When small children speak their first words, the reaction of their parents is fairly predictable. It begins with lavish praise, high fives, and the ritual calling of Grandma and Grandpa. Everyone is thrilled. The baby has spoken! But the first time the child listens? No response at all.

As a species, speaking is far more highly regarded than listening. The ability to express is primary. Listening is the booby prize, suitable only for people with nothing better to do than be on the receiving end of someone else’s monologue.

You know the expression “if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear, did it really make a sound?” The same holds true with storytelling. If a story is told, but no one is listening, is it really a story? I don’t think so.

Simply put, story listening is in short supply these days. Besieged by an ever-increasing amount of emails, texts, tweets, robocalls, alerts, and advertising, most of us live in a state of total distraction. Goldfish have a longer attention span than we do. The average goldfish can focus on something for nine seconds. The average human being? Eight.

Here are five ways to increase the odds of your stories being listened to:

  1. Choose the time and place wisely: Instead of blurting out your story on-the-fly, be mindful of the readiness of your audience to listen. If the people you want to share your story with are distracted, do not begin. Not only will your story fall on deaf ears, you will end up feeling diminished.
  2. Get permission: Instead of robotically launching into your story, ask for permission. “Mind if I share a brief story with you that relates to what we’ve just been talking about?” Once the person you want to tell your story to gives you permission, the odds of being listened to increase dramatically.
  3. Preview your story: Before launching into your narrative, provide the listener with some context, a preview of what’s to come. “This little story happened to me five years ago on a plane”, you might say. Or “what I’m just about to share with you changed my life in just three minutes.”
  4. Stay connected to your audience: Sometimes, storytellers end up in “air guitar” mode. Enamored by the sound of their own voice, they lose all connection to time and space. Fun for them, perhaps, but not the listener. Stay connected to your audience!  Tune in! Make eye contact. Notice their body language. Adapt and adjust your storytelling to the subtle cues and feedback you are getting.
  5. Go beyond the words: Communication experts tell us there are three elements to any communication: Body language, voice dynamics, and words. Of these three elements, body language is the most important. It accounts for 55% of the impact of what’s said. Voice dynamics is the second most important aspect and accounts for 38% of the impact. The words? Only 7%.

Mitch Ditkoff is the President of Idea Champions, the Founder of Wisdom Circles, and the author of two books on the power of personal storytelling, Storytelling for the Revolution and Storytelling at Work. Contact: mditkoff@alsiraat.vic.edu.au