The Foundational Skill for Becoming a Better Storyteller

Starting tomorrow, we’re going to be sharing seven small articles, one per day, about a very big topic: the importance of listening as a storyteller.

Say whaaa?

You heard correctly, dear reader. Telling a strong story is about far more than just outlining a few characters, laying out a string of plot points, and calling it a day.

It’s about diving deep so that you can find what makes a story truly unique, compelling, and worth sharing with the world. It’s about moving beyond the obvious so that you can make something that actually stands out.

I mean, that’s the whole point of being a filmmaker, right — to tell exceptional stories, to share something personal or important with the world, and to make it as good as it can possibly be?

If that’s what you’re looking to accomplish, developing the ability to listen will be one of the best investments you’ll ever make. After all, listening is one of the foundational skills for great storytelling.

Just think about it.

All of the pieces of your next great story are already out there. They’re scattered across different people and places, and it’s your job to find them and put them together in the best possible combination.

But in order to do that, you first have to be genuinely open to new information that might take the story in a new direction. You have to listen closely, put your assumptions aside, and then let the things you hear guide you towards the best version of the story.

In the Muse Storytelling Process, we call that idea “Letting the story move you before you move the story.

It’s all about taking the time to find the strongest version of the story before putting it together. Because when we fully understand the story, we put ourselves in the best position to tell it in the most compelling way.

So that’s what this series is all about. I’ll be giving you some practical suggestions for how to uncover your story before you start making decisions about how to tell it. I’ll share some tips for staging and conducting interviews, how to observe places to see if they’re a good fit for your story, and some simple (but not easy) mindset shifts that will help you listen more closely and critically.

If you’re down for that, I’d love for you to join us on this journey.

Two important steps before you embark on the journey of becoming a better listener

Once you’re invested in the idea of becoming a strong listener, there are two crucial steps to keep in mind whenever embarking on a new project:

1. Resist the urge to jump right in.

Whenever starting a new project, most of us have the urge to start coming up with concepts and plot points and character arcs right away. It’s only natural. When we’re excited about a project, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves.

But instead of jumping right in, I’d urge you to take a step back and immerse yourself in the world of the story first. Learn about it, be as deliberate and methodical as you can, and create the time and space it takes to become truly inspired.

2. Look past your own assumptions and expectations.

We all have assumptions that guide our actions. Each and every one of us. They come from culture, from how we were raised, from the people we surround ourselves with, from the stories we consume.

Some of these assumptions aren’t useful, though. The problem is that they give us tunnel vision. They make us less receptive to new information, which can prevent us from finding the best possible version of our story.

So the main thing we can do here is to just approach each new story with the mind of a child. No assumptions, no expectations. I know that sounds like some hippie talk, but when we clear our minds of expectations and approach each new project with a sense of genuine curiosity, we set ourselves up for success.

A quick tip for getting rid of unhelpful assumptions

No matter how much you try to avoid them, you’ll undoubtedly come across assumptions during the process of forming your story. So if you feel that you might be guided by some unhelpful assumptions, here’s what you can do.

Whenever contemplating a piece of your story — whether it’s a potential plot point or an idea about a character — ask yourself:

  • Do I know this for a fact or am I making an assumption?
  • If I believe this is a fact, what was the source of information?

Our assumptions almost always like to disguise themselves as facts, so this followup question of trying to identify the source of the information can be extremely useful.

If you can find the source of the information and verify it, and if there’s a solid sequence of logic that helped you reach a conclusion, chances are it’s an actual fact, or it’s an assumption that’s worth keeping around.

However, if there are missing pieces of information, or if there are flaws in the logic that got you from point A to point B, then it’s an assumption and that deserves less weight in your decision making process. Or it should be disregarded completely.

A few more things to keep in mind before getting started

This whole process of listening is most applicable when you’re telling stories that involve real people. When you’re making documentaries, corporate videos, character profiles, or any kind of non-fiction film, these steps will help ensure that your story is as compelling as it can be.

With that said, even though the listening advice in this series is primarily aimed at non-fiction storytellers, it’s still applicable to anyone working in narrative filmmaking as well.

The reasoning here is that fictional stories are almost always inspired by real life in some way or another. Even though they’re fabricated, these stories all contain elements of truth. They borrow bits and pieces from the human experience.

And it’s these bits and pieces of emotional truth that allow us to connect to these stories. That’s why we can relate to fictional characters and imagine ourselves in fictional worlds. We’re empathetic beings, and we can recognize ourselves in any story that contains elements that ring true to us.

The people who tell the best stories are the ones who are keen observers of the human experience. Basically, the best stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, come from the best listeners.

So, if you’re a fiction filmmaker, you’ll still be able to get some value out of this series even though it’s primarily designed for non-fiction. Just keep an open mind and think about how you can apply this information to your own creative process.

Last but not least, at the end of this seven-day stretch, you’ll have the opportunity to download this whole series as an ebook and a handy little checklist. That way you’ll always have this information by your side whenever you’re diving into a new story.

See you tomorrow.