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!


  1. erica says:

    very helpful, thanks Tim 🙂

  2. I find plot holes very distracting…or inconsistencies. If a character does something that isn’t believable or goes against what the author has set up originally, it pulls me out of the story, as well. I try to finish every book I pick up, but I have abandoned a few halfway through for things like that.

    Visiting from the A to Z signup page. Great to meet you!

    Stephanie Faris, author

  3. Pam Faro says:

    Really, really, really good analysis and articulation of this complex-but-crucial aspect of good storytelling!!! One of my manifestations of this (in the area of trying-one’s-darnedest to head off distractions as much as possible) is when the librarian is so sure that the little outdoor amphitheater will be just the place for the storytelling show…but I convince him/her to have us inside instead (please!) by telling them that storytelling is both powerful and fragile – the fragility being precisely what you write about here; and the lovely outdoors invites a myriad more possible intrusions to the storytelling. I love your mention of storyteller as “audience’s trusted guide,” and your phrase, “Storytellers should have the imagination, at least, to reframe situations” is spot on. Love this! Thanks for writing it.

    • Tim says:

      Watch out in a few days for my post for the letter “J” – I’ll be expanding on the storyteller’s role as a guide. It’s such a rich topic, and I see the attitude and psychology as a core part of becoming an excellent storyteller.

  4. Jeri Burns says:

    Flow is the exact word I use to describe storytelling presentational skills! You write beautifully about what this means. “Trusted guide” is a great phrase. The point that the audience has an “investment” in the story is important, and it is an important responsibility of the storyteller to manage that. Lovely.
    Barry and I have many ways of managing flow, but one thing that always works for us to is integrate certain interruptions/distractions right into the show. Otherwise they threaten to become the elephant in the room which interferes with audience investment. We work on setting up the physical space of any performance to minimize distractions even if the venue has a usual way that they always do it. One last thing I have time to say is that when we have a brain freeze or make an error, we don’t panic about it. Keeping relaxed, calm, and humorous about that keeps everyone comfy cozy and allows us to get back on track without losing flow (or just a tiny bit). If the performer can forgive him or herself and carries it with aplomb, all is forgiven.

    • Tim says:

      It’s good to hear that we’re ploughing the same furrow on this, Jeri! In the field of improvisation, which has a fair bit in common with live storytelling, there’s a well-known principle of “Yes, And”. This is about accepting whatever situation comes to you, then adding to it so that things progress from there. This is the key way to deal with interruptions, as you’ve illustrated. And as you say it’s about attitude too not just actions.

  5. Marni says:

    This made me smile, remembering the first time I saw a wonderful teller weave in a living, buzzing bee which had entered the room and was looking for a place to land. The teller included the bee in her Anansi tale seamlessly. We all smiled and the middle schoolers were, can I say “antsy” because she didn’t exactly have success banishing the bee. But most of us DID stay in that village in Africa and somehow the bee died or was shooed away. I only remember we never left the tale.
    In the exact same room some time later, a pompous though dedicated UNION leader was droning on (much like that bee only louder), another bee entered, got caught in my then-long hair, and STUNG me on the cheek. I seamlessly stood, walked out of the room, tended to my face with cool water and (gratefully) missed the rest of his too-long speech. I felt very much in the flow. Thanks for a great post and a chance to recollect these fun life moments.

    • Tim says:

      What a wonderful story, Marni, anyone would think you’re a storyteller 🙂 You make me think of a time when I was watching a teacher of mine performing as a mime-clown. It was a delicate moment, in a crowded space, when everyone was concentrating on an invisible something on the floor, wondering what it would turn out to be. At that very moment someone dropped and loudly smashed a glass just a few feet away at the bar, jerking everyone’s attention to it. But the performer, immersed in the moment, kept focusing his and everyone’s attention on the original spot, and now gasped in distress. Quick as a flash he grabbed a broom from nearby and hastily mimed sweeping up the invisible glass, apologising for his clumsiness. It was seamless, perfect, and made it look as if he’d set the whole glass-smashing up as a sound effect. He got rousing applause.

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