Focus Attention with Stories

Sometimes when I’m in a conversation, I’m not really listening, just waiting to say what I want to next. But when I was listening to the story, I was completely listening, wanting to know what comes next.


Recently I was at a symposium put on by the Consortium for Science Policy Outcomes in Washington, DC, listening to a presentation by Prof. Lauren Keeler.  I’d worked with Lauren previously on slide design to help audiences know where to look and she’d definitely taken that advice to the next level in a talk that captured the audience’s attention.

Her topic was on using games to spark and develop policy discussions. Through her research, Lauren finds that working through fictional situations can help people explore ideas more thoroughly. Also, as play in professional activities can get the mind bending and building in ways that a regimented office settings discourage, she finds some groups develop even more ambitious plans beyond glorified project updates. My friend and collaborator Dr. Raquell Holmes is a champion of using play to build up professional team capacities.

As every great presentation about an activity should, Lauren had us try out some of the games she’d created, especially one inspired by tarot cards to imagine the future of the American Dream. At tables of 4-6 people we’d select three cards at random and create a scenario involving the concepts. Then we’d flip over a 4th card from another deck and discover how a seemingly unrelated policy question affected our ideas. Our table had “mobility” and “elite interests” and “liberty”, then “sexual orientation”. Other tables encountered “energy” or “entrepreneurship” then “colonize Mars”.

What really struck me came in the group discussion following the activity. One audience member remarked what I’ve paraphrased at the top of this post:

When you are listening to a story you are not waiting to talk.

I admit that I commit this poor listener role in conversations, especially with people I know well. I think that a lot of us do – think about all the conversations you been in or watched that have interruptions. Why this happens is understandable: often it can be exciting to want to “contribute” to the conversation.

But more often than not, that “contribution” disrupts the conversation. The rhythm changes. Some who wanted to contribute might decided to just watch. Watch any “news” program featuring a panel of pundits to see how quickly this can go off the rails. 

Regardless of the intent, either in good-natured “helping” or controlling malice, you have stopped really listening to what the other person is saying. A voice in your head is putting your points in order, and getting ready to take the stage.

So this comment about how listening to the story was different stopped me in my tracks. It was so astute. It was so spot-on. I was definitely listening more intently to my table-mates as each strained to fit together the three cards’ possibly shared narrative.

A single storyteller can focus the attention of millions.

Reflecting on why this simple task resulted in such an intense listening experience, I believe it’s the power of narrative structure. The switchbacks of cause and effect are often unpredictable. We find ourself hanging on every word to find out what happens next. Even though we know this is a story and the plot is going somewhere … we hang on every word to know exactly where.

Randy Olson and others speak to the and/but/therefore fundamentals of story structure: this and this are set up, but this happens, therefore this happens. Shows like Jane the Virgin, although familiar in their gimmicky plot developments, are still surprising because of the universe of options characters find themselves in. As I write this, legions of fans are falling all over themselves on social media as to the fate of their favorite characters and villains in The Avengers and Game of Thrones. We “know” what’s going to happen, but we really don’t, so we keep our attention rapt.

But why are stories such an effective communications tool to focus our attention?

Stories are not lists.

Lists can be told in any order. That is why it is easy to interrupt during the delivery of a list. Often a speaker delivering a list says “and this and this and this and also this and -” then it’s easy to jump in and say “AND this!”

But stories have elements of suspense, surprise, and drama. We do not necessarily know what is going to happen next. This makes stories far less prone to interruption. Think of how surprised or angry you get when a story gets interrupted – like if the feed cuts out on  your video stream. If someone is telling a story and a listener interrupts, that’s never seen as an informational contribution. It’s seen as downright rude.

Thus with our human curiosity and social decorum, a story can really focus the listener’s attention.

Also, we often feel emotions such as surprise or sadness at what happens as the plot unfolds. This makes for an entirely different sort of listening experience than taking in a list. Emotions also trigger stronger memory formation, so stories tap into your audience’s mind at a level that forgettable lists cannot. After all, we have to write down lists; stories we can remember years later.

If you are delivering a presentation a narrative structure will focus your audience’s attention AND be more memorable for it.

For all of us who wait to talk: let’s put ourselves in the mindset that we are listening to a story. Let our ideas join together on a journey, not compete for priority in a list. After all, we might learn something.

And three cheers to Lauren for her approach. May more policy discussions lead to epic journeys that see us all to better places.

people sitting in front of wooden table
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