Listening to a story told in a soothing way can help us to relax at bedtime. Writer and journalist Phoebe Smith works for the Calm app as their first sleep storyteller and has perfected the art of telling a bedtime story.
It’s something that many of us enjoyed as children and Phoebe believes that it’s something we can still enjoy as adults.
In this episode, Phoebe talks about the art of writing a sleep story and why we find it so compelling. And we discover her surprising hobby – extreme sleeping.
This episode includes a sleep story called ‘Blue Gold’ narrated by Stephen Fry following on from the interview! We hope you enjoy it.
Podcast interview transcript
Sarah: This week we’re joined by Phoebe Smith who is a travel journalist and the calm app’s first sleep story teller in residence. In this episode Phoebe tells us all about why stories can help us to relax, and what makes a good sleep story.
Sarah: Okay, so I guess the first question is what is a sleep story?
Phoebe: So, a sleep story is a bedtime story, but for grown-ups. So, it goes back to the idea that when we were kids, and we couldn’t sleep or we didn’t want to sleep, our parents would read us a bedtime story, so we’d go to sleep. But we get to a certain age where for some reason we stop that, and it’s almost, no that’s what you do when you’re a kid. But if you think about it, it’s actually a really good technique, because you’re not focusing on everything that’s running through your head, you’re not worrying about bills, you’re not worrying about social media, you’re focussed on a story – but how many of us have someone these days that will sit down and read a bedtime story for us, especially when we’re grown-up and perhaps live on our own.
So, the idea was to do bedtime stories for grown-ups, so that someone is reading to you. I write the non-fiction, travel themed ones for Calm.
Sarah: So how did it come about, how did you end up getting that job, because it’s a bit of a strange one?
Phoebe: It is, and it was strange when I first got asked. So, I’d written an article for a travel magazine, because I’m a travel writer. I’d written one about the Trans-Siberian train that I’d done, so going from China through Mongolia and then through Siberia and ending in Moscow. And one of the co-founders of Calm had read it and sent me an email out of the blue that basically said, I love your work, I think it would make a great story to send people to sleep. And, I wasn’t sure whether I should be mortified that perhaps my writing was so tedious, that it would bore someone to sleep
But then the more I spoke to Michael, the more I realised that actually it wasn’t that, because when you’re a kid, and someone reads you a bedtime story, it’s not a dull, kind of story, it’s a story you actually want to hear – and it’s not so much, sort of, I mean, I think definitely how it’s read to you is important, but it’s something that takes you away from the here and now. And, so I thought, well, I’ll give it a go, so I wrote the Trans-Siberian railway as my first sleep story, and I wrote it still very sceptical, and then they sent the recording to me, they’d had it narrated, by a guy called Erik Braa, who has a lovely thick, kind of rich voice. They sent it to me to listen to and it’d been a really, busy long day and I put it on, sat on my sofa and realised I actually fell asleep listening to it. And, so when I woke up, I thought, wow, there’s really something in this, and haven’t looked back since
Sarah: Yeah, so how do you approach it then? How is writing a sleep story different to writing any other kind of…?
Phoebe: So, it completely flips travel writing on its head. So, a normal travel piece, I’m trying to grab your attention, and every single sentence I’m trying to pull you through the narrative to make sure you reach my ending. With a bedtime story, it’s completely flipped on its head. So, anything dramatic or kind of scary, or something that would wake you up has to go near the beginning. So, for instance, I wrote a piece on the wild ponies in Chincoteague Island, which is in Virginia. They roam free on this island, they’ve been there for centuries, and the reason they’re there is because it was caused by a shipwreck – a Spanish shipwreck, where these horses, kind of ran when the ship broke apart. I thought, well I can’t throw a shipwreck in, in a stormy sea in the middle of a sleep story, as that could wake someone up, because it’s quite jarring.
So instead, I started at sea with the storm and then very quickly, got to the horses being wild and free on this island. So, it’s sort of, anything like that has to go at the beginning, and then it’s pacing the story so that you slowly and gently immerse them into the place, and take them with you on a journey, so that they hopefully never reach the end.
And from what I hear, in around ten-minutes for most people, they’re gone, and some of those stories are 20, even 40 minutes long.
Sarah: Wow, so people just nod off and it keeps on playing?
