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Better Storytelling starts with Better Listening

Want to be a better storyteller? Become a better listener.




Consider this short piece:

A couple of hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other hunter starts to panic, then whips out his cell phone and calls 911.

He frantically blurts out to the operator, “My friend Bubba is dead! What can I do?”

The operator, trying to calm him down says, “Take it easy. I can help. Just listen to me and follow my instructions. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There’s a short pause, and then the operator hears a loud gunshot!

The hunter comes back on the line and says, “OK, now what?”


Maybe our hunter friend needed to be a better listener – maybe the 911 Operator needed to offer suggestions quicker…


Unless you are a 911 Operator, consider you may be like the Hunter. Here’s a few points on becoming a better listener.

  • Listening takes practice Silencing our own inner-dialog is surprisingly tough, but imminently important. Our inner-dialog is what colors what we hear. It’s informed by our past experiences and internal bias. Ever seen a performance and before it even starts you’ve made up your mind that it won’t be good or you’ve seen it all before? That bias is formed by inner-dialog. You can practice listening during everyday tasks like listening to the radio, or TV.

Don’t think you have and inner-dialog? Watch an hour of TV or listen to an hour of radio. After that hour, turn it off and try to list the commercials you saw or heard. We’ve trained ourselves to tune out during those few minutes – we pick up our phones, run to the kitchen, or go for a smoke. Try it again and make yourself focus on the commercials. Make yourself attentive. That’s the practice. And that will lead to success with the next point.


  • Start from a place of open-mindedness and acceptance Have you ever heard a performance and the first thing you thought afterwards is how you could have done it better? You should be listening; you’re not judging a speaking competition! How do you keep from judging what the other person is saying? Make yourself be interested in their content and delivery.

Sounds simple, but you have to be able clear that inner-dialog – be able to simply sit and enjoy. It is a common protest in many relationships. Wife is speaking to her husband and when she pauses, she says, “You’re not even listening to me.” Husband thinks, “That’s a weird way to start a conversation.” He proved her point without even trying.


I used have a boss who cleverly perched his hand under his chin and appeared in meetings to be listening intently to whoever was speaking. But if you looked closely, under his glasses, his eyes were closed. He'd use the meetings to snooze because he’d heard it all before and he wasn’t going to consider those ideas anyway.


  • Be attentive but relax your gaze Realize that it may not be a good time – other things may be on your mind. Relax and tell yourself “Stay present and listen deeply.” Don’t strain your eyes or concentrate too hard, but be aware of the speaker in a natural and focused way. Do your best to block out distractions – surrounding sounds and activities – that might otherwise grab your attention. If someone's speech pattern or accent starts to catch your attention, bring your focus back to the words themselves.


  • Listen to both the words and the silence in between Most of us are uncomfortable with pauses and what we may consider an awkward silence. But in those pauses – that’s your chance for a quick reflection on the meaning of what the person has just said. So try to keep your mind from wandering during those moments of silence; there may even be a nugget of significance behind the pause itself.

My wife was hinting about what she wanted for our upcoming anniversary. She said, “I want something shiny that goes from 0 to 150 in 3 seconds!” I bought her a bathroom scale.

And then the fight started…



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