Whose story is it, anyway—yours or the audience’s?

When you’re communicating, whether in writing or onstage, whose story is it? Is it your story, or the audience’s?

If you said it’s both—well, I’m going to disagree with you, at least partly.

Few people know more about capturing and keeping an audience’s attention than successful stand-up comedians. Mike Birbiglia, a comedian and writer with more than a decade of experience at keeping audience’s attention on stage and film, says you need to figure out not how the story is about you but how the story is about the audience. That may be a direct quote, but Siri garbled my notes on it while I was driving. If you want to hear it straight from the source, listen to his interview on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast.

I know, I know—storytelling is different for comedians than for businesspeople. Comedians can make things up; businesspeople (and sometimes politicians) get in trouble when they deviate from the truth.

Yes. This is not about lying. Or even “spin.” This is about, well, empathy. Putting yourself in the audience’s place.

What do they want to hear from you? What do they need to hear from you? How can you deliver a message that resonates with them? And, more than that, how can your message enhance their understanding, help them think about the world in a new way?

So whose story is it? In one sense, yes of course it’s your story. That’s the only story any of us can tell, really. But the most memorable speeches offer something more than personal narrative; a cult of personality can only take you so far.

In the end, the most important perspective is always the audience’s. Shape your story around the narrative points they will connect with, and then allow that connection to inform the message you want to deliver.