Thanking a Storyteller: It’s not easy

I recently had the pleasure of delivering a one-hour keynote speech at SmartBear’s 2022 Go-to-Market Kickoff, and…it went really well! That is, outside of the migraine and near panic attack I suffered through immediately after it was over. While I’ve given what feels like a million 30-minute presentations and co-presented one-hour talks, this was my first one flying solo. Just me, and my story, and slides. When it was all said and done, before I even got off the stage, and after 100+ hours of preparation spread across three months, there was a sudden, jarring adrenaline dump. My brain just went into safe mode and basically told my vision, emotions, and overall sanity, “Yeah, ya done,” sending me dashing up to my hotel room for some dark silence I was in much more need of than a catered lunch.

When I returned to the event about an hour and a half later, and in far better shape, I was thankful for, and ego-boosted by, a number of very generous “Great job!” and “That was excellent!” sentiments from my awesome coworkers. But then came two other types of praise. One was probably given a dozen times, and don’t get me wrong! I know, especially based on the quality of the people who were giving it, that it was fully intended on being a compliment! It just…well, it’s complicated.

The other was expressed to me by a single person and left me feeling far more proud, appreciated, and seen than all the others combined.

A completely fine thing to say

Any variation of “Great job,” “That was excellent,” or “I really enjoyed that.” These are very nice things to say to a storyteller! (Or presenter, host, moderator, panelist, interviewer, etc.) I think I can safely speak for most storytellers in that when we’re in the process of telling a story, sometimes we can gauge the audience’s reactions and level of enjoyment, but sometimes we can’t. Maybe the lights are in our eyes and the audience is darkly lit. Maybe it’s on Zoom and people’s cameras are off, or their camera is at a poor angle or mounted to another monitor aimed at the side of their face. Maybe we’re pacing a stage, looking down at our feet to make sure we don’t step off the stage or trip on a cord. Maybe it’s the first talk of the day and everyone is half-awake, or maybe it’s the last talk of the day, and the audience is, again, half-awake.

We, as storytellers, for the most part, tell stories because we love doing it, but knowing that you love when we do it, too, is often a great motivator for us to keep wanting to tell more. Letting us know after the fact that you enjoyed a story/presentation/webinar (psst, they’re ALL stories) is a very nice thing to do, even if you think a million other people might’ve already told us that, go ahead and let us know, too. For all you know, your opinion might be the one we’re going to be the most excited to receive. 🙂

A…not as fine thing to say

I’m not going to try to speak for all, or even a majority, of the storytellers in the world because I’ve done zero research to confirm who else feels this way. But, there’s one expression of presumed praise (I know these people mean well!) that I, personally, “literally cannot” with. The dreaded “You make it look so easy!”

Storytelling—and I’m talking about the really good, left you shook, opened your mind, changed your mind, blew your mind, stories that made you feel like personally thanking the storyteller for their time—is anything but easy. It is 0% less of an art form, craft, or lifelong pursuit than any other skill or talent on the planet. I promise you. The world’s best stories, whether authored by anyone from Toni Morrison to David Sedaris, or presented on stage at a tech conference or Broadway, or shown in dazzling HD colors from Activision to Disney (Encanto FTW!), all of them went through countless combinations of drafts, copyedits, rewrites, dry runs, rehearsals, test screenings, table reads, beta tests, chopping blocks, and cutting room floors.

On top of that, for some, and no matter how much they enjoy doing it, nor how many years they’ve been doing it, storytelling can be exhausting. Mentally and physically.

If, the next time you’re watching a story be told, and you truly are sitting there thinking, “They make this look so easy!” and you find yourself reeeaally wanting to say that to the person afterward, would you be willing to try out the suggestion below?

A wonderful thing to say

Whether you’re able to speak to a storyteller in person after their speech, or presentation, or performance, or you’re shooting them a quick note on Slack, or social media, at least think about being one of the few who will also say something like, “That had to have been a ton of work,” or, “You clearly spent a lot of time creating that.” I think you might even be able to get away with “You make it look so easy!” if you immediately follow it up with “…but I know that’s because of how much work you put into it.”

I’m in no way a student or scholar of human behavior or sociological wiring. But, doesn’t it feel like it’s almost second nature for us to, unintentionally, write off or discount other people’s impressive feats and accomplishments by attaching that “they make it look so easy,” label to them? We do this or hear this being done to athletes all the time. Describing Steph Curry’s jump shot as “effortless,” when we know that he’s been training his whole life to be as good as he is and that he continues to train to get even better! Or when an announcer says, “It’s like she’s just having fun out there!” about Chloe Kim as she dominates yet another snowboard run. She probably is having fun. How many globally recognized, generational athletes hate their sport(s)? But, to convey that they’re “just” having fun, and not, you know, also at work, work that includes things like “not dying in a horrific accident,” all while being watched and judged by millions across the world, is disingenuous and completely dismissive of the time and effort you know they’ve put in and which are worthy of recognition.

I love telling great stories, it’s in my blood (more on that in the next blog!), but I love the work that goes into them just as much. One truly doesn’t happen without the other, and that’s thanks to you, and every other audience I’ve ever had. The next time you watch and/or hear a great story and you get the chance to speak with or write to the presenter afterward, remember that they didn’t just give you the time they held the mic, faced the camera, or walked the stage. They felt like you were worth a lot more of their time than that one moment that the two of you and their story spent together.