Why good storytellers are great story-listeners

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 29, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

Philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi, said that “we can know more than we can tell.” When you start to look around for examples of this ineffable or tacit knowledge it’s everywhere: our uncanny ability to recognise faces, how we ride a bike, how an expert judges whether an ancient statue is fake or real. We learn so much without being taught. But how does that happen?

Steven Pinker has just written a style guide for 21st century writers and he says that good writers are good readers. They simply absorb the patterns of good writing through the experience of reading. The same is true of oral storytelling. Good storytellers have heard many oral stories told. They are good story-listeners. And business storytellers need to hear business stories.

So where do you get to hear these stories?

Noticing stories in the workplace

The first step is know how to spot stories. We have covered that a few times on this blog, so here’s how to do that.

Once you can spot stories you’ll start to see them in your workplace. Every now and then you’ll see a story in a presentation or at a meeting. Pay particular attention to these stories in more formal settings because often these are the stories that have impact. When you hear a story try and notice how people respond. If it has a big impact, positive or negative, ask yourself why? What was it about that story that sent the shiver up your spine or straightened the hairs on your forearm?

Hearing what makes a good story

Let’s take a look at an oral story and see what we can notice.

Sir Ken Robinson is known as a crusader for a revolution in education where we work hard to help kids find and nurture their natural talent. This story of the choreographer, Gillian Lynne, is a terrific example of the simple and conversational style which is nicely suited for business storytelling.

The story starts at 15.08 minutes.

Sir Ken starts with having lunch with Gillian Lynne, the subject of the story, and he tells the story from Gillian’s perspective. This gives it terrific authenticity. It’s like we’re hearing it first hand.

The story is about a child. We’re hardwired to care about kids. And because we’ve all gone to school, and been a child, we can relate to the story. The ability to relate draws you in.

Sir Ken uses a few simple words to paint pictures in the story. ‘Oak panel room,’ ‘sat on her hands for 20 minutes,’ ‘turned on the radio sitting on his desk.’ This is all the listener needs to imagine the rest of the scene based on their own experiences. The audience is doing work and as such owns the story.

The reveal is done as dialogue with the specialist speaking to the mother, “Mrs Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick, she’s a dancer.” Dialogue brings the audience right into the action of the story. We become part of the conversation. Sir Ken could have said, “the specialist then turned to the mother and said her child was a dancer.” Blah. Using names and dialogue make the story concrete. It’s told with vigour.

Oral story sources

To be a good oral storyteller you need to hear oral stories. Here are some places to get your weekly tonic of stories online.

This American Life radio program and podcast

Each week Ira Glass hosts his story-filled radio program. This is one of my favourite podcasts.

The Moth – story slam competitions

It started in New York and is now across the USA, The Moth byline is ’True Stories Told Live.’  Each contestant must deliver their story within 5 minutes. While these are business stories you quickly see what makes an effective story–and they are great fun to listen to.

My Soundcloud account

There are only a few stories here so far but I plan to tell more. I’m just sharing business stories I love to tell.

Do you have a favourite oral story source? Please share your examples in the comments below.

To improve your skills as a business storyteller it’s important to really hear oral stories, immerse yourself in them, and notice what makes them work. These stories are all around us, we just need to stop and hear their beauty. We can then amplify our learning by listening to story-rich podcasts like the ones I mentioned.

So start today. Spot a story. Tell it to yourself. Appreciate how it works. Tell a friend.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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