“The greatest storytellers can tell the same story many different ways. The manner in which you tell the story should depend solely on two things. Who are you talking to? And what are you trying to make them feel?” These profound words were shared by a legend from my community organizing career, may he Rest in Power, John Nortorn, III. He proceeded to tell us the story of his father’s death three ways. The first was to make us laugh. The second was to make us cry. The final one was to inspire us. I’ve never told a story since without remembering this lesson.
Let’s just be honest. Many of us like to tell stories that we like to tell. Or hear. Many people tell us they simply have never stopped to think about their audience. This goes way beyond presentation skills. It applies to literally every situation where you are communicating with another human. Once you stop and think about who you’re talking to and what you want them to feel, it will forever change how you tell stories. And communicate in general. Unless you’re a neanderthal. Then it probably won’t change a thing. They didn’t have much of a developed frontal cortex. I digress.
No, really—who are you talking to?
Now, I’m not saying you can’t tell stories you enjoy telling. What I am saying is that you need to answer those two questions before you begin. “Who are you talking to?”, invites you to stop and consider how your audience (of one or 1,ooo) will hear what you are saying. What are their biases? Will they understand the experience? Is the lesson or point of your story clear? Does it connect to what else you’re talking about? Do a language check. Will this audience be offended or motivated by your word choices, including profanity?
Think of a story you really enjoy telling. I’ll wait.
No, really. This will be so much more effective if you have a real-life example in your mind. Go on, I’ll wait.
Ready now? Okay.
So this story—imagine you are telling it to a room full of executives.
Now imagine telling the same story to a room full of your friends from outside of work.
Now imagine telling the same story to a group of kids. Your kids, if you have any.
There may be some similarities in how you tell it. But there are probably also likely some differences, based on who’s listening. But just considering who you’re talking to isn’t enough.
What do you want them to feel?
This second question is there to help you think more about context. Do you want your audience to feel a serious emotion or a light-hearted one? Do you want to create urgency to act or nostalgia?
Use that same story from before that you were going to tell. Put it through this filter next.
Imagine the room of executives. What do you want them to feel?
Imagine the room of your friends. What do you want them to feel?
Imagine the room of kids. What do you want them to feel?
How does imagining each of those things change the way you tell the story?
From there, find your starting point. Isolate the moment in time which best sets the scene without giving a ton of back story or context. If your communication is laser-focused, your audience doesn’t need it. They will get the point clearly without it.
I’m not telling stories. I’m giving updates.
These filters don’t just apply to stories. You can and should apply them to every report, update, and meeting interaction. Who are you talking to and how do you want them to feel? The more you apply those filters, the better your results will be.
If it’s information that you’re sharing, run it through the additional filter of how this information applies to your audience. I worked with a team last summer made up of people all doing different projects. When they came together to share updates, they bored the hell out of each other. Meetings dragged on and people stopped listening. Multitasking during the meeting was very common. Since our brains can really only do one thing at a time, this just meant people were tuned out but still had their zoom link open.
I asked them to think about only sharing what they were working on from the perspective of how it affected what their colleagues were working on. They linked their updates to larger team objectives. Some started citing experts they had in common. Suddenly the meetings were much more focused, shorter, and more interesting. It totally changed how they interacted.
The point is that you can filter ALL of your communication through this set of questions.
Who are you talking to?
What do you want them to feel?
How does it affect what they are doing?