October 10, 2017

Good storytelling requires listening

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Good storytelling means you need to listen to your audience.

Every year, I force myself out of my day-to-day activities to attend the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York. In a short series of posts, I’m sharing some of the lessons I learned this year. I hope you find them useful.

Once upon a time I met a storyteller from Madagascar. She captivated her audience with crocodiles, tribal feuds and virgins discovering love in the jungle. When she climbed on the stage she wore her traditional robe. No shoes. No props. No Powerpoint. As she spun her tale, you could hear a pin drop.

After the event, I had the opportunity to spend some time with her. Knowing we would only have a few moments, I decided to make the most of them. “How", I asked, "do you take such a simple story and use it to silence a group of grown men full of their own importance?”.

Her answer was one of the most important storytelling lessons I ever had in my life. “You need to remember”, she said, “that you are not the one telling the story. The people you speak to tell it to themselves. In their imagination. All you do, is give them the tools, the ideas and the emotions that they can make their own.”

She continued by explaining that, as a storyteller, her most important skill was to listen and understand the picture the audience was painting for themselves. She watched their body language. Their expressions. Their eyes.

Based on what she saw, she adapted her tale. Would the crocodile take a little longer before the attack? Would it swim away? It all depended on the reaction from the audience and her intuition. While the core elements remained the same, she hardly ever told the exact same story twice.


I was reminded of the Malagasy’s words at the Future of Storytelling Summit. In their own way, speaker after speaker illustrated that successful storytelling required listening.

Cartoon Network’s approach hinged on design thinking and rapid prototypes. Disney actively involved audiences in making their movies better. Eating designer Marije Vogelzang was more interested in the stories of the people eating her food, than the food itself. Colum McCann from Narrative 4 delivered a passionate plea that listening and empathy lie at the heart of every meaningful story.

To me, this struck an important chord. As a hard-core customer-centrist and empathic individual, I’ve always believed in listening. Sometimes to a fault. But in the world of angano (Malagasy for story), it is the only way.

Stories do not exist unless someone is listening. To make audiences care about your words, you have to start from their reality. This applies if you want to convince people of the business case for your idea or have them embrace your description of the Gash-i-Rah clan on the planet Khalu. You need to give them points of recognition which connect to their beliefs. Their desires. Their fears.

Once you meet them there, you can take them to any point of your story world, as long as you keep listening and continuously adapt your tale to the story they are ready to be told.


Bad listening is where many stories fail. Deliberate listening is what makes them a success.

The good news is that with my customer-centricity training, I know how to do this. Generating insights, observing audiences and taking customers on an emotional journey are all part of the trade.

The bad news is that I remain human. As executives, talkers, writers, makers, we’re so eager to get our point across, that we lose sight of the ideas our audience are ready to accept. We use words that don’t resonate with their beliefs. Warn of threats they do not see. Promise treasures they cannot imagine.

As a result, we may rationally convince them of our point, but forget to win their hearts. They may hear about our crocodiles, feuding clans and virgins in the jungle. But they will never see them in their mind’s eye. I’ve made this mistake more than once, and I’m bound to make it again.

So the lesson I learned, is that for every future story I tell, I will try to apply the audience-centric principle that it is not about the story I want to tell, but all about the story my audience is ready to hear.

How well do you listen to your audience before telling your story or making your point? Where do you struggle? Have you got an tips?

Comment below, or even if you want to discuss anything I write about get in touch.

This article first appeared on www.alainthys.com.

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