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?


  1. Sarah S says:

    Interesting thoughts here. I’ve often pondered the oral-tradition-vs-written-society dilemma. Makes me want to go find a storyteller to listen to 🙂

    • Tim says:

      What is the dilemma you’re thinking of? There are many storytellers now, so you can probably find a whole monthly storytelling event nearby – you’ll find them lively, friendly, and gripping.

  2. Hi Tim,
    I always urge people to remember that stories are not about words, but about pictures. The pictures in my head and the pictures in the listener’s head. Remembering a story is about remembering the pictures, which is easy. That’s the way our memories work. We don’t remember chunks of prose!
    As a teller we have only to describe the pictures, which we can do in different ways to different listeners in different situations. Fresh each time.
    I find that particularly apt, or even elegant, turns of phrase emerge in the telling. They often seem to be there naturally the next time I conjure the picture and tell the story. But that’s a different thing from trying to remember a well crafted line written before I’ve told the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *