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How To Choose Compelling Stories To Share on Podcasts
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Learn from Sean Tyler Foley, a former child actor and stuntman who thought his story was boring and didn’t even have a story to tell, how to find, craft, and tell a compelling story that will engage and captivate any audience. Sean explains an actionable exercise you can do to discover five critical stories from your past that can be used to engage any audience. (The thing you’re afraid to say is what your audience needs to hear.) Additionally, Sean will share how to perfectly tailor your five stories in a way that will leave your audience spellbound.
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If you look back on your life, do you see your milestones? Do you see your accomplishments or your struggles? Or maybe you view them as just mundane happenings, or do you see them as exciting Hollywood blockbusters?
Even though I’ve been in film and TV since I was six years old, I never thought of my life as exciting.
However, when I had to start extracting my own story, I realized that someone’s story doesn’t have to be a Hollywood blockbuster directed by Michael Bay to impact an audience.
What really matters is finding those key moments in your life that were important to you. Then speak about them in a way that resonates with you. And if they resonate with you, they will resonate with people who’ve gone through something similar.
Now, I want to walk you through a quick exercise to help you extract at least five key stories from your life.
You can then use these stories to make a point or illustrate a feeling/situation so that your audience is on board with you and really feels captivated by the words you’re using.
This post is a transcription of one of the talks from our PodPros Quarterly Virtual Event.
A simple exercise to help you extract impactful stories to share on podcasts:
Divide your age by five. Don’t worry about decimal places. If you use the third-grade math that you learned way long ago, you’ll remember that we rounded to the whole and then had a remainder. So, that’s all I want you to do.
You’ll be dividing in increments of 5, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50 or above and beyond.
For me, I’m 42. So I’m going to round to 40 then divide by 5, which gives me 8. Now I have that little two remainder (you will have a remainder from 0 to 4), I’ll tack it onto the beginning.
Again, 40 divided by 5 gives me increments of eight years. And at the very beginning, I’m going to tack on my two years. So instead of my first epoch being 0 to 8, it’s now 0 to 10. And then 11 to 18, 19 to 26, 27 to 34 and so on.
Take a minute and do your calculations.
Now, what I want you to do is to look at the first period and ask yourself,
“What is the most immediate memory that comes to me when I think back to this time period?”
For me, when I think back to my first epoch—which, as we’ve determined, is zero to 10 years old—I have two very distinct memories.
They’re both auditory, which leads to another essential point to remember when doing this exercise. It could be a sound, a smell, a color, a feeling, a vivid image or, even, just kind of an ethereal memory. Whatever it is, focus on the first one that pops into your head when you think back to that time in your life.
I don’t want you to have to overthink this. Your first memory is not necessarily chronological; it’s simply the first one that pops into your mind.
So, my two vivid memories are both auditory. The first is the sound of an audience applauding and clapping and then giving me a standing ovation when I was six years old.
It ignites me and has pretty much dictated my life ever since
The other sound that is crystal clear in my mind is one I will never ever forget. It was the sound my mother made the first time she heard that my father would never be returning home. Our family physician and a police officer had come to our home to let her know that he had passed away in a car accident.
She let out this animalistic, guttural, heart-wrenching, spine-tingling sound that I never want to hear ever again in my life. That sound has also dictated and influenced a lot of the things that I’ve done and the choices I’ve made in my life.
While my first two very distinct memories from my first period are auditory, they could be something totally different for you.
Remember that we’re only going to focus on one at a time so that we get five. So go back and revisit this exercise over and over again. And as you get more memories, you can write them down. But understand that the more you do it, the more work comes later.
If I look at my next period, 11 yrs to 18 yrs, I also have two very distinct memories. The first one was the first time I openly mourned my father’s passing.
I was in sixth grade at an elementary assembly for the final award ceremony of the year. As the winner of the top student of the school award, the prize came with a certificate, a little plaque and a bursary check for a couple of hundred dollars.
I remember standing up and walking past the auditorium along the side where my mum was seated among all the other parents. Besides my mum was an empty chair.
