The Science of Serial: 10 Takeaways from NPR’s storytelling sensation

In fall of 2014 NPR introduced “Serial” to the world – a serially delivered podcast the delved into a murder that happened just outside of Baltimore in 1999. The show has gone on to have over 80 million downloads in under a year and has spurned a slew of similar podcasts. While it’s easy to write it off as a Who-dun-it style mystery that took advantage of NPR’s listenership base, there is actually much more that made the series such an unprecedented success.

This year at MCN, Bluecadet Creative Director of Environments Brad Baer presented a 5-minute Ignite talk that investigated the inner-workings of what made the podcast so successful and how we can apply that success to innovating the museum space.

You can watch the talk here, follow along with the slideshow or read about each of the 10 takeaways below. 

  1. Start with a question / Make it relatable and personal
  • Serial host Sarah Koenig had a difficult task to accomplish: getting her listeners invested in a story they had no relation to. Rather than jumping right in, Koenig piques the listener’s interest by introducing the crux of the story in an enticing way. She asks the simple, relatable question “Do you know what you did yesterday?” As museum innovators, it is our responsibility to ask our visitors, who don’t necessarily have a personal connection to the material in an exhibit, relatable and compelling questions.
  1. Focus your senses
  • We’ve become so accustomed to having our senses constantly overloaded that moments of distraction-free attention are few and far between. Koenig takes advantage of this precious time by delivering an audio-only exploration of the world in which Serial’s story takes place. The result is a captivating journey in which the listener is given the freedom to contemplate and envision the world presented to him. Museums can use this concept of sensory isolation to capture the imaginations of its visitors.
  1. Balance timeless themes with timely issues
  • At the core of Serial is the Romeo-and-Juliet esque love story familiar to all of us. However, Koenig manages to make this tried and true motif current by weaving in such hot-button issues as incarceration, religion and mental health. Incorporating these topics into Serial makes the story feel that much more relevant to the listener. In the case of Serial we’re only talking about a 15-year-old story but when we think about museums we might be asking people to find relevance in objects that are thousands of years old. Injecting contemporary themes into museum exhibits will add an element of relevance for the visitor who may otherwise write off an ancient sculpture or an esoteric painting.
  1. Don’t be afraid to have a personality and provide different perspectives
  • Like most NPR podcasts, Serial does a wonderful job embracing and emphasizing personality. Listeners appreciate Sarah Koenig’s “I should be a good journalist / but this just doesn’t make sense to me” demeanor. It feels very genuine while avoiding the cliche CSI-style detective narrative. Including a strong angle can turn a skeptical visitor into an impassioned one.
  1. Develop your characters by introducing quirks and habits
  • Speaking of personality, any good story is all about character development. Serial is the perfect example of making strangers in a story seem like someone you already know. From primary players to tangential support cast members, Serial captures the complexities that make each character feel remarkably familiar while maintaining a healthy distance. A museum visitor will have a richer understanding of a the overarching storyline of an exhibit when the key players are endowed with a unique style or manner.
  1. Pace your story like a choreographed dance
  • Another major lesson we can learn from Serial is about pacing. The show undulated between intense moments, deep dives, and flashbacks. The overall choreography keeps you guessing while giving listeners time to rest, discuss and engage. This American Life’s Ira Glass suggests this technique is the same you see in a church or synagogue when a clergyman introduces an idea, pulls back to investigate, and then ends on another big idea. Give your visitors time to consume and digest the information provided.
  1. Consider your audience’s comfort and learning style
  • One of the biggest hurdles of the podcast form is that the listener can be anywhere in the world – on a packed bus, in a cubicle at work, at listening party with friends. On the other hand, you can argue that the show allows its listeners to be somewhere comfortable. What is truly revolutionary for museums is the consideration of delivering on-site, before and after a visit to the museum. Accessing visitors at their point of greatest comfort will ensure willing and engaged participants.
  1. Provide/encourage opportunities to extend the experience
  • Serial is also remarkably successful at provided multiple levels of engagement. At a minimum, listeners can listen to a 45-minutes episode each week. If they desire more they can find maps, bios, and timelines online. If they still want more they can find outside sources or even create content of their own. The takeaway is that we can and should use technology to provide bite-sized content for those who want an overview will still providing opportunities to deep dive for those who want more.
  1. Give your audience a reason to evangelize and riff
  • Many devoted listeners argue that the best part of Serial was not the podcast itself, but the discussion after each episode. The content was delivered in such a way that topics and issues were easily shareable and often viral in nature. The ‘cocktail party appeal’ of Serial resulted in the creation of a vast amount of related content – SNL parodies, music mashups with Miley Cyrus, mile-long Reddit threads, tongue-and-cheek infographics, and even podcasts about the podcast. This type of material extends the discussion, buildings loyalty, and serves as the best kind of (free) marketing. Give your visitors opportunities to participate outside the walls of the museum. Don’t be afraid to engage in discussions that may critique or question an exhibit. Encourage anything that furthers the conversation of the exhibit.
  1. End on a question. Not everything has to have a perfect finish
  • While it feels very un-American, the non-Disney practice of ending on a question works. In the case of Serial there was no other choice – the murder trial is still ongoing. but the decision to let the mind wander as opposed to neatly tying a bow on things seems to be powerful. Good exhibitions, interactives, or podcasts can serve as a teaser or trailer for even more engagement. Think of the last good movie you saw, you wanted to know more at the end. In J.J. Abrams’s talk on a mystery box his grandfather gave him, he argues that the value of not knowing what is inside is far greater than whatever is inside.

So there you have it. A few new arrows in your quiver. How will you use them to take your storytelling to the next level?


Image: Elise Bergerson, Sarah Koenig, Digital Image,,  from “This American Crime: Sarah Koenig on Her Hit Podcast ‘Serial'”, October 24, 2014,