a healthy dose of the three E’s of Entertainment: Exaggeration, Enhancement and Embellishment. That’s adding what Chong calls, “the most of”.

When he added drama (conflict) and suspense into his storytelling, the stories went from “blah” to “wow”. Almost instantly, his content was more compelling, more interesting and more relatable.

In the book, Chong goes on to coach Belfort  on writing to the “most of” concept:

It means you always write about the extreme of something. The most of this, the most of that, the prettiest girl, the richest man, the most rip-roaring drug addiction, the most insane yacht trip.

Exaggeration with conflict was the aha moment that turned on the creative power for my client, and it could do the same for you.

But it’s not just the story that becomes memorable. It’s also the storyteller. When you tell stories through a clear perspective, air talent is able to reveal character traits that allow listeners to get to know them and eventually cause them to become fans.

Personal Stories: A Unique Animal

Jeff & Jer were masters of telling personal stories on the air. That’s a unique art. Many times, personalities become self-obsessed and inside when relating stories from their lives. yet with a simple adjustment, you can turn a personal story from boring to exciting. This one simple tweak makes a huge difference, and it’s counter-intuitive because it’s the opposite of good manners when interacting socially.

The #1 mistake: Making a Qualified Statement.

What does that mean? A qualified statement is adding words that make it obvious that you’re stating an opinion.

Examples are words like:

“I think that…” or

“It seems to me that…” or

“I just feel like…”

Now in everyday life, these qualifying statements are polite. We’re taught to respect the opinions of others and avoid being confrontational by softening comments when interacting individually. When discussing a topic with friends or your spouse, you learn to say, “I feel like now is the right time to consider moving to another city.”  It’s respectful. Saying, “I feel….” softens your position.

But on the air, it dilutes the impact of your comment, and it sends a subtle message that you think your opinion is important. In reality, it comes off as forcing yourself on the listener, and they subconsciously (or consciously) think, “I don’t care”.


That also demands a personality that is focused on the story’s direction. It doesn’t matter how colorful the language is if you’re wandering all over with meaningless details or get sidetracked with detours. In fact, detours and dead-ends are the fastest way to kill a good story, like in this episode of Modern Family.

One of the Pixar guidelines is about story energy. They instruct their writers to follow this story formula:

Once upon a time there was a _____. Every day, ________. One day, ________. Because of that, ____________. Because of that, _________. Until finally, ___________.

Think about that. Play with it. Apply it. It opens a world of possibilities. This rule of storytelling suggests the forward pace and momentum of the story. It needs a hero, an action, a challenge, a consequence and an outcome. It also suggests that you should use your imagination to Embellish. Exaggerate. Enhance. Entertain.

Momentum is everything. You’ve probably seen The Simpsons cartoon. In some episodes, Grandpa Simpson gets off on a tangent, telling stories that go nowhere. They’re hilarious on the show, but are a killer on your radio station.

When a story moves forward, listeners lean in and can’t wait for what will happen next, and what is going to happen in the end. That’s one of the things that makes Melissa Etheridge such a great storyteller. Listen to these breaks from her radio show. She crafts her stories with colorful language and a clear focus toward the outcome.

This has to do with remaining focused, but also the choice of words, How you string together phrases has a great impact on listener behavior. It can be the difference in holding them captive and sending them looking for another station.

Cliff-Hangers & Story Arcs

Writers create stories around a formula that creates a story arc or a “dramatic arc.” It’s a journey with a beginning, a middle and an end. The process is the same for a novel, a song, a screenplay, a movie and a radio show.

Entertainment without storylines is simply a series of bits. Bits may be fine, but when each segment leads the listener to an incentive to hear more, you win!

Many shows have simple story arcs, usually when executing a feature like Second Date Update. The problem is set up in the first segment and paid off later in the hour. That’s all well and good, of course, but we’re talking about deeper story arcs, not just bits that extend to two or three breaks.

The problem with applying the concept to the average radio show is that they’re more about moments than stories. Moments are great for gaining attention, but their impact is short-lived. It’s here today, gone tomorrow.

As your storytelling skills grow, crafting story arcs are one of the most effective ways to increase time-spent listening to your show. When you keep the audience on the edge of their seat with a story arc, your show gets stickier.

Great sitcoms do this well. They are entertaining when viewed independently (one episode) but when storylines weave from one week to the next, they become addictive. Storylines with a dramatic arc are the connective tissue that holds audiences and creates fans.

You’ve probably heard of listeners being late to work because they’re in their car waiting to hear the end of a story on the air? There’s an art to building those cliffhangers that the audience just has to hear. One of the techniques is knowing when to break and building to it with drama and anticipation.


You’ll never find great stories in show prep sites. You may find good content, like lists or human interest events that can be converted to stories, but storytelling happens when you curate the original content. That’s when you get to the heart of the entertainment value.

Your success on the air depends on many things, but you’ll never reach your potential until you learn the art of telling stories. Storytelling is a skill you can develop, practice and eventually master. When you do, you’ll not only be a more likable air personality, you’ll be more popular in your real life, too!



Additional Resources:

Articles & Links

Home Page: Storytelling  Click Here >>>

Storytelling Basics: Click Here >>>

Telling Personal Stories: Click Here >>>

Storytelling Step 1: The Hook: Click Here >>>

Storytelling Step 2 Set Up: Click Here >>>

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling Click Here>>>

Should any topics be off-limits? Click Here>>>

Storytelling Examples

5 Storytelling steps performed to perfection: (Jeff & Jer). Click Here>>>

Branding a story, compelling hook and editing from Topic to story (Jonny Holly & Nira-Eyeball Sex) Click Here>>>

Hijacking a human interest topic by turning it into a story (Jeff & Jer). Click Here>>>


Storytelling 2.0: How to Tell Compelling Stories Webinar.  Click Here>>>.  Insiders Click Here>>>

It’s All About the Hook: Click Here >>>. Insiders Click Here >>>

Storytelling Basics: Story Structure Webinar on Demand Click Here >>>.   Insiders Click Here

History’s Greatest Storyteller: Click Here>>>. Insiders Click Here>>>


eBook: It’s All About the Hook Click Here >>>.  Insiders Click Here >>>



Keith Chinnery

Keith Chinnery
Program Director, CKLW

The morning show’s sounding great. I’m hearing lots of forward promoting, to the point that I'm even getting pulled in, wondering what they’ll be talking about. Everyone is rejuvenated by your visits and ideas.

Eric Proksch

Eric Proksch
Manager/Executive, Bell Media

Tracy’s knowledge and experience gives him instant credibility but it’s his common sense approach and breakdown of basic programming elements that makes him relatable to the programming team and on-air staff. He uses real, every day examples to demonstrate his point and makes it easy to take the next logical step.

Kristin Klingshirn

Kristin Klingshirn
Air Personality, The Bert Show

It takes a lot of work to make this show sound easy and effortless. Tracy taught me the tools to focus my stories to be more concise, conversational and most importantly... compelling.