Storytelling at Work
September 16, 2020
There Is No Storytelling Without Story Listening


When small children speak their first words, the reaction of their parents is fairly predictable. It begins with lavish praise, high fives, hugs all around, and the ritual calling of Grandma and Grandpa. Everyone is thrilled. The baby has spoken! But the first time the child listens? No response at all. Indeed, it's a rare set of parents who even notice when their child listens for the first time.

As a species, speaking is far more highly regarded than listening. The ability to express... to make one's case... to be heard is primary. Listening, it seems, is the booby prize -- only suitable for people who have nothing to say or nothing better to do than be on the receiving end of someone else's monologue.

In high school, you will find debate clubs, but no listening clubs. On the political circuit, "stump speeches" rule. It's the rare politician who goes out on a listening tour.

Bottom line, the people who make their case the strongest are the ones who rule the roost. And the people who are listening? Well, more often than not, they aren't. Yes, they may be hearing, but hearing is very different than listening. "Conversational endurance" is what mostly happens -- people striking the appearance of listening, but are merely waiting impatiently to get their turn to speak.

You know the expression "if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around to hear, did it really make a sound?" The same holds true with storytelling. If a story is told, but no one is listening, is it really a story? I don't think so. Words may be uttered and words may be heard, but the actual story falls on deaf ears.


Simply put, story-listening (or any kind of listening, for that matter) is in short supply these days. The reasons are many, but perhaps the biggest of them all is the exponential growth of technology and the undeniable fact that human attention, these days, is more fragmented than ever before. Besieged by an ever increasing amount input (emails, texts, tweets, robocalls, alerts, and advertising), most homo sapiens live in a state of total distraction.

Here's the only related factoid you need to know: Goldfish have a longer attention span than humans beings. The average goldfish can focus on something for nine seconds. The average human being? Eight seconds -- one second less than a goldfish.

Is there anything an aspiring storyteller can do to change the game? Most definitely. Here are five simple ways to increase the odds of the stories you tell actually being listened to.

1. Choose the time and place wisely: Instead of blurting out your story on-the-fly, be attentive to the readiness of your audience to listen. If the people you want to tell your story to are multi-tracking, distracted, or on-the-run, do not begin. Not only will your story fall on deaf ears, you will likely end up feeling diminished. Choose a different time and place. And if, in your intoxication to share your story, you notice your listeners are flaking out, say something like, "It seems this might not be a good time to share my story. Might there be a better time and place?"

2. Get permission: Instead of robotically launching into your story, ask for permission. "Mind if I share a two-minute story with you that relates to what we've just been talking about?" Once the person you want to tell a story to gives you permission, the odds of being listened to increase dramatically.

3. Preview your story: Before launching into your narrative, provide the listener with some context, a preview of what's to come. "This little story happened to me five years ago on a plane", you might say. Or "what I'm just about to share with you changed my life in just three minutes."

4. Stay connected to your audience: Sometimes, storytellers, intoxicated by their own narratives, end up in "air guitar" mode. Enamored by the sound of their own voice, they lose all connection to time and space. Fun for them, perhaps, but not for the listener. Stay connected to your audience! Tune in! Make eye contact. Notice their body language. Adapt and adjust your storytelling to the subtle cues and feedback you are getting.

5. Go beyond the words: Communication experts tell us that there are three elements to any communication: Body language, voice dynamics, and words. Of these three elements, body language is the most important. It accounts for 55% of the impact of what's said. Voice dynamics is the second most important aspect of communication and accounts for 38% of the impact. The words? Only 7%.

And so, if you want to increase the odds of people actually listening to your stories, be mindful of your body language and voice dynamics. Move around the room as you speak. Be animated. Make hand gestures. Modulate the sound of your voice.

Storytelling for the Revolution

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at September 16, 2020 10:03 AM

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Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
Storytelling at Work
"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
The Workshop
Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
Wisdom Circles
Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
Podcasts & Videos
Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
Blogs 'R Us
If you like this blog, you might also like Mitch's other two blogs: The Heart of Innovation and The Heart of the Matter. Mitch is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Idea Champions
When Mitch isn't writing, he's captaining the good ship Idea Champions, a leading edge innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. What their clients say.