The Intimate Secrets of Storytellers

What key quality gives live oral telling such an advantage over other storytelling forms?

To answer that let’s first ask why are people interested in stories anyway? What do we want from them?

In a nutshell, stories enable us to learn about ourselves by hearing what others (real or imagined) have done. We hear their experiences and put ourselves in their shoes, discovering our emotional reactions, learning what is possible through vicarious experience, and we imagine what we might do in their place.

This makes stories satisfying and even transformative, especially if we feel they have come to life for us vividly and authentically. That happens most of all when we hear them from another live human being, because we can get into the world of the tale through drawing close to the teller who is already immersed in that world.

When in someone’s live presence we don’t just hear their words. We see their intentions expressed. We catch their mood, follow their lead into the imagination, and feel their feelings through their presence and eye-contact. No other form of story expression does this quite so deeply and directly. And we sense the atmosphere in the room – the complex interaction of the audience’s responses to the storyteller’s intentions.

So, to answer the question I posed at the top, intimacy is the quality of live oral storytelling that gives it such an advantage over other narrative forms, whereby the storyteller and audience allow themselves to be vulnerable with each other.

Vulnerability is letting down the barriers of our assumptions, prejudices, rigid attitudes, that protect us from feeling or being affected too much by sensitive or private matters, but prevent us from seeing things afresh as they truly are. As an audience we can be in wonder at the story, touched by real emotions. Life happens in the moment. When we assume things, through habit or disengagement, it stops us looking at or being open to what actually is.

But if we are to open up to really experience someone’s story, we need to trust them. The more present the teller is with us the more we can allow that to happen, because we are very finely tuned to perceive authenticity from people, or the lack of it, but it does take all of our senses. So storytellers need to be right there, opening themselves up and establishing their deepest presence.

Storytellers Lead the Way In

For some storytellers this opening-up feels like a natural instinct, for others a huge challenge. One of the keys to creating an intimate atmosphere is to get past your desire to hide part of yourself from the audience’s gaze, as I talked about here. But your defences can be so instinctive you may not realise you are holding anything back.

When we are in an audience’s presence, as storytellers, we feel seen and heard. We therefore feel either judged and defensive, or drawn towards open and honest expression, towards authenticity. Often there’s a journey from one to the other, so it’s certainly a challenge to continually improve the level of openness we have.

Intimacy is removing the social and emotional barriers that keep us as strangers, keep us from knowing and understanding each other, keep us from trusting each other. With intimacy a rare sense of togetherness and closeness is created. We start to notice, and allow ourselves to feel, how much we all have in common. It’s a combination of the feelings of trust, closeness, and warmth.

The first thing a good storyteller does in front of an audience is to establish rapport. Rapport is getting on the same wavelength; intimacy is staying there, exploring and establishing a trust so that you can draw closer and closer.

In life, trust and intimacy go hand in hand. You extend your trust and greater intimacy may result, which in turn extends the trust – there’s a virtuous circle. Warmth is both a step towards intimacy and a symptom of it. Show warmth and you tend to get some back, especially in the context of storytelling.

When you tell stories and encourage the intimacy you start developing a sense of community. So your audience feel communal with you and each other, sharing the meaningful experience of the story. They can relax and enjoy the specialness of the moment.

Storytelling isn’t polite conversation, it’s real, authentic, and therefore doesn’t shrink from what is true, including the challenging things in life. It brings us to where we are all simply human and all have things in common – the deepest things, the core parts of us, our inner hopes, fears, sense of wonder, search for meaning and so on.

Through intimacy, and the trust that is engendered, the storyteller can draw out deeper feelings, more meaningful ideas, more challenging emotions, things which are more real and vital in people’s lives, that people gloss over, hide from each other or don’t mention in polite conversation. Intimacy gives permission to the storyteller to lead the audience through those sensitive experiences where they are vulnerable – private, painful, or precious – a trusted guide to the potent realms of imagination.

Therefore audiences can more powerfully experience a story, which is already structured so as to reveal the transformation that we all have potential for, and so they can take psychological steps through that actual transformation, in the moment. I mentioned before in Becoming Human that the Mahabharata epic says “Listen carefully and by the end you’ll be someone else”, which is said in the knowledge that it is a sacred scripture and therefore has a divine process which touches the soul – nothing can be more intimate than that.

Engaging with Your Audience

The first thing to do (as a storyteller) is to recognise that you are trying to reduce any social barrier between you and your audience, and that includes any sense of separation caused by being on stage or physically apart, or simply being a stranger. To start building rapport you could make chatty comments as you get yourself ready onstage, or tell people what you’re feeling like, or even tell a brief joke. Some storytellers start way before that by mingling with the gathering audience or greeting each with a handshake as they arrive – anything that makes for a natural human social presence rather than an untouchable ‘artiste’.

