It’s always fun to tell travel stories and let your friends know about all the cool, new places you discovered. However, research shows that listeners are more interested when the story is about something they have experienced themselves.
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The study, published in Psychological Science, asked speakers to watch a short video, then narrate the video to listeners. Some listeners had already watched the video and others hadn’t. The speakers expected to get more engagement from the listeners who hadn’t seen the video, but they were wrong.
People who already watched the video and knew the story enjoyed hearing it more than the listeners who hadn’t seen the video. You would think it’d be the other way around — who wants to hear a story about something they already know? The researchers concluded that this probably happens because it’s harder to explain new things to people. The researchers wrote (emphasis ours):
The novelty of experience may make stories more interesting to hear, but it also makes them more difficult to tell, and this fact creates a conundrum for speakers: If they tell familiar stories, they are more likely to be understood but less likely to be interesting, and if they tell novel stories, they are more likely to be interesting but less likely to be understood. The successful speaker, then, must strike a careful balance between these two outcomes by telling stories that are familiar enough to be understood, but novel enough to be worth understanding.
It’s easy to miss this when you’re telling a story, though. When you tell your friend about that amazing monkey park you visited in Japan, you’re trying to convey how cool it was. You’re not as focused on explaining to them what a “monkey park” actually is, so they get confused and tune out.
In other words, most of us tell stories to be exciting, not explanatory, so our listeners get confused and check out of the conversation. To tell a successful story, try pegging it to an experience your listeners (or readers) can relate to and understand. Check out the study for more detail.