What Storytellers Should Learn from John Madden’s Career

NFL broadcaster John Madden

For years, John Madden’s voice was the sound of Sunday afternoons in my house.

And in my lifetime, I’ve enjoyed watching him reach the pinnacle of three different professions: football coach, sports broadcaster and video game creator. But the thing that resonates most after hearing the news of his death this week at age 85 is what a gifted storyteller he was.

His color commentary during NFL games will never be confused with Shakespeare, obviously, but he had the gift all the best teachers have: the ability to help people learn without even realizing they were being taught.

“He knew how to connect,” his colleague Al Michaels said in the Fox Sports documentary All Madden, which aired days before Madden’s death.

That’s because Madden democratized the game of football by taking an inclusive approach to his work. You did not have to know a special vocabulary or understand Byzantine rules to enjoy watching the games he called.

Those of us who publish content for a living — video, audio, the written word — would do well to study his professional life through the lens of storytelling. Here are a few themes that jumped out at me while I reminisced about what Madden built over a life well lived.

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Know why you’re telling your story in the first place.

Any story should exist either to make us feel something or learn something. (Truly excellent stories manage to do both.) But all too often, storytellers get lost in the sound of their keyboard clicking and wander away from the point.

Madden never thought his job was filling empty space with words. He always was on a mission to help people love the game of football as much as he did. That’s why his voice was so passionate and his insights so relatable — he knew his job was to help millions of people feel what he felt in the presence of the game.

He also wanted the audience to have as much fun as he was having. Just look at how he pioneered the use of the telestrator — not just to teach X’s and O’s, but also to put a smile on viewers’ faces.

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Don’t try to sound so smart all the time.

The world of sports broadcasting is overpopulated with people who use jargon and insider language to communicate. Journalism schools don’t do a good job of teaching students to communicate in everyday language, and in this age of building audiences, that skill is more important than ever. (Thankfully, Madden never went to journalism school.)

Madden took an inclusive approach to an exclusive career, making football more accessible for far more people than ever before. He described the game in a way that broadened its appeal across genders and generations by using simple language that appealed to fans without alienating newcomers.

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Put content first, ahead of technology.

When video game makers first approached Madden about lending his name to a football title, they were designing a seven-on-seven version because technology was limited at the time. Madden insisted they develop an 11-on-11 version — just like in the actual sport. Then he shared his own playbooks with developers to make the game more realistic.

If you have ever designed a story around your own technological limitations — rather than the other way around — you’re being less than authentic. Content comes first, always.

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If you want to be interesting, you must first be interested.

Madden notoriously loathed air travel and rode across the country by bus. The Madden Cruiser made pit stops in small towns and big cities and drew a crowd wherever it went, and Madden was gracious in greeting his fans. He got to know the locals — their slang and their customs, along with their food — whenever he arrived in town to prepare for games.

His curiosity about people was genuine, and when he threaded those stories into his own color commentary, it was magic. The special ingredient that made Madden’s voice so unique came from the interest in what was happening around him and the gumption to listen to other people’s stories, too.

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Madden’s shadow looms large. Generations of today’s best NFL players learned the game in part by playing the world’s most popular video game and hearing his commentary, and his work even shaped how we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States.

That legacy wasn’t built on power or riches, nor did it depend on technology or trends. It was built on the influence that came from decades of passionate, genuine, meaningful storytelling.

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