In telling a story you can lead people’s expectations by being yourself in a very fluid way. Although you step into the story and may embody a character for a few moments, you generally, at the drop of a hat, should also be able to relate as a real human being to the audience with no artifice, unlike an actor keeping to a role.

In formal theatre (and many kinds of performance follow this convention) actors also maintain the illusion of place by pretending there is a “fourth wall” between them and the audience, so that they can’t see or hear the audience. In storytelling the teller makes frequent and direct eye-contact with audience members, the deeper and more intimate the better. For this reason, when storytelling in a theatre setting, tellers prefer the audience not to be in darkness – something most lighting managers are surprised by.

One of the great strengths of storytelling is letting yourself be guided by the audience’s reactions and participation, so of course you have to pay attention to those and adapt your telling as you see a need. But to increase the intimacy you can actively encourage or provoke responses. If you tell a story in an interactive way you can give the audience things to do and immerse them in a physical or vocal way, as well as just through the imagination.

But you can also make “asides”, which is where you stand back from telling the story for just a moment and instead comment on the story, or on how you or the audience are feeling. Although this can jerk people out of immersion in the story, so it’s best not to do it in the deepest parts, it’s also a way to remind them that you and they are in this story experience together.

Having to look at the audience and be sensitive to them is easily overlooked if you are busy trying to remember your story, or being a bit self-conscious, nervous for any reason, being distracted, or even just being so immersed in your own story that you don’t notice what is going on. It is a skill, to remain open to your audience, but it also has to be an intention. You have to start with that, in order to grow your skill. Look at the expressions on people’s faces, their postures, poise, how much light there is in their eyes, whether their emotions seem to be following the mood of the story.

Give them a sense of “We’re in this together – let’s explore!” rather than “You’re here to receive my performance.”

Intimacy makes possible community, depth, and the boundary-crossing of humour. So open yourself up, establish your deepest presence, and invite everyone in!

What parts of yourself, in what moments, do you still hold back through caution instead of leadership?

Becoming Human

Almas Almatov, Kazakh zhyrau

Almas Almatov, Kazakh zhyrau at Beyond The Border, 1996

What do you learn from your stories? Do you live by that? Do the truths and wisdom in your tales actually make you a better person, or is that just something for your audiences?

Traditionally, the storyteller’s role has been to teach us how to be human. Universal truths emerge out of folktales; spiritual truths out of wonder-tales. We yearn to understand ourselves and one key way is to understand others.

Stories tell us about others: what they did, what the consequences were, what they learned, and how they changed. This gives us hope and fore-knowledge that we too may either do the same or avoid it, depending on the story.

Traditional tales may not give factual accounts about real-life events but nevertheless, as the old storytellers’ dictum goes, “Every word is true; it just never happened.” Their more archetypal world rings so true because we recognize all the universal forces at work that we see in ourselves and others.

Personal tales demonstrate more specific and particular experiences than traditional tales, but we hope all stories will have meaning and relevance for the audience at the right time and place. And so we find stories endlessly fascinating because we never quite solve the puzzle of the human condition and who we really are. However, for all this storytelling to be more than just entertainment or comforting hope, personal change does need to happen somewhere.

Storytellers often see striking changes in the audience for the duration of the telling, and sometimes hear later about certain people having shifted into a new understanding or behaviour. We find it deeply rewarding when we get such confirmation that we have brought wisdom in story-form and it has touched hearts and evoked growth. This is the ageless role of the storyteller; there will always be great need for us.

However what about our own growth? We tend to tell tales we need to hear ourselves; we explore and inhabit them during our telling, absorbing their message and mystery. Traditionally the storyteller is often a teacher, a healer, a repository of wisdom and communal knowledge. And so the training of storytellers has always been slow, long, and often something of a spiritual path – becoming human.

Years ago I had the privilege of being in the presence of the chief Zhyrau (bard) of Kazakhstan, Almas Almatov, when he told the ‘zhyrau’s story’:

When God created Man, he sent down an angel to put a brain into each person he had made. But just after the angel started the Devil came along and stole half of the brains. So the angel put some whole brains into people, but had to share the rest out by putting in half-brains instead. Unfortunately the Devil came back and stole more of them, so the angel had to give quarter-brains to the rest of the people. The people with whole brains were the Zhyrau, and ever since then they have helped everyone else to become whole too.

Now this isn’t as self-serving as it may sound! – the zhyrau are humble indeed and, as initiates into the Mysteries, undergo many years of intensive disciplines. They not only bear the tradition of their epics and learn sophisticated entrancement techniques to prepare their audiences’ receptivity, but they are deeply trained spiritually in order to deliver their tales in an inspired state, as in bardic traditions the world over. They do have a claim to be a little more ‘whole’ than many.

