A cautionary tale – know your audience

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Ishbel Smith reminds us the audience is as much part of the story as the speaker ahead of SCVO's upcoming Storytelling Conference

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5th November 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Once upon a time, a young lawyer stood up to talk at a conference overlooking a sparkling Tower Bridge. Coolly confident about speaking on a technical (but in her view, fascinating) area of law, she spoke for an hour to an English audience about a peculiarly Scottish legal loophole. The central reveal of her story was a case which (in her opinion) had been not just wrongly decided, but ludicrously judged with an outcome that she was confident her audience would join her to ridicule.

Ishbel Smith

Ishbel Smith

Sitting down to applause (no mean achievement for anyone speaking about hard-core law), she allowed herself a moment of pride before she turned round to see who would approach her first with congratulations. Imagine that poor girl’s face when she realised her first review was to come from the Scottish judge who, unknown to her, had been sitting in the audience.

The very same judge whose opinion she had just held up to her audience as an accurate account of horrific decision making. The same judge in whose court she would have to appear the following week pleading a very difficult case on behalf of a demanding client. It was a horror story in which she was now the main character.

But what lesson did our poor heroine learn from this sorry tale? Suffice it to say, she never now forgets that for a story to succeed, it needs to pay proper attention to those listening to it. A story is only well received and only achieves its intended impact if the audience listen to it; understands it and enjoy it. If the audience feels excluded, belittled or (heaven forbid) ridiculed, then no matter how well you tell it, the story will not have worked. Indeed, it may be told against you.

There is no doubt that  unlike in the legal profession -– the third sector is one that understands and appreciates that stories can engage, influence and change minds. Knowing that stories have power and making them work powerfully are, however, two entirely different narratives. Telling a story is at the same time an instinctive art – one basic to our human psyche – but also a carefully constructed craft which requires the expert story tellers to think about tone, plot, language, emotions, structure and style.

It can serve to delight, to educate, to challenge; to persuade, to warn and to enthuse. But most of all, a well told story serves to create a shared moment in which the relationship between storyteller and audience is key. Just as much as we wouldn’t read Dracula to our two year olds, we’d be unlikely to read That’s Not My Monster to our 12 year olds. At best, a badly told or inappropriate story will alienate your listener, losing the point and the potential of the moment. At worst, like our poor protagonist, it can create a longer term problem not just for them but for those whom they represent.

Of course, if you hadn’t realised the denouement by now (and I suspect my story follows too established a path for this to be a surprise), since that moment when I wanted the ground to swallow me up in London, I have always consciously considered who may be listening to my tale. How could they feel about what I am saying and am I happy with that impact for me and my message? It is a lesson for us all – and is that not usually the point of a well-intended story?

Ishbel Smith is the founder of communications consultancy Heart In Mouth. She will be speaking at the SCVO Storytelling Conference for third sector organisations on 22 November.