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!

29 comments

  1. Sue Kuentz says:

    Awwww, the treasure is buried under our very own tree in the front yard. Thank you for your authentic first entry Tim! Reading your wisdom this morning was my first inhale of inspiration today. I’m, by nature, a worrier but realize in the end that my best of the best comes from who I am, where I’ve been, and what I’ve seen and felt. I’ve got my journal right next to me, ready to jot down the rolling hills of memories that I have. Thank you! I look forward to reading your blog each day!
    -http://www.door2lore.com/power-of-story-blog.html

    • Tim says:

      And thanks Sue for giving my very first comment. Worry is completely natural of course, but it does tend to distance us from our audience, not to mention from our own inspiration. We have to consciously choose to not let its impulses guide us when we’re meant to be guiding others!

  2. Tarkabarka says:

    Hey Tim! I added you to my list of storytellers in A to Z! Have you signed up for the master list so people can find your blog and visit? You can also get a badge! 🙂

    When people ask me about good storytelling, I usually tell them to choose stories they fall in love with, and have fun with them. If the storyteller is having fun on the stage, I think the feeling transfers to the audience, because it is a sign of honest. “Here is something I love, and I want to share it with you.”

    Happy A to Z!
    MopDog – The crazy thing about Hungarians…
    Multicolored Diary – Tales of Colors

    • Tim says:

      You’re speaking my language, Tarkabarka, fun is the way! Playing is my whole approach to performing, training, coaching, and my own growth. It’s the fastest way to bring out the best, and actually enjoy getting out of your comfort zone. I am on the master-list, by the way, and may even get the badge – as this blog is brand new I’ve got quite a few housekeeping tasks to do.

  3. Pam Faro says:

    Great post! SO right on! Thanks, Tim!
    – Pam, from http://www.storycrossings.com/blog/ (and Colorado) 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for reading and supporting, Pam! It’s great to get feedback – fuel for getting the next post done. Tomorrow I’ll get visiting everyone else too and share the love. Or sarcastic witticisms. Who can tell?

  4. Tim, I think this is very important information, and it is the kind of knowledge that often gets hidden or forgotten in the rush of details when you’re trying to prepare a story or story program for a particular upcoming event. Being vulnerable as a human being is key to the intimacy we yearn for with our audiences–and that they yearn for from us.

    • Tim says:

      It’s a Catch-22 isn’t it? People want what we’re most afraid to give, and value us when we reveal what we fear are the least valuable things about us. We think they want an amazing story expressed perfectly; they actually yearn more for the honesty that is so rare.

  5. Jeri Burns says:

    Hey Tim, I saw your name on Csenge’s list and saw your theme and challenge to guess the letter A. I guessed it – it is exactly what I train tellers about. If you could see our workshop handouts, you’d know we are of a similar mind on this… nice post! 🙂 Jeri (from The Storycrafters in the Hudson Valley in NY)

    • Tim says:

      Glad to hear you’re like-minded, Jeri, and thanks. I was just looking at your website earlier – looks like you do great work!

  6. moirads says:

    Hi, I am one of your official “followers” for the A-Z Challenge, your sign up being the fifth one after mine. I found your comments about authenticity very interesting. I am sure I am going to learn a lot from you in this month.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Moira, for following me! I’ve heard that various people in South Africa are making progress with encouraging oral storytelling. Have you come across it?

  7. Ipsy says:

    Visited this site while mulling over the B word. I think I think clearer now… 😉

  8. “Being authentic isn’t a technique to pick up, it’s a genuine desire to share yourself as part of sharing your story.”

    Well said. Too often, writing advice is trying to give me an easy fix, a technique to pick up. But the truth is that it’s not that easy. If it were, everyone would be a writer!

    • Tim says:

      Absolutely! Authenticity takes courage. But it’s easy to think one is being authentic while still being governed by social inhibitions, anxieties, or self-image and ego. And there are no absolutes – behind the mask is a subtler mask.

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. Leticia Sodré says:

    Tim, I really liked your post! This is so true! I just attended a clown course and for the clown it is the same: you are not making a show to the audience. you have to be with them. showing your truth, sharing your vulnerability and joy.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Leticia, I completely agree. Long ago I was trained by some of the best teachers in Fooling, and clowning too. It’s a very challenging and joyful world of hardcore improvisation, demanding total emotional openness. For many years I’ve brought a gentler aspect of this training to my storytelling students and coaching clients, so that they too can benefit from the power of being fully present, and spontaneous enough to build a deep rapport with their audiences.

  12. Jayanthi says:

    Your post on authentic storytelling could not have come in a more timely manner. I am writing one for the A to Z challenge and stuck somewhere on the a difficult alphabet like ‘R’. I tried putting on some dope in the name of story telling but could not get past that discomfort that this was not coming from my heart.
    I read your post and resolved to do it when it comes naturally to me and with no time pressure. Alphabet R afterall is a good 20 days away !!!
    Thanks.

    When you have time check on my story Four generations: Three continents: Two world wars: One village @ http://jayantiblogshere.blogspot.in/

  13. Christian Cowgirl says:

    Cool blog!! I look forward to hearing from you over the course of this month. 🙂

    Christian Cowgirl from http://www.kidfarmer.wordpress.com (1637)

  14. Janet says:

    Thanks for this article on authenicity. Very useful, and as usual a great resource. Thanks.

  15. ita says:

    This is lovely. Having only recently begun my own journey as a storytelling teacher, I was delighted to find this blog. It can be a bit lonely out there sometimes. How lucky we are to have the internet where you can get support from people you’ve never met. Best of luck with your challenge, I look forward to reading it.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Ita, who and where do you teach?

      • ita says:

        Hi Tim, I’m based in Dublin where I work as a storyteller and tour guide, telling traditional Irish legends and I have recently begun to teach adults to tell some stories from Irish Mythology too. I also have a background in theatre and clown where Authenticity is key.

  16. Thanks for the great blog Tim.
    Such is the gold of the wisdom of storytelling-asking you to be your authentic self. The medicine is as you say so clearly, to step out of your comfort zone, be with those listening and experience the story as it ebbs and flows, quietens and storms. And when you step out of any of your set language of an overworked story it suddenly gives you new, freshly harvested gold still warm from the makers heart.
    I think a hundred years of telling is not enough as every journey you embark on as a teller will have new frailties for us to examine and overcome and many layers of rich food to savour if we allow ourselves the time to be silent after the telling.

    • Tim says:

      Beautifully put, Paul. It’s a never-ending journey that takes you into as much profundity as you are willing for.

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