Harnessing a Natural Story-Learning Process

Good friends, good stories

Have you ever found yourself with a group of good friends, sharing informal stories over dinner? Someone begins by telling about a humorous event that happened recently. Then another shares a similar experience that happened years before.

Before you know it, you and your friends (or family) have told numerous stories, and the entire group feels united, engaged, and satisfied.

But Formal Storytelling….

On the other hand, have you had an opposite experience with “formal” storytelling—in school, in your community, or at work?

You begin by being asked to describe something important. The moment you take on the assignment, you start to feel nervous. You write out a script, revise it, then practice in front of a mirror, perhaps dozens of times.

When the day comes for your presentation, your mouth feels dry. You have indigestion. Standing up in front of your listeners, you worry, “Will this bomb? What if I forget something important?”

Your entire experience is shaded by your anxiety. At the end, if your listeners applaud, you can hardly notice. You can’t wait to sit down or even leave the event, already playing over in your mind the moments when you hesitated, said the wrong thing, or even left out a whole section you had meant to include.

"Engaged and satisfied"? Nope. Closer to “Humiliated and terrified.”

But why? Why can’t formal storytelling be as much fun as informal storytelling?

The Difference!

A huge part of the difference between your joyful, informal storytelling with your friends, on the one hand, and your agonizing formal storytelling, on the other, is in the preparation.

“Wait,” I hear you say. “There was no ‘preparation’ with my friends! We just told what was on our minds!”

That’s true. But that isn’t quite the whole truth, either: every one of your friends had prepared by telling informal stories previously, starting as preschoolers. You each had years of apprenticeship, encouraged by the reactions of your friends and kindly adults.

In fact, it’s likely that many of the stories told over dinner had been honed over a series of previous informal tellings.

Your Informal “Training"

Over the course of years, you have learned, unconsciously, how to imagine the events of stories, express them in oral language, and communicate (not “recite”) them to friendly listeners. As you told such stories, you developed the habits of responding (largely unconsciously) to your listeners and adapting your story based on their responses.

If your listeners smiled or laughed when you told them something pleasant or funny, you felt reinforced by their responses. If they looked puzzled when you told something that should have brought a laugh, you backtracked to clarify.

Later, when you told the same story again, you carried forward what had worked, and tried new ways to tell what hadn’t. For each story that you told more than once, you repeated that process of incremental improvement—grounded in give-and-take with your listeners.

Of course, you may also have had traumatic experiences with “formal storytelling,” experiences that left you anxious when even considering the possibility of telling a story. But those unhappy experiences do not have to be what determines your future experience of storytelling.

Best of Both Worlds

The good news is simple: you can adapt the methods of informal, conversational story-development to smooth the way toward formal storytelling. You just need to adapt the informal process!

What are the key ingredients of the natural story-learning process? They include:

  • Imagining the story’s images before you speak;

  • Using your unconscious changes in tone of voice, posture, gestures, etc., to produce the desired responses from your listeners;

  • Most of all, telling multiple times to different people and accumulating successful (if unconscious) strategies for getting your desired responses at each moment of each story.

Story Growing

I call this basic, natural, iterative process “Growing a story.” Because you (and your students, if you are teaching storytelling) have been taught the more arduous and less-successful process of “scripting, memorizing, practicing alone,” you may not trust the natural story-growing process.

But you can learn! And you can reap the benefits of re-learning the natural process. (More accurately, you can learn to become expert in setting up the circumstances that will allow you to access the natural process whenever you need it.)

Key among those benefits:

  1. You learn a story as a series of processes, not as a “thing” to memorize;

  2. You learn to call on your natural, largely unconscious oral-language skills (e.g., you unconsciously shade your tone of voice to emphasize a particular word, or you unconsciously change your posture to show that you felt “deflated”) to trigger imagining in the minds of your listeners;

  3. You learn to develop a story in a series of low-pressure situations over time. That way, by the time you tell in a higher-pressure situation, you have already learned a series of strategies for getting the responses you want, to each moment of your story.

The Result

When you learn to access and hone your natural “story growing” skills, you greatly diminish the two bugaboos of storytelling:

A. You won’t worry about forgetting. (Because you never “memorized” your story in the first place!)

B. You won’t be clueless about whether your listeners will like your story. (Because you have already practiced many ways to get your desired responses to each part of this story. In fact, you have practiced many ways to put your story back on track when you get undesired responses!)

As a result, your storytelling becomes a natural extension of your fluency in conversation. Yes, you work more on stories that you will tell as part of presentations or performances. But your story-development process will differ from your conversational process primarily in degree, not in kind.

You will be a natural storyteller!