Storytellers, Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome

June 2024
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Picture this: You’re at a party or networking event, engaged in conversation, telling a story that you think is going great… and it happens. Your listener steals a glance over your shoulder.

Ouch. Maybe it’s simply a moment of innocent distraction. Or perhaps they’ve spotted — or are desperately searching for — someone else to talk to!

As a recovering blabbermouth, this happens to be one of my worst nightmares. So here are my tips to avoid wearing out your welcome when telling a story.

Tune in to your audience.

First, congratulations! The fact that you’re even concerned about this suggests you possess the emotional intelligence necessary to be sensitive to other people’s needs.

Monitoring your listener’s expression and body language is one of the best ways to gauge their interest. If you sense they’re restless, then you can adjust course, speeding up or condensing as necessary.

But it starts before you even open your mouth. As we all know, audience targeting is critical to any communication. So think about your existing relationship with this person along with their interests, needs and knowledge level.

If you don’t have a history together and don’t know these answers, then you’re taking a risk in embarking on a grand tale. Better to learn a bit more and find some common ground before sharing that story.

Adjust to the environment.

Where are you? A big, crowded, noisy roomful of people on their feet? That’s not conducive to delivering a stemwinder. Save that longish story for when you’ve got a quiet, comfortable moment together.

Stay on track.

I compare storytelling to a tree: You want to follow the trunk in a relatively straight line from the base to the top. Venturing out onto those branches (or, God help us, the twigs) puts you in danger of losing your audience or even getting lost yourself.

For a realistic, if not strictly real, example of this phenomenon, take this scene from the American version of “The Office.” The company’s founder, Robert Dunder, recounts his early days with business partner Robert Mifflin:

I started this company in 1949. I knew Mifflin through the Rotary Club. And he was at dinner with Beverly and her husband. What was his name? Umm... uhh... Jerry. Jerry Trupiano from, from South Jersey… and he was tall. Both he and Mifflin were tall guys…

All those details from the third sentence on? Unnecessary. Unless it’s directly relevant to the story, we don’t need the names and relationships (not to mention the height!) of all the bit players.

Plot like a screenwriter.

Here’s a clue that your story may not be quite as compelling as you wish it was. Do you find yourself saying “and then” over and over again? As in, this happened, and then this happened, and then that happened?

If so, then what you have may not be an actual story, but instead a series of random, vaguely connected events.

Stories are about cause and effect: This happened, so that happened; this happened, but that happened. As legendary screenwriting expert Robert McKee emphasizes, stories are driven by causality, not coincidence.

Edit like a filmmaker.

Have you ever watched the deleted scenes of a favorite movie? You might think, “I love that scene! They should have kept it!”

But here’s what filmmakers know that the rest of us may not: For the sake of the story, you have to be willing to “kill your darlings.”

That means even a perfectly captivating scene is ripe for cutting if it repeats a point that’s already established, interrupts the pacing or diverts from the film’s premise.

This all leads to the inevitable question: How long should your story be? Answer: as long as it needs to be to do the job — no more, no less.

That’s vague, I know. But generally, I find that in a world of easy distraction, it’s safer to err on the shorter side — especially in a challenging environment with a listener who you don’t know well. 

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