I have a friend who is almost a good storyteller. He has a wealth of interesting, eclectic life experiences and knowledge to draw from. He can tell a story in a funny and entertaining way.
He can tell a good story. But he’s not a good storyteller.
Why? Because he doesn’t listen to the audience. Whether it’s one person or a room full of people, after he gets rolling he’s barely aware there are any other people in the room, much less how they’re reacting to his tale.
For my friend, telling stories is about impressing others with how clever he is. He’s so entertained by himself, he doesn’t even notice that whomever he’s talking to has mentally checked out about five minutes ago.
Storytelling is intrinsically interactive. It always has been. Whether you’re telling ghost stories around a campfire, sharing funny family stories around a kitchen table, or pitching a creative idea around a conference table, the story is an exchange. You give them the story in bits and pieces. In between those words, sentences, pauses and inflection, they’re responding back to you. They laugh, or don’t. They nod, or frown. They’re either following along, or dying to interrupt with a better story.
It’s easy to stop paying attention to the audience. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Especially if people are really responding well in the beginning. The temptation is to become distracted by the fantasy that you’re the star of the show, adored by the faceless crowd. That’s when you lose your audience. The story was something you were weaving together; your words and their responses. When you stop being fully invested in the story you’re telling so you can enjoy your private mental story about you being the center of attention, the audience realizes it instinctively. They see no reason to stay involved, either. After all, if you’re not fully present for your story, why should they be?
If you’ve ever done any acting or standup, you know that you live or die by your ability to read the crowd. You have to listen to their response. You have to be ready to improvise and pull them back with you for the rest of the story. You might have to adapt the story a little. A story is an interactive experience when the listeners see and hear themselves in it. If they don’t–you’ve lost them.
If you can’t listen to your audience, you risk being the self-important chatterbox that everyone wishes would just shut up.