May 26, 2020 / Esther Choy

Story collecting during Zoom Happy Hour

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Of all the best kept secrets in storytelling, this is my favorite: To become a great storyteller, one must first become a great story collector. And the first step to story collecting is to listen aggressively. How do you listen aggressively so you can begin story collecting? Four ways.

1. Listen with your whole body (except your mouth).

Have you had this experience? You’re talking with someone, and the whole time they are talking, their entire body is animated. But when it is your turn to talk, suddenly, their body language completely changes. They finish your sentences for you; they fidget; their gaze wanders, possibly looking for someone else to talk to. To be fair, we all do a little of this from time to time, but it’s important to recognize it as the opposite of aggressive listening.

To listen aggressively, look at the other person most of the time while they’re speaking. When you aren’t looking directly at them, focus on a nearby empty space. This not only helps you avoid “staring them down,” it also communicates that you’re thinking deeply about what they are saying. Also, uncross your arms and legs to avoid looking defensive or closed. When you need to come across as especially engaged, lean forward with your loose fist supporting your chin (like the sculpture “The Thinker.”) Your body language should say, “I’m all ears!”

2. Don’t impress others; let them impress you.

When someone mentions something that reminds you of your accomplishments, you might be tempted to interject with your story.


Interjecting can be seen as stealing the spotlight. Focusing on their story–sticking with it, asking good questions, and thinking through what it means–is the best approach.

3. Be curious and respectful.

Sometimes when I meet strangers, whether my Uber or Lyft drivers or at networking events, they ask me, “So, Esther… Is that your real name?” They are curious, but not at all respectful. My immediate reaction is to recoil and shut down.

But here’s an example that prompted a different response. In the summer of 2006, my husband and I traveled to Milan and were exploring a palace. As we did so, an older gentleman walked out of the front gate and approached us. We couldn’t speak more than a few words of Italian, but nonetheless, we decided to ask if he could tell us more about the building. He obliged–in limited English–and then asked if we would like a tour of the inner courtyard. We were delighted. After a few minutes, he asked if we would like to see his office. Inside, I noticed several tattered photos on his desk. In one, people in military uniforms stood near a sheet covering a dead body. When I pointed at the photo, he explained the story. It was taken during World War II, and the body under the sheet was his fallen best friend. My husband and I were stunned by this stranger’s candor.

Wherever I am in the world, I have found that when I am respectfully curious, all kinds of people meet me with generous openness. Being curious and respectful makes your audience feel acknowledged, cared for and willing to open up and share their stories.

4. Ask Crazy Good Questions.

When you ask good questions, you enrich conversations and walk away learning new things, hearing vivid stories and building stronger relationships. And asking questions naturally leads to story collecting. Use these questions to get you started:

  • “What has surprised you the most this past year?”

  • “How has this year at your company been different from last year?”

  • “What is your favorite place you’ve ever traveled to?”

After the conversations, reflect on the stories you’ve heard. How do they make you feel? What do they mean to you? Share it back to the person who told you the story. The answers can help you decide whether you might have just heard a story you want to share with others later (with permission, if the story is a personal one).

Story collecting can give you a full “story library” to peruse so that you can pick out the story that is best suited to each type of audience you want to persuade. And all that from simple “chit-chat.”

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Want to hone your listening skills? Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary session with us today!

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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  1. Robert Lilly on July 10, 2020 at 12:25 pm

    Great advice! And that comes from someone who has avoided small talk in the past. However, I feel given certain daily circumstances in my professional life its can makes a huge difference if I opt in and storytelling is a great way for someone like myself to enter back into the conversation.

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