It’s no secret: writers are skilled at “stealing” someone else’s story. Some of the greatest “stolen” stories have been because the writer knew how to listen like a writer. But here’s the twist to this thievery: people want their stories to be stolen.
You’ve probably heard someone who knows that you’re a writer preface his/her story by saying, “write this story for me.” That’s because everyone enjoys telling a story, but it’s by your pen that the story can continue on for other audiences and other generations.
Listening to a story is the equivalent of researching for your imagined story. Know how to be a researcher in the craft of story stealing by taking on the opposite role of the writer: the audience.
Compose Yourself for the Story
Assume the role of an audience member. You may not be the star of the show, but the answer to how to listen like a writer is to embrace your role in the story. Musicians wouldn’t be so enthused to put on a show if it wasn’t for the audience’s participation in the moment. Invite the story to be told through your body language.
• Don’t cross your arms or your legs: Crossing your limbs is a visual indicator that you are blocking the speaker and you want distance. Plant both feet on the ground and position your arms loosely at your side or balanced on your knees.
• Lean into the story: Sit at the edge of your chair and lean slightly forward towards the speaker. This way, you’ll feel physically and mentally closer to both the story and the speaker.
• Perfect your posture: Instead of slouching, keep your shoulders back and your back straight. This doesn’t mean to sit up straight, but you’ll feel more alert and confident by aligning your spine.
Show Your Commitment to the Story
The listener is just as important as the speaker in storytelling. The speaker wants visual clues that the story is being heard and that it is worth telling. Think back to a televised broadcast of a guest speaker. Weren’t there clips of the audience showing their interest and attention? How did they listen like a writer? Here are some ways:
• Sit (if possible): Show that you are in no hurry to walk away from the story.
• Visual confirmation clues: React appropriately to the speaker’s words. Face the speaker, keep eye contact, and nod your head at fitting points of the story.
• Vocal confirmation clues: Try to go beyond “mmm” and “ah” when possible. Saying “yes” and “I see” and “I understand” will urge the speaker to continue.
Embrace the Silence
Keeping your role as the listener is how to listen like a writer. How can the speaker tell the story if you’re talking? Here are two reminders to keep the story going:
• Don’t interrupt: Any long interjection could disrupt the speaker’s mood or memory. Allow the speaker to tell the story at his/her own pace and in his/her own words.
• Don’t rush to fill the silence: Allow the speaker to compose his/her own thoughts or emotions to go forward with the story. Use this time to reflect on what has been said as well as experience the story’s emotions for yourself.
Speak Wisely (When It’s Your Turn)
This may read as contradictory to the previous tip. But stories don’t last forever, and there are quick moments during the story when speaking is appropriate and encouraged. Remember it’s what you ask, not how many times you ask, that counts.
• Ask open questions: Instead of saying, “you must have felt bad,” try asking, “how did that make you feel?” or “what did you think at that moment?” You may be surprised by the speaker’s response.
• Ask clarifying questions: If you didn’t understand a point, confirm your understanding by repeating what you thought you heard and allow the speaker to correct the detail if you had misheard.
• Repeat a detail: If you want to remember a name, place, or small detail, say it aloud (but not too loud) so that you can remember and the speaker knows that you’re still engaged with the story.
• Speak reassuringly: Avoid speaking loudly or gruffly. Keep your voice inviting and encouraging as you would when you tell a story.
Genuinely Want to Listen to the Story
It’s never fun to tell a story to someone who isn’t present or fakes interest in your words. It’s the sincerity of your actions that perfects the craft of how to listen like a writer.
• Listen objectively: Don’t come to conclusions, don’t make predictions of the story, and don’t try to change the person. Let yourself be surprised and take the story for face value.
• Give your full attention to the story: Push other thoughts from your mind. Don’t get hung up on one detail, otherwise you won’t keep pace with the story.
Knowing how to listen like a writer is half the battle of story stealing. Now you must write the story! Write as many details down while the story is still fresh and keep replaying and reimagining the story in your head. When it’s time to write, you don’t need to stay true to the original story. You have liberty to heighten climatic arcs, restructure the story, and change details as you see fit. And, most importantly, it might be best to change names of characters and places.
How do you listen like a writer? Share your tips below.