Tracy Johnson on the power of personal stories in radio

Ah, the power of personal stories. Evidence of the power of storytelling is everywhere, and it has become clear once again that the ability to relate personal experiences from your life is one of the most important skills for all personalities.

In a focus group with listeners, I played a personal story from one of the personalities on my client’s station. The segment was good, but not something that would ordinarily be considered an outstanding break that would cause a strong reaction. The goal was to find out if respondents felt the show was too internal or self absorbed.

They loved it. They said things like,

This makes me feel like I know her a little better.

It’s exactly the kind of thing that happens to me. I can relate to that.

I love it when the DJs open up their lives so I can feel connected to them.

This is particularly gratifying, because building personal stories in breaks has been a focal point in coaching for over a year. And it’s proof once again that listeners not only care about radio personalities, they love them, as long as the stories are properly told.

But it takes time to develop the skills to tell stories on the air. And sometimes there’s a thin line between revealing character and being self-indulgent.

Unlocking the Power of Personal Stories

I was working with an air personality that was struggling to find the balance. He wanted to become a master storyteller so badly. But most of the content from his personal life came off as flat, internal and “all about me.”

Finally, the light came on.

When it did, everything changed for the better. He unlocked the power of personal stories.

And you won’t believe what triggered the growth.

The “aha” moment was from a most unlikely source: Tommy Chong, half of the famous comedy team Cheech and Chong.

I shared the story of when Chong was in prison. He met Jordan Belfort, the famous Wolf of Wall Street It’s a good movie, and a good book. I recommend both. Belfort’s character was played by Leonardo Dicaprio in the movie.

In prison, 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.

For my client, the key to personal stories came down to 3 key things:

  1. The story has to have a central character listeners care about.
  2. They must connect with the conflict or friction faced.
  3. And details must be added to build anticipation for what happens next.

Armed with these tools, my client began a journey to master the Three E’s of entertainment.

The Three E’s in Personal Stories

Success in telling personal stories is 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 what Chong meant by, “the most of”.

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.

When he added conflict into storytelling, suspense followed. The stories went from “blah” to “wow”. Enhancing the story with exaggerated details made them vivid and alive.

Almost instantly, his content was more compelling, more interesting and more relatable.

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

Exaggerating The Details In Personal Stories

Here’s an example of how exaggerated details works on the air, with Radio Hall of Fame members Jeff & Jer.

This two-part segment features Jerry telling a story about an embarrassing, relatable situation that has happened to everyone.

In this segment:

  • Jerry takes his time developing the conflict he felt with enough detail to build suspense. We can feel his anxiety when he realizes that he has a “situation” on his hands.
  • He owns the story, but tells it in a self-deprecating way, never taking himself too seriously. In doing so, he becomes a sympathetic, relatable central character.
  • The story is true, but it’s enhanced by embellishing many details. This happens in the preparation process by thinking about how to present the story in a way that causes a stronger response from co-hosts.

The Power Of Personal Stories, Part II

The show breaks for commercials at the perfect time. Just when you think the story is about to end, they drop a bread crumb  to transition from the end of the story  (Jerry’s escape from the situation) to a sub-plot that takes it to another level.

Who’s going to tune out before they hear how the story ends?

This segment elevates the story to become a memorable moment on the air.

The story moves forward by introducing new characters, especially Don the Valet. Whether or not the details in the outcome are real-life or fiction, it’s believable and plausible. And simply a great moment on the air.


This is a terrific example of mining a story in show prep by asking, “What else?”.

By digging deeper, shows can find more relatable connections by examining:

  1. What else could have happened that would make the story better?
  2. What else would I want to happen that would enhance the story?
  3. How might this story be more interesting by adjusting some of the details?

Every personality tells stories differently. That’s a good thing. It’s what makes you stand out from everyone else on the air. But every storyteller can improve their skills by applying some of the basics in story structure. This is particularly true when learning to unlock the power of a personal story.

In the Audience Magnet course, I take students through the entire process of preparing, developing and performing personal stories on the air. Check it out for more details.

There’s an “aha” moment for every personality that unlocks the power of personal stories. What has worked for you?

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

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