I had just come home from a drama-filled workday complete with frustration and a touch of irony–all the ingredients of a great story–and felt compelled to tell my wife immediately.

The story was awful. I was so caught up in the emotion of wanting to tell, that I neglected what it was like to listen. Rather than helping her connect with the story, I rattled off a cluttered jumble of both relevant and irrelevant facts. 

It’s a common affliction. ANYONE that tries to tell a story without putting thought into it will create an unsatisfactory experience for both teller and listener.

A recent research paper, The Novelty Penalty: Why Do People Like Talking About New Experiences but Hearing About Old Ones? shed some light on the situation. Its researchers had set out to prove that people prefer hearing novel stories (those that they’ve never heard before) over stories that they’re familiar with. Their experiments, however, pulverized the premise.

The reason is that storytellers typically underestimate the difficulty of telling novel stories and the report lists three common pitfalls: “(a) they overestimate how well they understand what they hope to convey (b) they overestimate how much of their understanding is already shared by their listeners, and (c) listeners rarely tell them that these estimates are wrong.” 1

The first two findings ring true for me. I’m super confident in my abilities to tell a story yet I always tend to overestimate them when telling first-time stories in the moment. Yet, while it may be true that listeners won’t tell us that we did a crappy job, experienced storytellers don’t need to be told. We have a bead on our audiences. We can see when they’re leaning in or leaning back. We can see the confusion in their eyes. We KNOW when a story isn’t connecting because the most common issue comes from meaning gaps.

“Stories leave out far more information than they contain, and listeners can typically understand a story only if they have extensive background knowledge that allows them to fill the story’s informational gaps.” 2

Since Tara didn’t participate in my workday experience, she was forced to fill-in the missing concepts, feelings, and thoughts that were omitted through my exuberance to tell the story. Had I been diligent in connecting with her through a shared experience, she might have connected better with the story.

The report concurs. “…listeners may enjoy hearing familiar stories because they (a) contain significant amounts of novel information, (b) evoke rich personal memories, (c) allow speakers and listeners to bond over common experiences, and (d) allow listeners to gain information about themselves via social comparison.” 3

In other words, storytellers are obligated to maintain listener interest and help them see themselves in a story by delivering the right amount of new information interspersed with ample shared experiences.

The report perfectly summarizes the sacred responsibility of those who to choose to tell stories. A successful storyteller “…must strike a careful balance between…telling stories that are familiar enough to be understood, but novel enough to be worth understanding.” 4

Storyteller beware. Your role is to find that balance point. Any attempt to tell a story without finding it will result in an #epicfail.

Photo Credit: Con Colleano on a slack-wire, circa 1920, Public Domain.

Footnotes:

  1. Gus Cooney, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson, “The Novelty Penalty,” Psychological Science 28, no. 3 (2017): , doi:10.1177/0956797616685870. p. 392.
  2. The Novelty Penalty p. 380.
  3. The Novelty Penalty p. 393.
  4. The Novelty Penalty p. 381.

 

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