The idea of the healing power of stories has been taken up in a practical way by many recently, but it’s not a new one. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India, a carefully chosen story is considered the appropriate medicine for psychological suffering. In various ancient collections of tales you will find statements of the wonderful blessings given to those who merely hear the sacred stories. For instance at the end of The Twenty-Five Tales of a Vampire (a small section of the Sanskrit 11th century Ocean Of Story), this blessing is given by the demon:

“This string of tales shall become famous and honoured on the earth, as conducing to prosperity! Whosoever shall read even a verse of it, or whosoever shall hear it, they shall immediately be freed from their curse. And demons of all kinds shall have no power where this shall be recited.”

Near the beginning of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, we are told the tale can dissolve karma itself:

“Whoever hears this, and understands even a small bit of it, escapes the deeds he has forged by deeds of good or evil.”

And at the beginning of the Mahabharata:

“If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.”

Have you listened carefully enough to the tales you tell to become someone else? Are you receptive enough, and your stories profound enough, to be lifted above your assumptions and conditioning and bring you to sip the cup of wisdom?

I once interviewed the great storyteller and harper, Robin Williamson, and I recommend reading it all here since it’s relevant, but here’s a little of what he said:

“The longer you live, and the better sort of a life you have, then the better sort of a storyteller you’re going to become. If you wanted to be a dancer you’d have to create a dancer’s body. If you want to be a really good storyteller I think to a certain extent you have to create a storyteller’s life. You start off your life with a “Once upon a time…”, and go off on the adventure. The magical thing to me seems to be that those who seek an adventure generally seem to get it, don’t they?”

So my question to you is, what transformation and wholeness is your storytelling adventure leading you to? Are you allowing she who is Wisdom to teach you how to become human?

Gestures for Storytelling

Ritu Verma 018

Ritu Verma of the Pandvani tradition
Madhya Pradesh

What do you tell your audience without words? What does your body tell your audience without your permission? Your physical presence communicates your intentions both consciously and unconsciously. Have you taken charge of your gestures or do they have a mind of their own?

Storytelling is a subtle art, and subtle, fleeting movements can be sufficient to express whole images. We tend to think of gestures as movements of hands and arms, but shifts in posture or direction of gaze express and emphasize our intentions too.

We use two main kinds of gesture: natural and illustrative. Natural gestures emerge instinctively from a desire to simply express yourself or emphasize something. Illustrative ones are for visually demonstrating an action.

If you have ever been trained in theatre you may be aware of all your gestures and even use them with skill. But the dramatic gestural language of theatre is more designed for the large stage full of movement, and so without careful retraining can lead to a somewhat distracting level of gestures that overwhelm the potential depth your storytelling. Big theatrical gestures or facial expressions tend to turn your storytelling more into visual theatre or pantomime, which draws attention towards outward appearances and away from inner meaning. That can be a storytelling style choice, though, for young children, simple or comic stories.

Conscious or Unconscious?

If you’re not trained in gesture you may be unconscious of most of the body language and movement that you make, so they will express inner states that you may not mean to – especially nervousness! We all have habitual tics that we make under stress, and they can be both highly visible and annoying to audiences, yet so invisible to ourselves that we don’t know there’s anything to address. It’s well worth asking a visually sensitive friend to give you honest critical feedback on your tics – no one else will! – so that you can learn to overcome any undesired ones.

If you want to make your visual movements and gestures effective, a key factor is to be aware of their appropriate size. If your audience is close to you they will easily pick up on tiny nuances, and get distracted by lots of medium-sized movements. If you are on a big theatre stage at some distance from them, your whole body may look a little lost in all the space, so your gestures will look very modest even if they involve huge movement, and small ones may be lost.

Stagecraft is unfortunately something few storytellers learn, but every movement on a stage or in a performance space will have its effect and apparent meaning. The older traditions of storytelling have adapted to this, each in their own way. Some traditions encourage little movement at all. The sit-down comedy of Japanese Rakugo has a whole language of sophisticated and subtle movements designed to evoke imagery with minimal movement. The Pandvani storytellers of central India (see the photo above) often perform to a whole village of thousands, with no amplification, and use a simple language of a few clear, powerful gestures to convey the dramatic moments in the story. In India too there is a whole language of the mudra – elegant ritual gestures, mainly of the hands, which have such precise meanings that classical dancers can tell their stories with no words.

