“What’s in the box?”

At ActiveCampaign’s internal 2020 Go-To-Market Kickoff event, our Sales, Success, and Marketing teams had the pleasure of learning from instructors at the legendary Second City. This is the question our storytelling teachers from The Second City asked ActiveCampaign’s own Jamie Madison, senior content specialist on the education team. Jamie answered this question, and a few other questions about the box.

(SPOILER ALERT) There was no box. But that didn’t stop Jamie from pulling a blue cat out of it, given to her by Scarlett Johanssen.

The point of the exercise was to show that when improvising there are 3 things to keep in mind:

  • Trust your instincts
  • Be “others” focused – don’t judge what others contribute to the story
  • Show support and go with it

Each component, and all of the exercises led by The Second City facilitators, require the single most important ingredient for improv and storytelling: listening.

The next task was for the entire room, as a warm-up for the exercises to come. Talk to the person next to you – but the first word of your sentence has to be the last word of your partner’s sentence.

The room descended into chaos in under 10 seconds.

To be successful, you have to listen to your partner’s entire sentence. But in a real-world application, this rarely happens.

One of our teachers, Sayjal Joshi, gave us a visual representation. She stretched her arm straight out.

“If my shoulder was the start of a sentence and my fingertips were the end of the sentence, where do you think most people stop listening?”

The answer was unanimous: somewhere around the elbow.

What did ActiveCampaign learn from The Second City? Over a series of activities, we covered:

  • The importance of “yes, and…”
  • What makes a good story
  • How to change your story for different audiences

Why don’t we listen better?

  • “It’s exhausting!”
  • “We get distracted!”
  • “Because I’ve got something to say!”

All of these are true, and they’re all getting at a bigger roadblock to listening: self-focus.

Picture this: you’re out to dinner with some friends and you’re all sitting around the table before your entrees come out. Everyone is engaged in the conversation – laughing, joking, and catching up. There’s a lull in the conversation and someone caves in. They go to their pocket and pull out their iPhone. What (probably) happens next?

A. They check the notification, apologize, and the conversation resumes
B. They realize what they’re doing and put the phone back in their pocket without checking it
C. Everyone pulls out their phones in response

We all know the answer is C. We’re all waiting for permission to check our phones, check our emails, our social media pages, our stuff. Distractions, like smart phones, get in the way of our ability to listen. They make us self-focused in situations where we should be focusing on others.

How do we listen better?

You may have heard of reflective listening – a strategy that involves repeating a version of what you’ve just heard back to the speaker.

Maybe you’ve practiced active listening – a communication strategy that requires the listener to concentrate on remembering what the speaker is saying and doing in order to respond.

The problem with these strategies (in practice) is that it often looks like you’re pretending to listen instead of actually listening.

“Yeah, got it, okay, uh-huh, yep, definitely, right, yes, yep” — Someone “actively” listening

To listen better, don’t worry about repeating ideas back to the speaker or giving proof that you’re listening. Instead, stop focusing on yourself and focus on others.

When you focus on others, you:

  • Listen to understand, not to wait for your turn to talk
  • Stop assuming you know what someone is going to say
  • Build meaningful connections
  • Show empathy
  • Are present in the moment
  • Ask better questions
  • Think more about what questions you should be asking
  • Gather better information

The better you’re able to listen, the better you’re able to adapt your story for the person you’re speaking to.

Yes, and…

The Second City had us break off into groups of 3 and assigned us each a letter — person A, person B, person C. Then they told us that it was person A’s birthday and we were throwing a party.

Person A was going to tell B and C what kind of party they wanted, and B and C had to respond with “Yes! but…” and shoot down part of the idea.

Chaos resumed, with some slight disappointment.

Round 2 and it was person B’s birthday. Same concept, but instead of “Yes! but…” persons A and C were to respond with “No, because…” and provide a reason for their rejection.

Again, chaos. But this time more disappointment because every amazing party idea was shot down.

Round 3: person C’s birthday. Only this time persons A and B responded to party ideas with “Yes, and…”

Absolute chaos.

What’s the point of this?

