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Behind The Podcast: Nothing much happens — Kathryn Nicolai uses simple storytelling to help

Podcasts are typically viewed as a source of entertainment or education. But rarely do we think about the ways they can enhance our lives. Kathryn Nicolai is on a mission to do just that with the weekly podcast, Nothing much happens: bedtime stories for grown-ups. Each episode features a simple yet rewarding nighttime story with an adult flair. The objective is to help us all get more restful sleep and shut out common distractions. Simon Says chatted with Nicolai about the inspiration behind the show and the future of these compelling stories.

[Note: The responses have been lightly edited for readability and flow.]

  1. How did you develop the idea for Nothing much happens?

One of my earliest childhood memories is of telling myself a story to fall asleep, so I've done it my whole life, and I knew that it worked both for falling asleep and for getting back to sleep when you wake in the middle of the night. I wanted to find a way to share the idea with other people and, though I originally wanted Nothing Much Happens to be a book, I decided that a podcast could actually work better.

2. How did you identify this need (nighttime stories for adults)?

I work as a yoga teacher so I'm interacting with people on an emotional and psychological level every day. My students were telling me that they had a hard time turning their brains off at night, and often woke up after a few hours of sleep and struggled to get back to sleep. I also knew that many people were using audiobooks and podcasts to fall asleep to at night. I've used them myself but it was hard to find stories that I could relax to and not become too invested in the action.

3. On the surface, the podcast seems like a really cool, fresh, modern idea. But there's more to this show than simply telling the stories. It's tied into helping us relax our minds and fall asleep easier. Did you have to conduct research or consult experts on any scientific aspects?

Thanks! I agree that there's not much like it out there right now. As a yoga teacher, I do a lot of research about how our brains work, how the sympathetic nervous system responds to put the body into the relaxation response and various techniques for relaxation. So that was already part of my day-to-day work, and I have a lot of experience with using my voice and my words to help people focus and relax. I added that to the natural technique I'd developed when I was a kid and the idea came together.

4. The instruction you provide for listeners (i.e. turning off the light, putting away work projects, etc.) reminds me of directions one would follow during a meditation session. Are there any parallels or connections between your show and meditation?

Well spotted! Yes there are definite connections between meditation and my stories. Meditation is really just paying attention to what is happening in the moment in a calm and relaxed way. The stories offer the listener a place to rest their mind, a way to follow along with what is happening in the moment that prevents the mind from wandering off and getting into trouble. Taking time to deliberately set aside devices, turn off the light, and get comfortable in bed are part of a habit-making technique that tells the mind and body "It's time." Lots of us are lying in bed at night, endlessly scrolling through upsetting news stories or reading nasty comments on social media and then trying to find a way to sleep peacefully. It's not working for most people. This is an alternative.

5. How did you decide that you'd repeat the story in each episode?

This was purely instinctual but definitely the right choice. Even though we tell the listener right from the beginning that not much happens in the stories, they can't help but want to hear the end. Knowing that they will hear the story twice takes pressure off of the listener and lets them just relax. Many people tell me that they fall asleep as I begin the second telling but I've also heard from people who say they've never even heard the beginning of the story, that just hearing my instructions puts them to sleep. I imagine not many writers would be excited to hear that their work makes people snore but I find it incredibly satisfying to know that so many people are getting a good night's sleep because of my stories.

6. How have listeners responded so far?

The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Lots of listeners have sent messages and comments to tell me that they fall asleep fast and that if they wake up in the middle of the night, they use the details of the story to go right back to sleep. Also, they tell me that their sleep improves the more they use the podcast, so it seems to have a cumulative effect, that's the brain training in action. While the podcast is mostly used for sleep, I love hearing how listeners use it in other ways as well. Many have said that they listen in the middle of the day to help ease anxiety, that they put in their earbuds at lunch time and listen in their office. Parents have told me that they listen as a family before bed, and it helps their kids settle down and relax, or that they put it on in the car when they're dropping off or picking up kids from school or in traffic, or any time that there might be some stress, and they immediately feel more relaxed.

7. Who writes the stories?

I do. I've had a few people ask this question so you'll actually hear me say that in upcoming episodes.

8. What will happen to the stories beyond the podcast? Are there plans for a short story anthology?

Gosh, I'd love that. My original idea was for this to be an actual paper book, like you might have had as a child, with full color illustrations. I still think that's a great idea so if the right offer came along, I'd be on board.

9. A lot of podcasts are focused on interviews and discussions, but it's rare that they employ creative writing. What were your concerns about launching a podcast that abandoned the "normal" format? Did you have any fears about going against the podcasting grain?

Not at all, I was in the fortunate position of not needing the podcast to be a huge success. I believed in it and wanted it to get in front of lots of people but if I'd only had a few listeners, that would have been okay too. That's the lovely thing about the medium of podcastingÔøΩ the cost is (or can be) minimal, especially for a show like mine, so I had a dream and made it happen for not very much money. I could stick to my vision of exactly how I thought it should be without worrying about how it would be received. It seems though, that I had the right idea at the right time. Thousands of listeners have downloaded my stories with the numbers growing every day. I am very grateful for that.

10. For someone who wants to venture into this more creative podcasting space, what advice do you have for them?

Just do it. There's always going to be that voice in the back of your head that says "You're not good enough, no one wants to read/see/hear this." But create anyway. I'm so glad I did. And as a creative person it gave me momentum to work on other projects too.

11. Where else can we see your work?

Well, I'm working on a novel that I hope will be ready soon that would appeal to people who like this style of writing. Follow me at www.nothingmuchhappens.com (or on Facebook and Instagram), and I also have a paid podcast of live yoga classes that are recorded in my studio each week. There is a free class on the front page of www.ethos.yoga for those who are interested.