Take Charge

If you want to take charge of your movements, here are a few simple tips:

Firstly, many storytellers are too unsure or self-conscious to allow their movements to be free. This can make you look as if you have your elbows tied to your waist, as your hands try to move but the tension in your shoulders holds them back. The key is to ensure that all your intentions follow through. If you fling your arm towards an imagined distant city, it says something very different and odd if your hand stops before pulling your whole arm straight. Allow the initial impulse to carry right through, and hold still for a moment at the end – these give clarity. If you are in too intimate a space to reach right out, at least don’t let tension be what limits your gesture.

If you want to experiment very simply, you can think of many gestures of falling into two types: outward from your body, or inward to it. Giving or pushing away, and receiving or drawing in. Out from your chest suggests heartfelt benevolence; in towards your belly suggests hunger or greed, and so on. But remember, you don’t need to get so theatrical as to overwhelm your storytelling.

However there’s a better and more natural way to make suitably small, subtle gestures that express your story imagery and intentions. It’s something that many storytellers do unconsciously, and a little refinement can make it very powerful. The key is to embody your story, or a character. This is not like an acting style, but just being immersed in your visual imagination while you are narrating. With no deliberate action or movements, your body still makes subtle changes in a natural, integrated way, providing you don’t hold it back by tension or self-consciousness. These small visual cues that you are living your story can shift the audience into a vivid entrancement. Trust it. Use your imagination and your gestures may be inside more than outside, but they will show.

Indeed internal gesture can be the most potent. I coach my storytelling clients in a powerful technique that looks like magic, an invisible system of transforming the atmosphere and moment. I love it when even a whole room of tellers give literally no visible movements or words yet can instantly snap the atmosphere powerfully from precise mood to mood in unison.

What movements do you make in live storytelling that are consciously or unconsciously communicating to the audience? Have you ever worked on them? Tell me in a comment…

It’s Flow-Time!

flow-riverWhat’s your first priority while facing your audience?

Storytelling is simple on the outside, and complex on the inside. Others see you simply speak a good story and people are entranced, but inside there are many things to pay attention to: your audience, your story, yourself. Each of these has multiple needs to manage, and even for the seasoned professional this can be a demanding and delicate task. For the beginner, even only aware of a few aspects, it’s overwhelming.

But there is one responsibility that I coach my private clients to be most vigilant about. And that is Flow.

Why Flow is Your First Priority

Why? Because you’ve agreed to take your audience on a journey, with a point to it. It’s a journey of the mind, and they have to trust you to guide them and deliver them safely to their destination. You have the power to evoke their emotions, add to their understanding, and reward their attention with a satisfying resolution. You also have the power to waste their time, confuse them, and leave them with unresolved annoyances.

The trust you have to maintain is that your story is going somewhere and you know how to take them through it. But a story isn’t just a recitation, it’s an imaginary world that the audience explore and engage in. That’s where the magic happens, and where, with a well-structured story, the audience is taken through a coherent sequence of experiences that are designed and timed to create both entertainment and a satisfying understanding.

It is, however, very easy to break the spell. It’s easy to jerk people’s attention back out from that sequence, and their state of mind out from that imagined world. Even a small break in focus is annoying, and perhaps disappointing or even shocking.

Keeping their sense of the flow is therefore crucial, so that you maintain and build the audience’s engagement in the story, which depends for its effect on being not just uninterrupted but well-timed.

What is Flow?

The storyteller’s role is very flexible. You may move freely from narrating, to voicing a character, to adding commentary, to managing the room, and back. The latter two may move people’s attention more towards the real world, but none of them need break the flow.

Flow is sustaining the momentum, maintaining immersion, and not interrupting or distracting from the energy, pace, and continuity. There’s a flow to keep over the whole story, but also at a small scale with the images, sentences, and fluency of speech.

The key in all cases is an awareness of the overall energy. It’s hard to describe what is flowing during your storytelling, but it’s more than just the words. It’s a collective dynamic based on the mood, pace, and attention. There’s an energy that you maintain for yourself and the audience. You summon it, express it, sustain it, and vary it.

If people are excited to know what will happen next, vividly imagining and feeling, then the energy is high. If all that is brought to a jarring halt by, say, a loud mobile phone, the energy plummets within seconds unless you get everyone past it. If you pay attention to such dynamics and plummeting you can work consciously to prevent it. People will respect you for it and trust you more.

Dealing With Distractions

Most experienced storytellers do a decent job of keeping the flow in normal circumstances, but many don’t at all when there is a big distraction. That however is exactly when you do need to be stronger in leading your audience’s experience, for their sake.

Such distractions can come from

  • the audience – a disruptive member
  • the environment – interruptions, noises etc.
  • yourself – accidents with equipment, clothes
  • memory failures and ‘mistakes’ with your story

If you allow such problems to drag people’s point of attention away from their immersion in the story, it breaks the spell and greatly diminishes their overall experience.

