The power of listening to stories

The awesome effects of listening to other people’s stories

The power of listening to stories

I was listening to an interview on a podcast last weekend and, amongst other things, the host Chris Hayes asked New York based playwright, actor, author and Professor Anna Deavere Smith about how she found such interesting and authentic stories for her earlier plays.

And her answer stopped me in my tracks. In fact, I both loved and was a little gob smacked by the gumption it must have taken to do what she did. Wait until you hear this!

She would approach random people in the streets of New York that she thought looked interesting and find a pretext to ask if she could borrow them for an hour to ask some questions and hear their stories…with the promise that she would then write a play where they could see themselves performed! And the reward these strangers got for indulging Anna with time was that they could invite up to 20 friends to watch the end product performance with 20 actors ‘about them’.  And no surprise, these super personal plays were a hit.

Don’t you love it? And as I thought about this snippet during this wonderful conversation, it struck me that Anna’s bold approach actually has a direct relevance and lesson for everyone who needs to lead and influence others:

If you can regularly put aside small chunks time which are long enough to both ask interesting questions and solicit stories that explain and underpin the answers you get from team members, peers, people you work with from other spheres, and anyone else you’d really like to influence…

…You’ll be amazed to see how much more you will unearth, learn and understand from others and how superior these experiences will tend to be versus what you’ll get by engaging in any number of ‘just the facts, details and go easy on the stories’ style team meetings.

AND maybe this won’t surprise you: story-centric conversations also tend to be really enjoyable human exchanges and experiences for all.

And here’s the thing. In the same vein that Anna managed to solicit deeper and more meaningful responses, you’ll likely find the same – which will beat what Anna described as cable TV style exchanges any day (which she likened to ‘sound bite-esque’ interview exchanges that lack impact and are commonly ‘over rehearsed’ and instantly forgettable).

Of course, there is one caveat. And that is, as the legendary writer about leadership Peter Drucker liked to say, be sure to ask ‘the right questions’.

But that’s a topic for another blog. So look out for that in my future instalments.


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