On Storytelling

This article is based on the Storytelling - with Linda McLachlan episode of the companion podcast. See, #public:listen for more episodes


Linda McLachlan is the host and creative spark behind The Arena. Our conversation began with the topic of storytelling. I was interested in learning how she was using storytelling in the context of her podcast. In particular, I wondered if her thoughts on storytelling had changed after applying it to podcasting.

In The Arena, Linda uses a mostly consistent set of questions to power her conversation with her guests. This started as a backbone around which, in each conversation, she could find other questions to ask and build it out. Unexpectedly, the story that comes out each time is quite different.

What continues to fascinate me is that I ask basically the same questions, but the story that comes out is always quite different. In creating the podcast originally, I hadn’t necessarily decided that I was going to stick with the same questions. What has become important to me is making sure that I’m telling a story that is compelling for the listener to follow.

Linda’s insight to focus on storytelling was sparked when she took a storytelling course with Bernadette Jiwa. Developing an understanding of using story, and narrative structure, while developing her podcasting work, proved to be perfect timing. Asking herself questions such as: “How am I going to communicate this stuff? How am I going to tell these stories in a helpful way?” guided her to creating the backbone structure for her podcast.

I was curious to know how much of the story arc she develops before the recording, and how much it ends up changing in post-production. It does come out different, but surprisingly, not completely different.

I ask largely the same questions, and can sometimes anticipate where that guest will go in their story, but there are always surprises. What I think is going to be the pivotal moment for their life can be quite different from what they choose to talk about. And it’s not as though they’re backing away from a moment that is difficult or transformative. It’s that they, in their mind, see it very differently than I might.

A challenge for anyone recording conversations or interviews is deciding how much of our process or structure to explain to the guest before recording. In Linda’s case, since the questions are mostly the same, there’s also the chance that a guest would know what questions are coming. Linda pointed out that even when the guests have listened to previous episodes, and thereby had an idea what questions to expect, there’s still a degree of surprise. Right at that moment of being asked, guests are still surprised at how and where the question takes them. Beyond the planned questions of Linda’s baseline structure though, it’s the follow-on questions that often work the magic.

But sometimes the story arc remains unclear. In those cases, Linda does the hard work of editing things to make it clear.

It really depends on the person and their storytelling style. It depends on how tangential we get. Some of them, you have to go in with a chainsaw for the first edit. And then subsequent edits might be a little more surgical. I would say I do a fair amount of editing, and that is perhaps due to my lack of skill in terms of interviewing at this stage.

For my part, in my Movers Mindset podcast, I do long conversations that are often an hour-and-a-half, and sometimes approach two hours. But I’m not trying to create, or even uncover, a story arc in post-production. We do remove things which would detract from the listener’s experience. I’d like to believe that I’m creating a podcast episode which is meant to enable the listener to experience the guest. But perhaps I’m just being lazy by not attempting to go further into the work and craft a story arc.

Linda mentioned another podcast creator, Jule Kucera of Hard Time and Hope. Jule uses a similar structure for her podcast, walking each guest through their story. While the questions are very different, you still anticipate the structure as it plays out: What is it going to be this episode? What is the “hard time,” and what is “the hope?”

Linda recently began coaching in the Akimbo Podcasting Workshop. I suspected this gave her some unique perspective on where the skill of using storytelling, or story arc, fit into the evolution of a beginner student learning to podcast. While we both agree it’s a useful and interesting tool to learn, it might be a more advanced tool that is better left for later in the journey of learning to podcast.

As we began to wrap up, a freight train quietly rolled through the small town where I live. (I was reminded of Simon and Garfunkel’s, Train in the Distance; “Everybody loves the sound of train in the distance / Everybody thinks that’s true.”) Linda took us in a new direction by making an insightful connection to interruptions to our work.

I love the fact that there was that interruption. We can get really focused on having this pristine sound. But every once in a while, something random happens. I was listening to Carole Blueweiss’s podcast Wisdom Shared, and she was interviewing this young woman. Suddenly there was this argument happening in the background; A mum, dad and daughter having a heated discussion, and Carol just dealt with it so well, and she kept it in. I think that there’s a realness and humanity that one can allow to come into the podcast from a storytelling standpoint.

To wrap this up, I’ll leave you with some more of Linda’s words:

The thing about podcasting is that there are no rules. …being able to just be in a creative mindset, tell the story you want to tell, share the stories or the information that is important for you to share with the world, and be creative without concerning yourself with the rules. And as much as I’ve talked about having a story arc and having a story structure, within that there is an enormous amount of freedom.

If you give seven different artists the same restriction, it’s amazing what they would come up with. Take the restrictions, take the goals, and make them your own. Just go with that moment of creativity, and concern yourself less with what others are doing. Be aware of it, explore, steal like an artist, but also allow your creative juices to flow and just put out in the world what you most want to be able to do. Podcasting is one of the most unrestricted areas of creativity right now, and that gives you license to put it out in the world without any sort of restrictions.

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This written-to-be-read article is based on a transcript, my recollection and my opinions. Any mistakes or mis-representations are my own—but I’d love to have them pointed out so I can correct them. All of the quotations here are edited lightly for readability and clarity. Delivering insight in realtime, while being recorded in a single take is difficult, so I’ve edited only with the intention of highlighting the awesome parts.

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@craig - fantastic first stab at creating narrative from an episode (or three or four or…)! Looks like you nailed what you were seeking to do. And, this next bit is spot-on and could be a standard disclaimer for “snippet” posts and virtually any writing endeavor. Thanks for sharing this. (Maybe in the “final” published form, whatever form that takes, the podcast name, host, episode number and title would be listed in the Contributors or Resources, or Links section (?) - attribution and all that - just a thought).

This really is a solid post! You now (already) have a book on the cusp of being born!

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Well done @craig!
Clear, concise, cogent, compelling

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