If you forget the next bit of your story, and therefore stop, apologise, and maybe mumble aloud while thinking, the spectacle of your struggle wrenches your audience out of the story. Instead stay engaged with them, maintaining the flow of your words. You can buy time by inventing some inconsequential description, or cheerfully admit to your lapse and give them a recap of the story for your own benefit, until you remember. Either way you maintain a continuity to their experience and focus. In other words, flow is even more important than remembering your story.

An external distraction, however, is like an epidemic. If one person is lost to it, a few others start to follow unless you prevent it, then quickly it gets everyone. You can lose all attention, and the story suffers. If the storyteller pays attention to a distraction, such as people talking at the back, everyone else instantly follows their example.

However, you can’t win by simply ignoring an interruption unless it’s a minor one that hardly anyone has noticed, in which case your modelling of ignoring it will enable others to. Authenticity is key for storytelling too (see this post), so if you try to pretend something intrusive hasn’t happened, your audience will in addition be distracted by your pretense or discomfort. It’s better to acknowledge the intrusion without being bothered by it. This incorporating of the distraction into your performance enables you to keep the momentum and control, so the flow need not be broken.

Such incorporation often involves either:

– Commenting light-heartedly on the distraction without changing your focus on the story – rather like any personal comment that you might make in any story, e.g.

The King made a proclamation, saying… [phone rings, in audience]
…Have you ever noticed how nobody’s listening when you have something important to say? Well luckily this was the King and anyone who interrupted him would be executed so it NEVER EVER happened. So all heard him say, “The Princess has been kidnapped – half the Kingdom for whoever finds her.”

– Or incorporating the distraction into the story itself, treating it like a deliberate sound-effect for instance, and adding a detail into the story to explain it, e.g.

The King made a proclamation, saying… [phone rings, in audience]
…saying “Anyone whose phone interrupts the King’s storyteller will be executed at dawn. You sir, please report to the palace after this show. In other news, the Princess has been kidnapped – half the Kingdom for whoever finds her.”

Your adapting to circumstances enables your audience to notice the problem without being jerked out of immersion in the flow of the story, and they will feel relief that you are both aware and unbothered, and have greater trust in your strong leadership keeping them engaged.

This is true even for major interruptions. In these cases the story will have to be put on hold, but you don’t have to put your role on hold as the leader of people’s attention. If you keep some continuity and confidence in that, everyone will be able to return smoothly to their engagement in the story after the hiatus, e.g.

The King made a proclamation, saying… [child screams, in audience]
…Yes, it’s exciting isn’t it? [more screams] Perhaps your mum could take you somewhere quieter for a moment, as the King has something important to say? [no movement] Okay, could people in that row stand for a moment and let this chap and his mum out? That’s good, thanks. Do come back in a minute when he’s calmer. …So the King’s proclamation said, “The Princess has been kidnapped – half the Kingdom for whoever finds her.”

Obviously each situation is different and requires a suitable attitude to handle it gracefully without adding to the conflict.

Doing nothing and staring at the problem, like the audience, hoping that someone will resolve it, hands over your responsibility and authority, and gets the audience frustrated. You may not wish to annoy a troublemaker for instance, but the needs of the group and their investment in the story come first.

I’ve heard many tellers too passive or unsure to manage a big distraction or conflict successfully. They often feel confused and disappointed later, aware that the magic of their storytelling was lost but bemused about how they could have handled it more actively without causing offence.

Storytellers should have the imagination, at least, to reframe situations. There are many ways to be diplomatic with humour, or direct the less confrontational power of peer pressure from the audience, who will be keen to help you return to the story.

It’s Flow-Time

This whole issue of flow has long been summed up by the old dictum “The show must go on!” Which in fact, if you think about it, means “The flow must go on!”

Once you’ve taken on the role as the audience’s trusted guide, your first priority must be to not let them down by allowing the spell to be broken before the story’s end. So don’t stop, don’t freeze, but adapt!

When and how have you let the flow be broken, or kept it going against the odds? Comments please!

Eloquently Put

Choose your words carefully. Your life depends on them. Or your livelihood, at least. Do you speak with the beauty of a poet and the skill of an orator? Are your words worth listening to? Are they the right ones?

These kind of anxieties can pop into the mind of a stressed or beginning storyteller. Like most anxious thoughts they are completely misleading and unnecessary. But it’s too late – your mind demands an answer, a justification of your right to speak.

So how do you choose your words?

I mentioned in a recent post how the urge to rigidly script a story gets in the way of authenticity, which is one of the most crucial aspects of good storytelling. The art of storytelling is in the live moment; this is its nature and strength. The audience, the mood, your state of mind, your perceptions and delights – they have never been exactly this way before, and never will be again, no matter how many times you tell the same story. It is your role to express each moment in the best way you can. But do you know something? There’s no wrong answer.

