Roman Mars’s Secret To Irresistible Storytelling

The title of Roman Mars’s popular podcast, 99% Invisible, actually reveals something crucial about telling compelling stories: helping people put their fingers on the (nearly) intangible.


Now in the fourth season of 99% Invisible, Roman Mars has mastered his medium of choice–the podcast–and is sharing his wisdom in a new video profile by This Is Radio. The secret, says Mars, whose show looks at the world through the lens of design, is actually right there in his program’s name. “I think that the stories that work for me are the ones that are about the things you just kind of notice but don’t really notice. They’re just like, they’re on the periphery and you bring them forward a little bit. They have resonance because you think: ‘Oh yeah, I have seen that everywhere. But I never really put my finger on it.'”

Roman Mars

In other words: Mars focuses on the nearly invisible. “It tries to focus on all the thought that goes into the little things that people don’t think about,” he added. For example, a personal favorite was when he delved into the logic behind revolving doors. The simpler the concept, the better it resonates with listeners, such as one of his bigger hits about a secret place in Ann Arbor, Mich. called “Heyoon.”

Beyond having a clear vision for his podcast, Mars has another secret: Let reporters have fun. “I take real pride that I feel like on my show reporters do their best work,” he said. Unlike other stuffy or self-important programs, 99% Invisible wants to feel personal and welcoming.

Through these tactics, Mars has become one of the more successful independent podcasters. He has funded his seasons through crowdsourced donations of mostly around $25 per fan, a difficult feat for a tiny program about architecture.

To further spread what he has learned, Mars recently started a collective called Radiotopia. Mars and like-minded podcasts will share the lessons they have learned about independent podcast funding. “What do we learn about direct fundraising through my show that we can impart onto others? I feel like the lessons of my show are replicable for a lot of different shows,” Mars told Fast Company in a recent interview.

The collective also has the benefit of power in numbers, meaning shows with smaller audiences can sell to bigger advertisers as a group. The main goal is to allow these programs to maintain that personal feel Mars strives for, without succumbing to the constraints of traditional on-the-dial programming. “How do we create a space where a creator can be as good as possible without the other constraints?” Mars added.

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news