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.
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!