Phoebe: It does yeah, and you know, it stops at the end once it’s finished, so it’s not like you’ll suddenly get woken up because it’s finished and put something else on. But it’s funny, like I said, I write a lot and I’ve written books and I write for radio. I write all kinds of different things, but it’s the sleep stories on Calm that I get the most emails about, and that’s from people who it’s helped send to sleep, and people are so grateful for anything that helps them sleep when nothing else has worked
And it’s also because some people say they can’t travel anymore, be it because of an illness or a disability, and I take them to these places within the stories, so I just get such wonderfully positive feedback and it keeps me wanting to challenge myself to write more and more of them.
Sarah: Yeah, so would you say it’s a form of escapism then?
Phoebe: I definitely think that’s what it is. I think it’s a combination of escapism, like I said, taking you away from the here and now. I mean the reason most of us can’t sleep, is because we lie there thinking, I can’t sleep, and then if I can’t sleep, I’m going to be in a bad way tomorrow, and then you worry about that and then it becomes a stress cycle you can’t break, and you just lie there getting more and more stressed
What the sleep story does, it takes you away from all that, and especially I think the travel ones I write, they take you to another place and I’m very mindful of putting in lots of senses, lots of description, so you really feel like you’re there. And then I think the other part of it, is just someone reading to you. It seems a little bit of a luxury, I think in this day and age, that someone’s sort of reading you this bedtime story and they’re reading it a certain way, and it’s almost I think, a bit nostalgic in that it reminds us of when we were kids, and someone would take the time to read to us.
Sarah: That’s interesting, so it is a bit like you go back in time, like suddenly you’re in the child position again and you’re being…
Phoebe: Yeah, I think so, and if you listen to them, every single one starts with that sort of, you know, here’s the story for tonight, here’s what it’s about – before we start, snuggle into your… So, it is very much like someone is there and they’re just talking to you. Some of the narrators that they use have such wonderful voices, that I think it’s just, they’ve got that soothing quality, and then it’s just trying to marry your writing up, so that they kind of work together, to send people off to sleep as soothingly as possible!
Sarah: Do you find that it changes the words that you use when you’re writing?
Phoebe: Oh, definitely.
Sarah: So, are there some words that you know you wouldn’t include?
Phoebe: I had to cut out – I was writing a piece about walking through the jungles of Madagascar, and I love wildlife, so I was getting very excited about some of the creatures I’d seen and then I suddenly thought, actually, some people being told about a snake or a lizard, might not find that very soothing in bed if they have a phobia, so I had to remove them, and then when I write the sleep stories, I read them out loud as I go, because I have to make sure that – because sometimes it’ll be written down on paper and will seem perfectly fine, but then when you read it aloud, a word might pop, like the word pop I just said then, or you know, jar, or if something snaps. Something like the word itself might be that onomatopoeia to make someone sit up, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to do, because someone is trying to fall asleep, so you want to use words that kind of flow better, sound soothing, don’t panic people, so yeah, they take longer to write than anything else I do.
Sarah: That’s really interesting, because you think it’ll be the other way around!
Phoebe: Yeah, no, and it’s not like I can’t – some people will say: “Ooh, if they fall asleep so fast, you don’t have to worry about what happens after the first few paragraphs.” But, of course that’s not true, because if someone does listen to the end, I want it to be a good story, so it just takes longer because you have to think a lot more about them.
I’ve often said, since I’ve been the sleep storyteller in residence and I’m writing these monthly stories for Calm, it means that when I’m travelling, I know something is going to be a sleep story, so it’s made me more of a mindful traveller. So, instead of just looking at a massive landscape and just looking at the overview, I even bought myself a macro lens for my camera, you know, so I’m zooming in on the really little things, and I’m noticing the smells, the sounds, the way something feels, the textures.
All these things are very important to go in a sleep story, so it’s making me travel more mindfully, and then I think even when it comes to the writing, I’m writing more mindfully as well, so it’s really changed things for me, and I love it.
Sarah: So, would you say travel has become a much more sensory experience for you then?
Phoebe: Yeah, I think I always – I mean, you know, a good travel writer always makes notes of particular senses, but I just think, it’s attuned me much more into them and it’s really made me think about how I could describe them to people, where as before, I might have just written a few words about one thing or the other, about how something, you know, the strong smell of mint tea or something, it’s like, well, what kind of mint and what other tones is in there with that and what sounds – I’m just much more, attuned to it, then perhaps I was, and like I said, I’ve had to slow down and it’s been wonderful
Sarah: Do you travel then, specifically to create the sleep stories, or is it something that ties in with your other work?
Phoebe: Erm, it does tie in with my other work, so sometimes I might do a particular thing because I think it might make a good sleep story, without necessarily having another commission – but I never would go to a place with one commission anyway, I always go with several, just to, that’s how you have to make it work as a travel writer.
So there is a few exceptions, so I when I went on, I was in Australia last year, and I purposely went on the Guan train, because I knew a sleep story always does very well, and journeys tend to do very well with the sleep stories, so you know, it’s that sense of taking people off, over time, over space, so I did that specifically knowing for the sleep story, ended up writing about it somewhere else as well, but I went for that reason.
Funnily enough I’ll be going back again to Western Australia this time in a few weeks, to do a piece on the Coral Sea, which is a kind of, lesser known reef that Australia has, so, erm, I’m sure, knowing me, this is why I like slowing down, because I’m always frantically looking for more and more stories whenever I go somewhere – and that’s what’s quite nice about the sleep story, it’s really forcing me to kind of, take my time and notice more.
Sarah: Yeah, so what kind of ones do you have coming up?
Phoebe: [laughs] Well that’s one, that’s one for sure. I’m always looking for more train journeys, I have more about Jordan, the deserts of Wadi Rum coming up on the horizon, I just submitted one about taking South Africa’s blue train, between Cape Town and Pretoria, because the landscapes there and the people and the stories, it’s just, there’s endless things you could write about South Africa. So, they’re just a few of them, I don’t like to give too much away, but yeah, I honestly, I’m the kind of person, I harvest more stories, than I could ever possibly tell in a single lifetime, so I never run out of things to write about.
Sarah: Have you found it’s changed your own listening habits. Do you listen now more to storytelling or podcasts or that kind of thing?
Phoebe: Yeah definitely, I’ve really realised how much more you focus on things when you listen to podcasts and it’s got me into it a lot more. I’ve even launched my own Wonder Woman podcast, which sort of tells the behind the scenes stories of my travels – because I just felt people wanted to know more than what I could perhaps do in a traditional medium, and I think the joy of sound is that you can story tell. Storytelling is, lets be honest, the oldest form of how we’ve passed on our culture, so if you look past in history to the Inuit people, to Aboriginals, to the Maori, their culture was oral, until people started to be able to write things down.
So, the fact that we’re now getting more interested in being spoken to, and told stories through podcasts, through radio, through things like that, it’s almost like we’re going back to our roots.
Sarah: Yeah, I always think as well that when you listen to a podcast, or a story, or something like that, it feels very intimate.
Phoebe: Yeah, it feels quite personal, doesn’t it? – Like someone is talking just to you, and yeah, I love it as a medium. And I love it especially, because doing anything that involves sound, it doesn’t matter what you look like that day, *laughter, because no one has any idea – until I once did an interview on Radio 5, when I realised they had cameras in there and I suddenly just rolled out of bed to go in, and I was like, why did no one tell me,*laughter. I was trying to hide from them.
Sarah: Yeah, you’d hope they would warn you.
Phoebe: Yeah, I wondered why the presenter was so heavily made up and then I very quickly found out.
Sarah: Oh dear!
Phoebe: Never mind, if you’re talking about sleep, it’s okay if you look like you’ve just got up. [laughs]
Sarah: Yeah, so it comes with the part.
Phoebe: It does, exactly.
Sarah: Yeah, so how many stories would you say you’ve done now?
Phoebe: The ones that have gone up, I think I’m on about 14 or 15 are on the app of mine, I’ve written more, which obviously they’re waiting to be recorded, and I’ll keep doing one a month as things stand at the moment, in my role as the sleep story teller in residence, yeah
Sarah: Yeah, so going back to the sleep stories, so how can you use them as part of a bedtime routine to help you get ready for sleep?
Phoebe: I think what you’ve said it really important, get ready for sleep, because I think that’s what many of us don’t do now. We don’t prepare ourselves for sleep, we’re on our phones doing emails, or we’re watching TV, we’re doing something very engaging and then we suddenly turn it off and go, right it’s time to sleep and your body has not had time to adjust to the fact you’re going to do that.
So, I always try and say, right, an hour before I’m going to sleep, I’ll stop using social media, I’ll stop sending emails, I’ll stop doing anything like that, to just allow my body to start to decompress a little bit.
I think routine is important, you know, do the same routine, and also keep anything that’s work, or stressful, out of the bedroom, so your bedroom just becomes a place to sleep. Because so many times, if you think back to when we were kids, we were told as a punishment to “go to your room”, so your bedroom became this place that you didn’t want to go to – and so many people have TV’s in there, so many people have lots going on in their bedrooms, so actually no, just make it the place you go to sleep, and so then your body will start to associate with when you go to there, that’s part of the routine of getting ready.
And then obviously I’m obliged to say that then you should then turn on to have a sleep story read to you, but of course you can have one downloaded and not be getting beeps all the way through it from people sending you messages and that kind of thing.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s not a restful thing.
Phoebe: No, it’s not, and it does kind of seem funny, to tell people to switch off but to also listen to these stories on this app, but then you sort of think, we’re using these apps and we’re using these little devices, these little computers we carry around all the time. At least if we can make them something that can help us sleep, at least that’s using them for a greater good if that were
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, a good tip is actually if you’ve got a do not disturb setting, then make sure it’s on.
Sarah: Yeah, certainly with mine, I have it set so that it shuts off in the evening, so that I’m not getting notifications, because otherwise then it’s like, it makes you want to check.
Phoebe: It makes you want to check and you feel obligated, I think we do feel obligated now that you know, ‘oh god if someone’s sent me this, I must reply straight away’, like there’s no, ‘oh, I’ll wait till tomorrow,’ we almost put that pressure on ourselves and that’s not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Sarah: No, no, it does become addictive as well.
Phoebe: It does, we’re all addicts to these little machines!
Sarah: Yeah, so your advice is to switch off?
Phoebe: Switch off and you know, have a routine, stick to it. And if you’re not sleeping well, don’t try and change, you know, still try and go to bed for this time and wake up at this time to get yourself into that set routine – because even on the weekends, if you stay in that same routine, it’s much better for sleep, because what tends to happen is, Friday night you go to bed later and the Saturday morning you lie in, and then you go to bed late, so your body starts to get used to that, and then suddenly you’re putting it back on your weekday clock. It’s just not good for us.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s something you must find when you’re travelling as well.
Phoebe: It can be pretty difficult, yeah. I have to train my body pretty well. I recently did two trips back to back from here to Australia, then from Australia straight onto Canada and then back to here. It is just about, as soon as I get back on that plane, I basically tell myself, right, I’m now on the new country I’m going to’s time, and I’ll follow those rules. So, when it’s night time there, I’ll sleep, just to try and get myself onto it. And if I can adjust my own sleep patterns a couple of days before I leave, just by an hour, I try and do that as well.
Sarah: Yeah, getting yourself synced into the new zone.
Phoebe: It is, yeah, and it does help getting somewhere during the daytime when the sun is shining, because of course if you get sunlight, that’s the best way of telling your body in a very natural way it’s daytime and your body responds to that, and it’s not releasing all the melatonin to send you off to sleep. And then when it goes dark, then it starts to, so I think that often is a helpful way.
Sarah: Yeah, is there anything else that you think you’d say is a good sleep habit to develop?
Phoebe: Um, so I do something that’s rather strange, as well as writing sleep stories, I am a bit of an extreme sleeper, so I choose to sleep in very precarious and strange spaces. It doesn’t mean I sleep for a long time.
Sarah: What is an extreme sleeper?
Phoebe: So, I’ve slept on the side of sky scrapers, sea cliffs, the Avon Gorge here in Bristol, and I’ve done it both for charity. I do a lot for a young people’s homeless charity called Centrepoint, and I also do it for fun. And it’s because I found that going out and wild camping, so on the side of a mountain away from the camp site, sort of on my own, I slept much better than I ever did in my own bed.
I think it was the whole process of, you’re physically tired because you’re walking somewhere, you’re sort of, outside in the elements, and you’re just noticing more things. You don’t have distractions, you often don’t get a phone signal, which also helps. And you start to kind of tune back into your circadian clock, so it starts to go dark, you start to get tired. The light in the morning wakes you up naturally without having to set an alarm, and I found the more I did that, the more I slept better – and I thought how I can I take that back into my home, rather than telling everyone, go and hang on the side of a cliff, which they might not want to do Phoebe: And it was all of those things of translating into, well you know, change your routine based on, if it’s getting light early and you’re happy to wake up early, get up earlier and start doing things, because having the lie-in’s doesn’t actually always help us. The whole switching things off when you’re getting ready for bed, having that routine of ok, I’ve made my food, I’ll wash this, I’ll go source water, I’ll clean my teeth.
