People who tell good stories tend to be great at knowing their audience. Because stories, by their nature, are meant to be shared with others, it’s essential for storytellers to constantly sharpen their empathy skills.
Empathy, in a nutshell, is simply the ability to identify with another person’s thoughts or feelings—to see the world from their perspective. Without empathy, we’d likely have no stories because we would just be talking or writing to satisfy ourselves, rather than to share meaningful information and build authentic connections with others.
At the beginning of a new project, I always like to engage clients in a conversation around who our audiences are, both primary and secondary. Once we know the “who,” it becomes much easier to figure out the “how”–the storytelling strategies and tactics we’ll use to reach our defined audience(s) and meet our goals.
Clients are often surprised when the conversation surfaces new insights, questions, or points of tension and disagreement on who their target audiences are. The end result, though, is almost always a better final product (not to mention lots of time and energy saved by having the discussion upfront).
Imagine your audience
Growing your capacity for knowing your audience tends to be one of the most fun parts of storytelling. This is because there’s no limit to how expansively you can use your imagination to step into your audience’s shoes. You get to think about their backgrounds, their wants, their needs, what drives them, and what turns them off.
The more precisely you can pinpoint the groups or individuals you are trying to reach, the more successful your overall storytelling strategy is likely to be.
Consider factors like your audience’s age, demographics, interest areas, what they do for a living, and level of familiarity with you and your message. Sketching out such details will reveal important insights for how to craft your story. For example, if your audience is a CEO who’s always stretched for time, you’ll probably want to keep your story concise and to the point.
If you’re a fundraiser and your target audience is highly motivated, engaged young people who want to make a difference, you’ll probably want to create a moving and inspirational story that taps into their passion, energy, and altruistic desires.
When you have more than one
It’s perfectly fine to have more than one audience. In fact, most stories do. Just remember to keep a prioritized list of who you are trying to reach and make sure your story is structured to reach your audiences in that order.
Listen through their ears
As you are creating your story, try reading or listening to it from your audience’s point of view. Really step into their shoes: consider what will make sense to them and what could be tweaked to better fulfill their needs. Invite friends and coworkers to be your test audience, and see how the story lands with them.
The more you practice your ability to empathize with your audience, the better you’ll get at telling stories that resonate and get your point across.