Jakob Lewis knows how to tell the stories of other people. He's producer of the award-winning podcast Neighbors with Nashville Public Radio and founder of Vox Familia, an audio production company which helps families document their stories.
I asked Jakob about how podcasters can tell a better story...
What are the elements of a good story?
Something happens to Someone Somewhere and it means Something. Those four elements are all you need—action, character, setting, and reflection. Basic enough, but it's the artful doling out of that information that turns it from mere data into narrative.
Plot comes from the character. So start there. The character(s) in the story need to want something.
Kurt Vonnegut says "Make your character want something right away—even if it's a glass of water." If this is a true (as in non-fiction) story and you don't have the benefit of making up all the elements then ask the main character what his motivation was. Something like, "Why'd you train so 7 days a week in hope to get a gold medal in curling?"
In addition to motivation for your character, his flaws, desires, goals, and quirks all help make him a three-dimensional character that is more relatable to your audience. In fact, as a general rule of any type of storytelling the more specific your characters are, the more universal they become. Or in other words, the smaller the story, the bigger it is.
If the story you're telling is a personal one, start with your own desire.
"You know my dad was Jamaican and died before I was born, so when a Jamaican man whom I'd never met before showed up at my door and said he was my uncle—I burst into tears."
If I just burst into tears in the story when I saw a man claiming to be my uncle, I would have a compelling scene, but void of meaning. If I just tell you about my dad and uncle, we don't have the "action" happening in the story and then it's just data (although somewhat compelling still).
The order of these in audio matters a great deal.
I try to follow the rule "show don't tell." So rather than saying there was a waterfall and then play a waterfall sound afterward to illustrate that, I play a waterfall sound first and then say under the sound, "the water coming off the falls was mesmerizing in the light." The listener can actually "see" that with their mind's eye.
The last element of a good story is reflection. You may choose not to explain your story very explicitly and let the listener make their own meanings, but often storytellers can bring home and give some finality to a story by offering a zoomed-out reflection on the story they just told. Like in my fake Jamaican uncle example, I could end that story saying something like,"It seems like we all have things that we had put to bed, things that we thought would never be a chapter in our lives, and then they just show up on your doorstep. Ultimately I'm glad I let him in."
Audio vs. Video Storytelling
I think that if I told stories in video. the style would have to be vastly different to be effective. I think audio is the most intimate storytelling medium.
It's an old radio adage that radio is the most "visual" medium. It seems counter-intuitive, but I agree. A video shows you exactly what they've curated for you to see. Radio gives you the prompt of what to see through descriptions and sounds, but then you fill in the rest with your imagination.
Audio gives the listener some more skin in the game and an active role in creating the story. I have a company called Vox Familia that helps family's honor, discover, and share their family's story and I find that having a recording of your grandmother's voice is special and intimate in a way that having a video of your grandma isn't. Once they are gone, to be able to sit in a comfy chair and listen to their laugh and inflection of their voice is an utterly profound experience.
How can podcasters tell a better story?
Podcasters call tell a better story through editing. Even if your podcast is exclusively one long interview, there's still a way to introduce that and layout the information that can be more effective than if you just let the tape roll.
Editing is how you go from good to great. Editing can mean losing things you thought of as precious to your story. Editing is hard, but worth it.
Editing also often requires someone who is not you. Get feedback about your stories from people you trust and who won't lie to you. Then implement what you agree with.