We are just creatures of habit at the end of the day and I think we’ve all become, to the point where we sort of see sleep as an intrusion, as a kind of annoyance, that gets in the way of all the things we should be doing, whereas actually, as we all know, not sleeping is bad for our mental health, our physical health, and so we shouldn’t see it as a bad thing, it’s a re-charge.
And actually, you’ll often find if you force yourself to stay up late doing work, and then have a really bad night’s sleep, the works probably not as good, the next day you probably wake up feeling rough, where if you actually go, no I’m really tired now, I know I must say no now, I’m going to turn everything off. By the morning you’re so much better refreshed, that you’ll write something much better or you’ll do something much better, and you’ll be more alert as well.
So, I think you’ve got to almost be disciplined with yourself and knock that habit of always being connected and always being on.
Sarah: Yeah, and actually just to mention we did an earlier podcast with Dr Nerina Ramlakhan who really is an expert in sleep, she’s brilliant. It’s interesting that you’ve picked up on one of the things that she mentioned, which is, if you’re camping, if you’re outside, and actually that does reset your body’s circadian rhythms. She was saying I think, even two nights’ camping is enough.
Phoebe: Yeah, it is a reset and I always say to people if you can go out even for one night I used to find, just reset everything – it makes everything seem a little bit better, everything is back in the perspective that it should be. You’re out there and you’re having to protect yourself against the elements, you’re having to source water, you’re going back to a very primal way of living, and suddenly sending an email to that colleague doesn’t seem as important as sourcing clean water that you can drink. And that’s what we should be concentrating on, the really sort of primal things, not every day of course we all need to earn a living. There is something to be said to kind of stripping it down, right back to kind of, what do we actually need, and the answer is not much at all.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Just going back to the extreme sleeping, just because it is really interesting, so how do you manage to relax when you’re hanging off a cliff or Avon Gorge, or wherever you are?
Phoebe: Well do you know what, it’s funny, that one in particular was part of a 10-night charity event, called the extreme sleep out, so sleeping off ten landmarks on consecutive nights, starting in Scotland and ending on the Spinnaker Tower. Avon Gorge was like, seven. Phoebe: Actually, I was so exhausted by the time I got into my port-a-ledge, because of course, you have to abseil down, or climb up into your tent on a rope. You’re doing this all manually. By the time you finally clip your harness in and sort of, get in bed, you are just so tired, that the last thing you’re thinking about is any of the real world, you’re just like, I just want to sleep, I just need a rest, because these things take a long time to do.
And I suppose you know, it’s funny, I said to one of my teammates afterwards, so you sleep in a harness, you have to, because you are harnessed in separately to your tent. So, your tent is harnessed on a main rope and a safety, and then you’re harnessed on a main rope and a safety. So, four very strong, industrial strong ropes have to fail for you to actually go anywhere.
So you know you’ve got this huge security system set up for you, and actually it gets quite comforting to sleep with this, almost this hug around you of this harness, and so when I took it off after those ten nights, I was like, is there such a thing as feeling like a bit exposed, like I feel a bit vulnerable cause I’m no longer wearing this harness, so yeah, maybe we should all be sleeping in harnesses, who knows?
Sarah: Yeah, maybe not! [laughter]. Not for me anyway!
Phoebe: Maybe if you’re solo on a cliff yeah, let’s save it for that.
Sarah: Okay, so where can people follow you and your adventures online?
Phoebe: So you can check me out on my website, which is phoebe-smith.com, where you can find details about my podcast and all that kind of thing, and then of course, I have to say, you’ve got to download the Calm app, where you can sign up to read all of the sleep stories I have written.
So, mine are non-fiction travel, but there’s also lots on there that are fiction, some are readings from old text, I think it was even the shipping forecast is on there as well, for people who like the sound of that. So, yeah.
Sarah: Yeah, well thank you so much for joining us, if you keep listening after the end of this, I think we’ve got a bonus sleep story that people can listen to…
Phoebe: Amazing, well sleep well everyone, good night!
Sarah: Yes, good night. Now stay tuned to listen to Blue Gold, a sleep story written by Phoebe Smith and narrated by Stephen Fry.