A Tale of Two Methods

A Tale of Two Methods

There are two common methods for creating, learning, and practicing a story. One is frequently taught; one is not. One is as old as storytelling; one is not.

Do you know what they are? Which do you use?

The first method is taught in school, sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly. There are variations, but it amounts to this:

The Script Method

  1. Write out the story. (That is, create a script.)
  2. Revise your script.
  3. Practice telling (often, in front of a mirror) until it’s memorized.
  4. Try it on an audience.
  5. If the story fails or needs revision, repeat steps 2–4.

Sound familiar? Perhaps you learned it in elementary school, or in public speaking class? Perhaps this was introduced to you so subtly that you weren’t aware of it as a “method.” Perhaps you didn’t know there was any other way.

The second method, although seldom spoken of, is much more commonly used. In fact, I am sure that you have used it, even if you were never aware of it.

Have you ever told about something that happened to you, so many times that your story gained a set form? Perhaps you told it to your friends or family or co-workers about one of these topics:

  • How you met your spouse or partner;
  • How you came to live where you live;
  • Your operation;
  • Something funny or endearing about a child;
  • How you discovered your profession;
  • (etc.)

If you told your story spontaneously in conversation, you certainly didn’t script it. So how did it acquire its set form? How did you develop and learn it?

You used what I call the Natural (Conversational) Method.

The Natural Method

  1. Tell the story to a listener. (For example, in conversation.)
  2. As you tell, adjust the story, based on your listeners’ responses.
  3. Repeat 1 and 2 several times.

Note that stories learned via the natural method are not usually told "word-for-word identically" from one time to the next. Their “set form” will often contain some exactly repeated phrases, but will also vary in the less-important details.

Which is Best?

Pete Seeger wrote a song (“All Mixed Up”) containing this couplet:

Remember the rule about rules, brother:
What could be right for one could be wrong for another.

That said, there are advantages to each method. Your choice (don’t forget, you can mix these methods, too) should be based on what seems to work for you, given a particular story and context in which you hope to tell it.

Each method comes with its own intrinsic advantages and disadvantages. Do you know what they are?

Ask Yourself These Questions

To know what method might make sense for you for your next story, ask yourself:

  1. Am I required to tell word-for-word? (e.g., in some cases of telling from a sacred scripture or a script for a sales or research project)
  2. In a particular situation, is it so important to pass on a word-for-word tradition that I am willing to sacrifice some of the liveliness and personalized experience for my listeners?
  3. Am I pulled to memorize because I am afraid of forgetting? (There are more efficient ways to deal with this fear; stay tuned for later installments of this series, or see the Beginning Storytelling Toolkit, below.)

Unless you answer "yes" to one of the first two questions above, the Natural Method (often augmented by certain processes that build on it) will be the more effective choice.

In upcoming newsletters, I’ll explain why discoveries in the “psychology of expertise” and in neuroscience support the considerable advantages of the Natural Method.

Once you understand and apply these principles of effective learning, your storytelling will become more effective, more adaptable to changing situations, and easier and more fun to learn!