Formats Unpacked: Sleep Stories

How unstructured stories send us to slumber

Hi All,

This week’s format could be described as an anti-format format. It purposely removes structure in order to achieve its desired goal, which is really smart. I won’t say too much as today’s unpacker, Beatrice Cooke, has done such a brilliant job herself.

Bee works in Content Strategy at the BBC, setting the editorial vision for BBC Sounds with audience insight at the heart. She’s obsessed with storytelling and believes that there’s always a place for a good story. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Over to Bee…


What’s it called?

Sleep Stories (Audio stories from the Calm app)

What’s the format?

Sleep Stories are soothing bedtime tales that combine music, special effects and a celebrity storyteller. 

Each famous voice tells a story that somehow suits them; Mary Berry invites us to ‘A Very Proper Tea Party’, accompanied by a quaint orchestral soundtrack. Her voice is a soothing as a warm cup of tea. Matthew McConaughey’s story begins with a characteristically pious reflection: “God’s backyard is so much bigger than I thought”. His gentle Texan drawl is hypnotic. Harry Styles’s ‘Dream With Me’ plays like a love song. His voice reverberates through a microphone. “We’re heading somewhere special”, he promises, as he seduces us to sleep.  

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The magic is the absence of structure. There’s a funny paradox here – the stories are intended not to be gripping, designed never to be finished. There are no climaxes or catastrophes, no consistent threads and no carefully developed characters. All of this makes the stories hard to recall. It’s even harder to track the passage of time; there’s no beginning, middle or end. It means that the stories can be listened to again and again – just like your favourite childhood storybook. The unstructured narrative is similar to cognitive shuffling, a relatively new sleep technique that involves focusing on random, disconnected words and images. It supposedly gives your brain enough stimulation to keep anxieties at bay, but not quite enough to keep it engaged. The process mimics the visual ‘micro-dreams’ at the beginning of a sleep cycle. 

Favourite episode?

It’s hard to pick a favourite, partly because I never manage to get very far before I fall asleep. I do particularly like ‘The Kingdom of the Sky’. Here, we settle into the gentle rocking of a horse’s saddle as we travel across the mountains of Lesotho. Idris Elba is our guide. His baritone voice leads us from a 600-foot waterfall in a lush valley, covered in a green moss carpet, to mystical cave art drawn by the indigenous San people. The adventure is poetic and evocative. Idris describes it aptly as “a living photo album”. It makes me want to mastermind a trip to Lesotho – and then I have to remind myself that this is time for wind-down, not logistics!

Similar Formats

Headspace’s Sleepcasts are the most similar in format. In fact, they take the unstructured approach a step further: the stories are remixed with every listen. By contrast, Spotify’s Wake up / Wind Down relies on a predictable schedule to build habit – 5-minute episodes to start your day, 10-minute episodes to wrap it up. Charlie Mackesy’s audiobook of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse also sits in a similar vein – the dream-like journey lacks a clear story arc but the images are vivid and the meaning profound. 

The writer Rebecca Solnit speculates“Some [stories] are toolkits you take up to fix things…from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships…Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying. Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles.” 

To me, Sleep Stories are wings: they elevate us, let us soar freely above our fears, before slipping us into soft slumber.

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Thanks Bee,

A few years ago I was surprised to see a stat saying the home was the most popular place to listen to podcasts. As a big podcast fan, I would say most of my podcast listening is done out of the home. A quick survey of the room suggested the same.

When someone mentioned they used podcasts to help them drift off to sleep I realised I do actually listen at home much more than I thought. It’s just that I’m asleep for most of that listening. As someone who knows how much effort goes into making a podcast this feels unforgivable.

When I fall asleep listening to an episode of This American Life I rarely go back and catch up on what I missed the next day. And I have this weird guilt about the number of episodes of 99% Invisible that didn’t get my full attention because I was drifting whilst listening.

So a podcast designed with a missable ending is genius as far as I’m concerned. At Storythings we put the desired behaviour we want to see at the very beginning of our format development process. Whatever that behaviour is, everything is shaped around it. I’d be interested to hear about any other formats that have been designed with very specific behaviour in mind. Get in touch with your thoughts.

On a separate note, I mentioned last week that I’d been working on a package of shows about the history of drag. Well, they’re now online for you to listen to. Hope you enjoy them.

Thanks for reading.

Hugh