The emphasis has to be on keeping your mind and your story fresh, then the words will come into your mind in a suitable, and perhaps fresh way. What if they don’t? It doesn’t matter! The exact words you use are always only a best attempt to express something of this moment in this story. A moment which has gone before anyone has time to judge you on details. But your audience is getting so much more from you than bare words.

We do tend to enjoy words, fall in love with phrases, and idolise eloquence. But careful crafting of words is much more suited to the arts of poetry and writing, where time is taken to write and revise them, and readers can rewind and re-read at their own pace. Performance poetry may be delivered at a lively pace, but tends to have been created at a much slower one.

But this does point us back to an age when storytellers were often called poets, and poetry mostly meant stories. The more formal and elevated levels of storytelling were carried out by Bards, who underwent many years of spiritual training in order to be fit to tell the sacred stories and myths. The form they used was the Epic, and the sheer length of the stories and difficulty of remembering them demanded that the words be chanted in metre and rhyme. Also the depth of the tales demanded that the audiences be put deep into trance by the rhythmic chants, so as to be fully receptive to their sacred influence.

It’s true that at such a level, words are chosen with great skill and precision. But all that training is not just in poetic technique – it’s in achieving an inspired state by which the words come without effort. This is not a dead art. There are many bardic storytellers still today – mainly in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are named variously across the different countries, and you can read something of their traditions on my Traditional Storytelling pages. I have seen quite a variety of them, and they are simply awe-inspiring.

For those of us who have not been initiated into decades of spiritual disciplines and mystical poetic practice, however, the most productive path does not begin by carefully preparing and learning an exact script. Instead, first work on achieving a relaxed state in front of your audience where you trust that your words will come out well, discovered in the moment, and that your presence will carry your meaning across despite any verbal stumbling. True eloquence starts with a verbal flow of language which doesn’t need to call attention to itself. Verbal dexterity and beauty is certainly nice to have, but can be developed gradually. For the beginner, that’s neither necessary nor any cause for concern.

We all live today beset by a confusing conflict. We are engaged in an oral art, developed and honed in oral societies, telling stories often from, or influenced by, oral tradition. Yet we live in a literary world, born into literate societies, which virtually idolises written texts, and gives most of our traditional tales to us through books. It’s important to be clear that these two worlds are polar opposites, with different values and methods. It’s a mistake to think that literary language or tales can be presented orally with the same power as oral ones.

Even more confusing is the fact that some famous and well-loved collections of traditional oral tales have been highly rewritten into literary, and sometimes flowery, language. Hans Christian Anderson, Boccaccio, Straparola and others have given us tales which are easy to fall in love with for their language. But taking them back out of the literary world and into the oral presents a problem. Either one recites them verbatim as a literary performance, or one performs them orally by deflowering them. Hmm, that might sound more exciting than I intended!

How much more fun it is to be free to trip over new expressions than to worry about tripping up. How do you choose your words?

The Delights of Facing an Audience

Glaring eyes“Why do they have so many eyes? Why are they seeing into my soul when I’m trying not to bare it?” Why does anyone put themselves in the spotlight when it’s so scary? It’s not easy to face an audience and share something with them. How do you find the magic?

People say “Just enjoy yourself!”, but that’s easier said than done. Mastering your psychology isn’t simple. I coach storytellers through seven key stages in this alone, each with its own strategy, before they fully embrace the deep freedom of the storyteller’s role. One of these stages is all to do with delight, which is a great quality to encourage in yourself because it really helps.

To me delight implies a certain surprise, the joyful pleasure of being charmed at a discovery. The act of storytelling should certainly always be fresh and full of discovery, but of what exactly?

You can find and take delight in:

Words: being inspired with a perfect one to express the moment. The feel of a nice one rolling around your tongue and launching into the world. Rhythms, rhymes, alliteration.

Images: the beauty, wonder, or dread of a vivid visual, brought to life in the minds of you and your audience.

Drama: the excitement, conflict, contrast, or justice of events. The calm before the storm. The anticipation.

Responses: the audience’s expressions, rapt attention, confusion, smiles, impatience to know, and more. Even just their lack of boredom or fidgeting.

Your role: being able to share a favourite tale, some wisdom, an entertainment. Building community, consensus, collaboration. Bringing meaning or hope. Provoking change.

You can choose to find and notice delight even in small ways, to go with that emotion at every opportunity, even before you start. That then energises you repeatedly and rewards your efforts. Delights build into joy, which is expansive and reaches your audience.

You don’t have to show your delight, just feel it. If you find delight in what you are doing, your inner state will have a strong effect on your audience who will follow suit and find delight in your storytelling. It enlivens your telling, your mood, and the mood in the room. Even if you start off intimidated, nervous, or self-conscious, little delights soon add up to real enjoyment. And all those eyes looking at you? They’ll all be smiling back.

