How To Keep The Attention of An Eager Audience

attention of an eager audience

Some people are just born natural storytellers. They know how to keep the attention of an eager audience. I can think of two close relatives who not only have great true stories to tell at family gatherings, but they know how to keep us interested throughout their telling of the story. The truth is, you don’t have to have over-the-top stories in order to be a good storyteller.

 

According to author Matthew Dicks (who has won multiple story telling competitions), in his book, Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through The Power of Storytelling, it is being able to identify “storyworthy” moments from your everyday life and to retell those meaningful moments in an effective way, that really matters. 

Finding, crafting, and telling stories helps you connect with other people, including your guests. Marks of a good story will have the audience asking:

  • What does the storyteller want or need?
  • What is at peril?
  • What is the storyteller fighting for or against?
  • What will happen next?
  • How is this story going to turn out?

Matthew reveals five ways to keep your stories compelling:

  • The elephant: every story should have the thing that everyone in the room can see, a clear statement of the need/want/problem/peril/mystery; this signifies where the story is headed and keeps the attention of an eager audience; an excellent storyteller will make their audience think they are on one path and when they least expect it, show they have been on a different path all along
  • Backpacks: increase the stakes of the story by increasing the audience’s anticipation about a coming event (to load the audience up with all the storyteller’s hopes and fears in that moment) to make the audience wonder what will happen next AND to make your audience experience the same emotions the storyteller experienced in the moment about to be describe; the most effective stories describe when a plan does not work; while ultimately the audience wants to know their characters ultimately triumph, it is the struggle and strife that make stories great and keep the attention of an eager audience
  • Breadcrumbs: when we hint at  a future event, but only reveal enough to keep the audience guessing; choose the breadcrumbs that will create the most wonder in the minds of an audience without giving them enough to guess correctly; this is particularly effective when the truly unexpected is coming
  • Hourglasses: when the audience is hanging on every word, Matthew advises storytellers to drag out the wait as long as possible, including the unnecessary bit of summary to slow things down and raise the tension even further, it’s the final delay before the sentence that everyone is waiting for (this is when you flip the hourglass and let the sand run)
  • Crystal balls: a false prediction made by the storyteller to cause the audience to wonder if the prediction with prove to be true; during the telling of stories, we want our audience to know what we are thinking as well as what we are saying and doing

Matthew states that a great storyteller “creates a movie in the mind of the audience.” People should be able to see the story in their mind’s eye at all times. Always create the scene by setting every moment in a physical location.

In this book, Matthew uses several examples of telling a story the bland way and then the better way. A key way to tell a story is to add contrasting words that infuse a story with movement, momentum, and action. Instead of saying “and” all the time, use transition words including:

  • as a result
  • because
  • but
  • except
  • instead
  • so
  • therefore

The trick to telling a big story (about things that most people can’t relate to) is to find the small, relatable, understandable moments in our larger stories that people can connect to and comprehend. For example, your audience can always relate to not wanting to be embarrassed. 

His strategies for preparing and enhancing a story are as follows:

  • Avoid thesis statements in storytelling (don’t say “this is a story about…”)
  • Heighten the contrast between the surprise and the moment before the surprise
  • Use stakes to increase the surprise
  • Avoid giving away the surprise to your story by hiding the importance of information that will pay off later (use other details and examples, and place those details as far away from the surprise as possible)

If possible, tell at least part of your story in the present tense. This allows others to picture it even easier. When we host or entertain our guests, we may tell stories. Use these tips to make what you tell more “storyworthy” and to keep the attention of an eager audience.

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