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?


  1. Arlee Bird says:

    This is such a great in depth examination of the art and psychology of the story teller.

    Hope you can keep giving us more for the Challenge. I see you’ve stalled at I on April 10. Hope everything is okay and you will be able to finish out the April A to Z.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Arlee. Yes I’m carrying on, hoping to catch up, and have most of my posts planned out. It’s just been a very tough week.

  2. Your posts are very interesting.
    Hope you keep going with the Challenge!

    Heather M. Gardner
    Co-host: Blogging from A to Z April Challenge
    Blog: The Waiting is the Hardest Part []

  3. Rudolf Roos says:

    Dear Tim,

    thank you for the wonderful posts in the past weeks. I’m a storyteller from the Netherlands and you gave me food for thought!

    greetings, Rudolf Roos

  4. Arlee Bird says:

    Sorry you couldn’t finish the A to Z Challenge for 2015. You had some great content going on here. We realize about priorities though and thank you for giving this year’s Challenge a shot. Maybe you can try again in 2016?

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    • Tim says:

      I’m still carrying on, actually. Since my posts are in-depth the pace has been too fast but my next post is mainly done and the rest are planned out and will follow

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