To paraphrase a paean to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, written by Adrian Mitchell:

We breathe in air,
We breathe out light.
Storytelling's my delight.

What little steps or delights give you courage and a healthy mindset when you struggle to face an audience?


Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga by Joshua Hoffine

What makes us listen to stories? Why do we get drawn in, why do we keep paying attention? In a nutshell, our curiosity is aroused.

The art of good storytelling relies on listeners’ curiosity, and plays with it on several levels. A good story is structured to not just satisfy curiosity but to keep generating more of it.

We get curious to fill in details – although our imagination will do that anyway. We get curious about motivations and feelings – “Why did she do that?” – but that often gets revealed slowly. What we really have to know, and what keeps us listening for the next sentence, is “What happened next?” Isn’t that what you want to know, desperately, when you look at the picture of Baba Yaga’s house here? Especially if you notice the skulls and click to see it full-size.

Traditional tales are entirely plot-driven, which is to say that “What happened next?” is the engine that drives the story forward. In fairytales and folktales the characters are deliberately one-dimensional, because they are universal and archetypal. They have virtually no inner life because they are more symbols than people – their natures are expressed on the outside through their appearance and actions. Max Lüthi’s excellent book The European Folktale – form and nature has two chapters on the profundities of this idea. So the actions reveal everything, and we are left to unearth their meanings and purpose.

For storytellers all this means that we have to be aware of the curiosity we are provoking and satisfying, step by step. What do the words and images of this sentence provoke a desire for? And this one? How long will it be before the audience finds out their answer? Such psychology drives the dynamics of attention, and good storytellers are in turn driven to adjust their pacing, facial expressions, nuances of tone and more, in order to give the audience a feeling of the sense of purpose and drama of the story. Some hints and curiosities are enough to keep people’s attention until the next sentence, others until the next section or even the end of the story.

As the storyteller, you have an important feat to perform in your mind. You already know the story, so you don’t need to be curious about what will happen next. Yet you have to be, if you are to convey the full power of the story. You must try to immerse yourself in the present moment of the story so effectively that you embody it, and hence discover it afresh at the same time as the audience. In this way you travel through the reality of the story yourself, and only by doing this can you take the audience fully on that journey too. You are not a mere low-tech device for reciting the story, you are their leader on the adventure.

So… in what ways do you provoke curiosity in your stories, and in which places could they benefit from tweaking or increasing that?

The Business of Storytelling

I can tell you how to become a millionaire with storytelling: start off as a multi-millionaire. It’s an old joke, but it doesn’t have to be true. The trouble is that many people with an artistic mindset don’t have a business mindset, and vice versa. But if you want to earn money from your love of storytelling, you have to face a simple fact: you’re an entrepreneur running a business.

Did you know that 90% of every business is the same? You have to achieve almost exactly the tasks any other service business does. So you owe it to your success to learn the basics, but they aren’t hard and it can be a very satisfying adventure to build your own enterprise.

There’s one simple mistake that almost everyone makes, which can easily make the difference between your business growing or failing. It’s a mindset problem, which means it’s easy to overlook and causes problems in many different business activities. And changing your mindset can make it far more fun, reliable, and strategic, to build your business. This is the mistake: not thinking like your customers.

Here’s a test: does your website, brochure, or verbal description of yourself start with something like “I’m a storyteller and I tell [insert your favourite type] stories”? Now consider: why should your potential customers care? They are busy thinking about themselves and their problems, and many don’t even know what storytelling is or have very skewed ideas about what it’s suitable for. How will you get their attention, and how will you get them to imagine how your services will solve their biggest problem? By thinking like them, with their point of view, self-interest, vocabulary, and probable ignorance of storytelling.

This simple adjustment of your approach won’t just vastly improve your publicity; it can open up new markets for you. When you understand how people see their own problems, and the results they want, you can develop targeted messages and offers to help them. Very few people have a lack-of-storytellers problem. But they may have a kids-won’t-sit-still problem, or an entertainment problem, or a low-literacy-rate problem, or a boring-museum problem. And some of them are browsing the web looking for solutions to those, not knowing how well storytelling could work.

Only once you’ve announced that you can help will they want to know the method you use. Only then is it part of your job to help them understand why storytelling is perfect for them. And for people who do know about you or storytelling, this sequence reinforces how useful and what great value you are.

Experts reckon that around 30% of the time you spend in your business needs to be on marketing. Other main tasks are admin, development of skills and repertoire, and oh yes, storytelling. Since you can’t ignore the bits you don’t like, instead learn how to make them as effective and fun as possible, and perhaps automate some bits with the power of the internet.