Now you have to understand this was a packed room as it was the end of the year celebration, parents, faculty, staff—everybody was there, including the students.
And so, to have an empty chair was very odd. I remember walking past it and thinking my dad should be sitting there. And at that moment, a thought struck me—my dad’s not going to see me get this award.
Instantly the cascade started, like a bullet train that left the station and just wouldn’t stop. My dad isn’t going to see me graduate from the sixth grade. He won’t see me graduate from high school, enter university or graduate from university. He won’t see me get married and will never know his grandchildren.
The moment in my life when reality hit me hard
All of these things just tumbled through my head as I went up to get this award. I started shedding tears, and everybody assumed I was crying because I was happy. In reality, it was the first time the gravitas of my father’s passing really washed over me.
As for the second memory, when I was 17, I had a medical incident that left me paralyzed for almost a year. The left side of my body was completely paralyzed. At the time, I was going to a fine arts high school, so this really had an impact on me. As an actor, how would I make a living when half of my face was drooping! It was awful, utterly devastating for me.
Those are my two distinct memories, and I have supporting memories around them.
This is what I want you to do.
Look back at your time spans.
What is your most significant or most impactful memory?
When you look back on a period, what’s the one that is the first thing to jump to mind? That’s what you want to focus on.
Note it down, it shouldn’t take very long. Give it a maximum of two to three minutes.
Now it’s time to answer two critical questions for each of those memories.
The first question is:
Why is this significant to you? What is the meaning behind it? Why is that the memory that stands out amongst all the others? What makes this the one that you focus on?
Note down your answers. Now, go back and ask yourself the second question
What are the lessons I learned from these events/memories? Also, what are the lessons that I needed to learn from them?
It doesn’t matter if your answers are different or very similar. The critical thing is to go really deep into the process and bear in mind that multiple lessons could be learned from each of those memories.
As you start to list each one, you should end up with a cascade of lessons that you learned or needed to learn.
Now it’s time to answer the second question
What is the through-line?
What is the theme that repeats in each one of these lessons? Is there one to begin with?
When I look through each one of mine, the through-line or the commonality within each of my memories is actually grace. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for each of those events, putting me onto the path I needed to walk.
When I create my signature talk, I talk about the grace that I’ve experienced through life and how it has propelled me to be the speaker and author I am. This is also what foes into the stories I share on podcasts.
I encourage you to find those common themes and then explore how that can be the central headline theme for your talk.
Somewhere buried in there is very likely something you are hesitant to talk about. I encourage you to explore that as well. Because the thing that you’re afraid to say is very likely the thing that your audience needs to hear.
I preach this in every one of the seminars I teach and to every private client I work with.
The real key to the secret sauce
When you can open yourself up and be vulnerable, that’s when you have the most power and the most impact.
We want to explore these stories and why they’re important to you because nobody knows your story better than you. It’s hard to be thrown off mid-tangent when you’re telling your own story from your own point of view and really highlighting the details.
Give details, set the scene for us, give us context, let us walk a mile in your shoes. They say never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
While we can’t do that physically, by telling your story, your audience can metaphorically.
So give them the details that allow them to experience what you experienced. Don’t be afraid to say the thing that you are likely holding back. It’s those details and that vulnerability that will get your audience on your side and really flesh out your story and make it compelling.
Whether you tell 1, 2, or all five of these stories, it’s entirely up to you and the audience that you’re trying to serve. But I would caution you to remember a great and wise saying from the incomparable Les Brown: never tell a point without a story, never make a point without a story.
The story will support your point, but you need to know why you’re telling that story.
If you don’t find that through-line with all five, maybe tie together two or three to support the through-line you need to deliver your points to the audience you’re speaking to.
Always remember that you can tailor your talk each time.
About the speaker: Sean Tyler Foley
Sean Tyler Foley has been acting in film and television since he was 6 years old. He has appeared in Freddy Vs Jason, Door to Door, Carrie, and the musical Ragtime. Tyler is the author of the #1 best-selling book The Power to Speak Naked and can help you confidently take the stage and tell your story.