As storytellers, we often talk about the importance of understanding the structure of story to make sure you connect with people in an authentic and engaging way. We talk about authentic voice and brain chemistry and the Three Acts. Because they’re important. Fundamental, even. Storytelling allows individuals and businesses to create a shared experience with their audience – an experience that can change the world, or someone’s world.

But we also need to talk about listening. If someone is telling a story (and has taken the time to craft it properly), how well are you listening? Are you absorbing the world they’re creating for you? Are you engaging in their authenticity and vulnerability? If not, you’re stealing something from them. Their power. Their story.

Let me tell you a story…

… (and make sure you listen, okay? Because I’m about to be vulnerable about what an idiot I can be somtimes). I was recently lamenting to a friend (let’s call her Anne) about a conversation I’d had with another friend (we’ll call him Jim). Jim is someone who epitomises the insanity that Einstein spoke so fondly about. Someone who never changes (but repeatedly expects outcomes to change). And although I’ve offered a number of different ideas to help, they all fall on deaf ears. So, I was lamenting to Anne about Jim.

Anne turned to me and said: He doesn’t need your numerous solutions. For him, listening is the solution.

Her statement hit quite hard…

…because I consider myself to be a good listener, but I also consider myself to be a good problem solver. Are the two mutually exclusive? No. Not even slightly, Anne said, but what he needs is for you to listen to his story. Not problem solve. He is telling you about his world. He is offering you his hopes, dreams and despairs. And what are you doing?

So, her words became my new mantra: listening in the solution. And I thought about how I could apply it to work. To storytelling. Afterall, you can’t have a story without an audience. But what did it mean? During a year in which we have each lost something – be it our freedom, our jobs or worse – we’ve also had the opportunity gain something. To learn. To listen – to ourselves, to others, to our employees, to our customers.

Peoples’ needs changed almost overnight…

…And it wasn’t the companies that tried to problem solve by pivoting (ugh!) their customer or employee proposition that thrived. It was the companies that listened. Not to respond, but to understand. Listening is the first solution. What you do with that information is your proposition.

Listening requires all the things that storytelling requires: empathy, curiosity and authenticity. It is the heads to storytelling’s tails. And the listener is just as responsible for the story as the storyteller – they are part of creating a shared experience. And so too are your customers and employees. You can’t create a shared experience without understanding what they care about. It’s why successful television dramas evolve storylines and characters based on TV ratings. They even kill characters based on ratings.

So, before you think about your communication strategy, ask yourself first what your listening strategy is.

Start with the audience, build the story.