Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Do you ever have a hard time keeping up with a story that somebody is telling in English?

Do you try to listen and pay attention and still feel as though you are missing important details somehow?

We have heard students say that they have a hard time following stories, and that they often get hung up on missing one word or detail.

This is why we created conversations and coffee—this is the only place to listen to fast group English conversation.

No other teachers or resources are helping with this, and as you will see it can be a really wonderful thing when you put it to work for you.

You can get a subscription and enjoy weekly conversations, hear more about our personal stories, and take things a step further at Conversations and Coffee with AEE

So today we’re talking about how to focus on the important details of a story, and take in what you can when somebody is speaking fast.

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Struggling To Keep Up

Do you ever struggle to keep up with a story?

Does it feel as if the details are coming at you too fast?

It can be hard when you are listening to somebody tell you something and you can’t quite keep up.

This is particularly frustrating when you’re learning English, but it can be that way even for natives.

When you find yourself in this situation, as we all do, then you really have to learn to focus on what is truly important.

If the person that is telling the story speaks fast, then it can be hard to keep up and focus on everything that you are saying.

Here’s the important thing to remember though—sometimes you can’t possibly keep up with every detail and that’s perfectly okay.

The idea is to learn to listen to a fast or funny story and focus on the really important parts.

This comes with practice and also comes with letting go of any stress that you may feel, and instead focusing on the parts that are truly important.

Even natives may struggle to keep up with a story, and this is when you will learn that there are two strategies that can help you to stay focused.

Today we will talk about two strategies for keeping up with a story.

1. Gist: This means to take in the main idea or the major points of something. Rather than trying to take in every single detail that comes your way, you are instead only focused on the gist or the main idea. You can get the gist of something if you take away the main ideas that are pertinent to the story and to your understanding.

2. Tone: You want to listen to the type of tone that the speaker is using. You can usually tell pretty quickly if it’s a funny story, if it’s a serious story, or if they are trying to tell you something really important. Listening to the tone of the speaker can help you to focus in on what they are trying to tell you.

If you can remember these two strategies and use them moving forward, then you will be successful at keeping up with whatever comes your way.

Focusing On What Is Truly Important

Those two strategies of gist and tone are so important for understanding a story someone is telling.

Basically this allows you to slow down and take the pressure off of yourself.

So even if the speaker is going quickly or you feel as though it’s really hard to keep up, you have a couple of key things to focus on.

You no longer have to be on the edge of your seat or stressed out about catching every little thing that is said.

Think about this–when you listen to a story, do you listen to EVERY single detail extremely closely?

Maybe sometimes, like if you had to take notes for some reason.

Most of the time though, you likely don’t have to take notes or keep track of everything that is being said.

Life isn’t always like that, though and sometimes you do the best that you can.

It is most important to understand the general idea of the story.

If you spend your time constantly rewinding, getting frustrated if you don’t understand a word, or hung up on the tiny details, you will miss the overall important topic of the story.

When we listen to a story, we want to get to the two main points which are:

  • The main idea or the gist
  • The overall feel of the story or the tone

So what is the tone of a story?

Can you put a name to it?

Is the person sad, sarcastic, making jokes, scared, or conveying some sort of emotion?

Try to put an emotion to the story because that can help you to visualize and focus on the theme or general intent of the story.

If you can keep these things in mind and truly focus on what appears to be the most important aspects of a story, then you will be in good shape.

You will have the key takeaways of a story, and sometimes that’s the best and most important thing you can do.

Examples To Help You Envision

So on this episode, we played a clip that you could listen along with but we’re going to turn this into a workable example here.

Read through what this clip was and take note of the gist and the tone.

This is like a slightly different approach to a roleplay, but you can still take away the key messages here.

Michelle: Yeah. I mean my sleepovers, well, so Aubrey, it sounds like we would not have been very good sleepover friends because I am a night owl to the core. And I was always, I would make fun of my friends when they would go to sleep. Like I was such a pain. I would sing the “party pooper” song to them. You know that song?

Lindsay: Oh my God. That would be so annoying to me.

Michelle: Oh, you would have hated me. Like I would sing the song. Like I would, I was always the last one awake. Sometimes, like the parents would have to come in. I remember having to sit with my friend’s parents. Like then after everybody went to sleep and I didn’t want to go to sleep, I felt so bad. And now like, as a mom, I’m like, “Oh my God,” if I have to deal with a little Michelle one day, like that, that would be so terrible. But yeah. So Aubrey, it wouldn’t have been good for us, but I think, I do think that it is like Lindsay said, it’s a rite of passage.

So think about this clip and ask yourself what was the main idea?

This is kind of like “paraphrasing” where you want to capture the main ideas in a snapshot, or at a quick glance.

If I were to ask you between these three options, what would your answer be?

A. Michelle was difficult, in a funny way, to her friends at sleepovers because she never wanted to go to sleep.

B. Michelle sang the party pooper song to her friends.

C. Michelle had to sit with her friend’s parents at sleepovers.

A is the obvious answer, and what you should hopefully take out of this.

Are B and C true?

Yes, but they really aren’t that important here at all.

You may have times where you want to closely listen for details, but today we are talking about gist.

Gist is a strategy where you focus on the main parts of the story and think through what the key takeaways are.

What about the tone of the story?

It was humorous, and everyone was laughing and making sarcastic jokes.

So you see, you check in on the gist and the tone and then you know what exactly to take away from this story.

But you do have to plan it out–sometimes you may want to practice listening for more details if it’s appropriate.

Also think about this–how would you continue this conversation?

What would you share?

This connects listening to speaking, and that’s a huge skill to use in your conversations and story telling overall.


If a story is too fast, start out by listening for the gist—decide what is truly important.

What key points can you take away from the story?

What is the tone?

How can you contribute?

Don’t worry about every word or every detail, just focus on what appears to be truly important.

Listen for main points to improve your listening skills in English, and this can help you to have fantastic conversations moving forward.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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