How To Tell A Story People Actually Want To Listen To

Sure, our attention spans are shorter, but what if nobody’s paying attention because what you’re saying isn’t interesting?

How To Tell A Story People Actually Want To Listen To
[Photo: Flickr user taymtaym]

The person I’m speaking with clearly isn’t listening to me. He’s tapping away on his keyboard, but I’m fairly certain he isn’t taking notes. He’s staring intently at his phone, and I’m pretty sure he’s not just checking the time.


When I ask him a question, he jumps abruptly back to attention just long enough to give me some completely unrelated response, all the while hoping that I somehow didn’t notice. Still, for some reason, I continue on–knowing full well that, in the near future, I’m going to have to repeat this conversation when he conveniently claims we never had it.

Unfortunately, in today’s utterly distracted world, scenarios like this one are becoming more common. And although it may be tempting to write off an insensitive listener as being nothing more than rude and self-absorbed, a more productive response might be to question why you, as the speaker, weren’t interesting enough to hold your audience’s attention in the first place.

Attention: Harder To Capture Than Ever

The National Center for Biotechnology Information has estimated that the human attention span dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in the year 2015. Speaking from personal experience, I’m sure there are plenty of things that have held my attention for far longer than that.

But absent anything else that really interests me at any given moment, 8.25 seconds actually sounds about right. Assuming this is what we have to work with, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to pay more attention to us simply because we ask them to. Instead, we’ll probably need to give them something more compelling to pay attention to.

One way to capture people’s attention is to engage them in the fine art of storytelling. On the surface, taking someone through the five stages of introduction, rise, climax, fall, and resolution seems like a fairly obvious answer to the question of how to captivate people who are becoming more distracted each day. The technique has worked for centuries in literature and the arts, so it only seems logical that it would work in the business world as well. But is that true in practice?

We’ve all sat through many great movies. We’ve also all sat through just as many, if not more, really bad ones. Arguably, they all tell stories, but they don’t all hold our attention. So why is that?


What Makes A Good Story

In order for a story to be effective, it not only needs to entertain, it also needs to connect. That means the story needs to be related to something that its intended audience actually cares about. As much as most of us probably hate to admit it, when someone else’s words begin to lull us into a trance, the only thing that seems to snap us out of it is when we hear something that’s even remotely related to ourselves.

That’s not to say that a direct reference is always necessary (although this can certainly be an effective tactic). Instead, most of us will be satisfied with a story that we can relate to on some personal, emotional level or that we can picture ourselves experiencing, even in some small way. That connection helps to hold our interest, and as a result, we pay closer attention.

Short And Sweet

Another trick to effective storytelling, particularly in the business world, is to keep things brief. It doesn’t take long to set up a situation that piques your listeners’ interest, and then to resolve it in a way that connects to their emotions.

I remember hearing an especially interesting strategy presentation delivered in just under one minute. The speaker outlined where her company was, where she wanted it to go, and how she intended to help bring it there in just a few compelling sentences. Her words were simple, concise, and connected to something she knew I’d be interested in. And I honestly haven’t forgotten her story to this day.


So the next time you’re droning on about something that nobody else cares about, try turning your words into a quick story, and make it one that people can see themselves experiencing or that has some direct impact on them. When you think about your words this way, you’ll be able to whittle them down to only those things that someone else would actually want to hear. Then you’ll never have to wonder if someone is actually listening to you ever again.

This article is adapted from Creative Strategy Generation (McGraw-Hill, 2015) by Bob Caporale, the president of Sequent Learning Networks. It is reprinted with permission.

Related: Ricky Gervais Tells A Story About How He Learned To Write