And yes, marketing can be fun. Most people think they hate it, but that’s because they mistake it for pressuring people or advertising. Marketing is a conversation, especially in today’s world. It’s about developing relationships and getting to know what your clients actually want. Was there ever a storyteller who didn’t like talking to people? The dry language of business and old-fashioned methods can fool you into dreading stuff that can be far more creative and suited to who you are and what you’re good at.

Here’s what you have to do continually:

  1. Find people who need you, and get some way of contacting them. In today’s multi-connected world this is far easier than before, and you can be very strategic, reaching larger numbers of more suitable people on very little budget. Most websites don’t do this – a ‘brochure’ site is just advertising – but they can do, and so can social networking sites.
  2. Make irresistible offers to those people, and to previous clients. This is where it pays to really understand their needs – what problems are they desperate to pay money to solve? If such results don’t sound like something a storyteller could offer, your imagination and creativity need engaging. People love to receive irresistible offers, but not generalised advertising.
  3. Give great value. That doesn’t mean low prices and working too hard, it means getting people to understand how huge a value they get from everything you do. Start by giving away helpful stuff online that costs you nothing. Continue by educating people in all your marketing – not just about your services but about how they can solve their problems, and of course about what storytelling is and can achieve.
  4. Be consistent. It’s a busy world and people’s attention is stretched. If you are giving people great stuff that they want, they’ll never tire of hearing from you. Have you ever heard of these things called “stories” that make people desperate to receive the next installment? It will take them hearing from you a few times before they are finally ready to buy your services.

Once you’ve found out more about what a certain kind of customer wants, and have a repertoire of enough stories, package your offers to suit them so that you don’t have to customise every performance. Professional storytellers often gradually develop programmes of stories on various popular themes. Then you can spell out the benefits of each one. People get tempted by something they can imagine.

Finally, storytellers often ask “Does Facebook work to get clients? Does LinkedIn?” The answer is an emphatic Yes! No! …These and other networks contain gigantic numbers of your potential clients, but they are merely tools. They won’t do magic; you have to learn how to use them effectively. Every network is full of potential, as long as its members include your kind of client. Use them to find and converse with targeted people. Don’t advertise at them! Make them tempting offers, educate them, give them valuable and useful freebies that cost you nothing. Experiment, test, measure, and improve. And enjoy yourself! Be creative. A helpful person having fun is very attractive!

So… what are you the solution to?

The Authentic Secret to Storytelling Success

AHave you worked out the secret yet? Well, you know how the resolution to a good story has its seeds in the beginning? I’ve already given you this secret in my beginning – it’s authenticity.

The number one thing that makes live storytelling so much more powerful than other forms is the authenticity of the storyteller. For the audience, having a live person looking into their eyes, expressing themself with genuine feeling, openly acknowledging the human reality of the moment and the shared wonder at the story, is a compelling experience. It creates intimacy and community.

But we are cautious about opening up to others, and for the storyteller it feels scary to be truly open and honest. We are cautious enough in everyday life about revealing our true thoughts, and instinctively modify what we say, so as to seem acceptable to others. We hardly realize we’re doing it. But with the added scrutiny of having a focused audience, and the task of sharing a story that we probably care about, we tend to harden our social defences. That often means trying to present a slick, fluent image of a polished performer who knows what they’re doing and saying.

The reality is more messy: we have our attention drawn by not only our story, but our audience, our environment, and our anxieties. One solution is to script the story rigidly, rehearse it to death, and avoid noticing that the audience is composed of real people. That, however, is the opposite of good storytelling, and your audience will feel the difference.

What they really want, whether they know it or not, is to feel that you are real, fully present, and at ease with them. They want to feel trust so that they can come with you on the story’s journey, rather than watch you go on it. They know that you have real inner thoughts and feelings along the way, and can spot a mile off if you hold those back in order to present a polished mask.

Being authentic isn’t a technique to pick up, it’s a genuine desire to share yourself as part of sharing your story. But you probably feel that your self is too flawed to really bare to the world. Everyone hides to a degree. But the journey to storytelling mastery requires constantly choosing the path of love instead of fear. That’s hard! I’ve seen many professional storytellers smoothly trying to conceal that they still have some way to go. There’s always a seemingly good reason to hold back.

I’m not suggesting that you choose a style of babbling out your every bit of mental noise. Instead, allow people to share and see your deepest truth (including discomfort!). That creates a deep trust so that your audience can experience more depth to your story, through seeing your authentic relationship with it and with them.

This is a big subject, and a big part of how I train storytellers, so I’ll stop here before going into all the practicalities. If you’d like to think through the psychology of it all, there’s a useful and long Psychology Today article here on authenticity in general, called Dare To Be Yourself. Meanwhile, what do you think? Comments please!