Everyone experienced something different with their party planning:

  • Disappointment (person A)
  • Rejection (person B)
  • Excitement (person C)

It all depended on how our partners were listening. As humans, we generally default to “no.” The point is that we want to be more open and adaptable when listening to ideas. We don’t want to hear 20% of an idea and tune out because we’ve already rejected it in our heads.

“Yes, and” helps us listen to our customers, our prospects, and our coworkers. If you’re coming up with ideas, you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with when you use these strategies to entertain the ideas and iterate until you’ve got something you can work with.

Use “yes, and” as an internal strategy:

  • “Yes” reminds you to listen to the full idea or sentence. Be open to it.
  • “And” reminds you that it’s also your responsibility to contribute

“Yes, and” lets you start from a place of abundance. It’s easy to shoot ideas down because you see what’s wrong with them. But when you want to generate a story or a strong idea, it’s better to start with “yes, and” and edit later.

Are you generating a lot of ideas? Are you refining ideas? These exercises help you get to where you want to go!

What makes a good story?

Think of a story that you know from start to finish. Could you tell it in 60 seconds? And I don’t mean 60 seconds or less, I mean could you tell it using all of the 60 seconds?

What about 30 seconds? What about 10?

It’s harder than you might think.

The Second City had us go through this exercise with a partner, and we realized a few things:

  1. You might not know the full story
  2. We get hung up on filler – details that don’t affect the plot
  3. It’s hard to determine the most important parts of a story
  4. Emotions are the most important details

If you’re looking to find the most important elements of a story – look to where the emotion is. To build on this, we told the story again but this time from the point of view of the main character.

This version of the story:

  • Included more emotion
  • Was focused
  • Was more personal

Finding a way to make a story more personal makes the story more emotional and impactful.

Then we told the story from the point of view of an outside character. This time around the story was completely different.

When we’re crafting a story and thinking about what’s emotional, we view it from our own perspective. This creates a problem: the story isn’t for us — it’s for our audience, our prospective and current customers.

If we’re crafting a story from our own point of view for another audience, we’re going to leave out details and emotional appeal that is important for them.

In other words, if we’re self-focused — we’re telling the wrong story.

Instead, we need to be others-focused and empathetic. First, focus on what’s important for your audience. Then go through and remove details that aren’t relevant to them.

Different audience ≠ same story

Telling the same story to different audiences doesn’t set you up for success. It’s critical to think about who your audience is and tailor your message for them.

Think about it this way: if you had to describe your smartphone to someone without showing it to them, what would you say?

How would you describe an iPhone to someone in 2020?

You’d probably talk about:

  • Features — camera, high-speed WiFi network, fingerprint reader, touch screen
  • Apps — games, social media, health, weather, ride-sharing
  • Functions — maybe you mention texts and calls

You’ll almost certainly start with features or apps — all the cool, new things a phone can do. Then at the end you’ll throw in a line or two about phone calls.

What if you were talking to someone from the 1950s?

Your description wouldn’t include most of your previous description, because those things would make no sense to someone from the ‘50s. Instead, you’d focus on the things that they could understand. The story shifted from feature-centric to function-centric:

  • It’s like a corded phone without a cord
  • Text messages are like telegrams or letters but delivered right into your pocket
  • The camera doesn’t need film and shoots video too!

What if you were talking to someone from the Renaissance?

You’d probably communicate using concepts. Or maybe talk about sorcery and magic. You might check-in with your audience more often to make sure they’re still with you.

You have to connect with your audience. When we’re comfortable it’s easy to jump right into features. But not everyone in our audience understands the features well. Many times, “the features story” gets technical and sacrifices the emotional aspect.

Conclusion: Storytelling is about listening

Telling a story isn’t a 1-person task. It requires an audience. You both tell the story, even if one of you is doing most of the talking.

Stop the self-focus and shift your focus to others. Think about their perspective, their ideas, and their emotions. Focus on turning the monologue into a dialogue. This goes a long way towards connecting with the person who is hearing the story.

Whether it’s a:

  • Sales call
  • Improv show
  • Conversation with an old friend

Listen to understand first and respond second. Practice empathy and think about it from their perspective.

If you can listen better, you’ll be better equipped to connect, communicate, and move the story forward together.