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Captivate someone for a moment, and you stay captured in their memory forever.
When someone enthralls you, the rest of the world melts away. Nothing else matters. It’s only you and the other person.
On the opposite end, being in the presence of someone boring is like a death sentence.
The person drones on and on, telling you all sorts of insignificant details on a topic you don’t care about. What does it matter if your friend went to the park over the weekend, picked up a stray cat, went home to eat a bowl of soup, and had a nap?
When you experience the difference between someone who holds your attention and someone you can’t wait to escape from, it’s like night and day.
When you’re fascinated with what someone is saying, you lean in, hungry for the words pouring out of the person’s mouth. Your eyes light up.
But when you’re bored with someone, your eyes glaze over and a dull expression appears on your face. As the listener, you’re ready to turn away at any second. You can’t wait to start tapping and staring at your phone again.
So what’s the best way to grab and hold someone’s attention? Simple: with a good story.
The Timelessness of a Good Story
Long before the written word, stories were passed down orally. After a hard day of hunting and gathering, you would sit around a campfire with your fellow tribe members. As the flames licked the night sky, a storyteller would share a tale.
Both the audience and storyteller would form a bond as they shared in the emotional experience. The same stories would then get passed down from generation to generation, molded to suit the listeners and modified by the storyteller’s own creative process.
Beowulf is one such tale.The story was composed around 700 to 1000 A.D, and the manuscript was created between 975 and 1025. Long before the poem was transcribed, it was believed to have been told orally.
Beowulf is one of the most significant works in Old English literature. It’s also the oldest surviving Germanic epic and the longest Old English poem, consisting of 3,812 lines.
Telling such a long poem meant the story was broken up into numerous sittings. There must have been certain elements that kept people interested over many nights.
The poem’s structure is simple. It’s broken into three acts that show Beowulf’s growth over the course of the tale. His journey is like a rollercoaster, alternating between times of peace and conflict.
The tale begins with Beowulf, a hero amongst his people, coming to aid the king of the Danes, whose hall is being attacked by a monster named Grendel. He defeats the monster and then later defeats Grendel’s mother, who has come to avenge her son’s death.
The story fast forwards fifty years later, when Beowulf is king of the Geats. His kingdom is peaceful until a dragon attacks and threatens to destroy everything. He defeats his final foe, but not before he is mortally wounded. The story ends with Beowulf’s funeral as the people mourn his death.
The epic poem continues to reach modern audiences through movies and books. Works are produced based on the original story, either directly by retelling or indirectly by inspiration.
Perhaps Beowulf shows why we value stories so much. No matter how often we hear them, stories stick with us. They’re emotional. They have a narrative arc with a beginning and an ending. They’re full of ups and downs in between. Ultimately, we’re satisfied to know that good prevails in the face of evil.
How to Captivate People
Whether you’re at a social gathering, a work meeting, or around the dinner table, it’s important to keep people interested in what you have to say. When people are leaning in, eyes fixed, you know you’ve caught their attention.
Here are 3 strategies:
1. Keep people on their feet.
When you share information with someone, there should be some tension involved. Get the other person to raise questions in their head, and then periodically answer those questions as you go along.
For instance, you might share an incident that has one major unresolved question. Throughout the telling of that incident, you raise up other questions that get solved throughout. At the end, that one large question is answered, tying up everything neatly.
A good example is a movie I saw recently named Pulang (available on Netflix). The story is about a young man from a Malaysian village who sails the world to find fortune while his wife awaits his return. 61 years later, the grandson goes to find out what happened to the woman’s husband. The film keeps viewers engaged with that one large question and then smaller questions are raised throughout.
While you might not screenwrite a film anytime soon, the same principle applies in everyday life. The book Made to Stick describes this concept as a curiosity gap. You create a curiosity gap by raising one major question that the listener is itching to get answered.
You might raise questions such as: where did the woman’s husband go? Why did the successful company bellyflop? How do you eat so much and stay in great shape? When you start off this way, you grab the person’s attention until the question is resolved.
2. Cater to what the other person wants.
A friend shared how her brother wouldn’t stop following her around the house and talking about golfing. “I don’t even like golfing!” she complained.
The sad thing is if he had saved the topic for a fellow golf enthusiast, the conversation would have been a lot more productive. He wouldn’t have to chase the person down to discuss a topic of mutual interest.
We all have different interests. Some of us like to stay up late at night. Some of us like to wake up early. Some of us love blue cheese (including me). Others hate it.
So instead of diving deep into a topic and possibly boring someone, use the “dip your toe in the water” method. Touch on topics lightly until you hit something that resonates with the person.
If you’re at a mutual place of interest, you can start by commenting on your surroundings. Otherwise, you can casually mention what you were up to on the weekend or your summer plans. Ask the other person questions. Pay attention to whether or not there’s anything that sparks the person’s enthusiasm.
Once you do hit on something interesting, build on that. Ask the person more on that topic. Chat about your own experience. While you won’t hit on the right things with everyone, dipping your toe in is a safer and wiser strategy than diving right into your love of bulldogs to a cat lover.
3. Have a few good stories at hand.
The main problem with people’s stories is that they’re often long-winded. The storyteller gives listeners the run around before getting to the point, if there’s even one at all. As a result, listeners get bored.
Giving extra, unnecessary details was something I was never conscious of until someone pointed it out to me. While I was doing a practice interview, I thought I would spruce up my story by sprinkling in some interesting details. It turns out those details weren’t interesting at all and actually detracted from the story, which the other person mentioned.
Sometimes we ramble on because we like to hear our own voice. Other times, it’s because we’re uncomfortable around a new acquaintance, so we do or say something to fill the empty air. Either way, the results aren’t good.
Telling stories takes practice. To begin, tell a story to a friend and see his reaction. When do her eyes light up? When does he start to look away? Gauging these responses gives you feedback on which stories are good, which can be discarded, and how to further refine the ones that show promise.
I once saw a street performer juggling fire torches. Normally, I would watch for a moment before moving on. This time was different. While juggling, he shared stories about his life.
The primary reason I stayed was because he kept reminding the audience that he would eat the fire at the end. It was worth the wait. Clearly, this performer had tested out his routine enough times to know how to keep his audience engaged.
You Have a Story to Share
You can’t recite an epic poem by heart. Your grandfather didn’t vanish for 61 years. To top it off, you can’t even juggle fire torches. How are you supposed to engage others?
The key here is that how something is told is just as important as what is told. The most powerful story can fall flat if it isn’t delivered properly. Conversely, a simple story can grip listeners’ hearts when told correctly.
You don’t have to be a natural to captivate others. Like anything else, it takes practice to get things right. The steps to improving involve testing out what you say, making adjustments, and trying again.
Everyone has a story to share. What’s yours?