What are the most common problems of beginning storytellers? Nearly every struggling beginner has urgent concerns like these:
- Practicing is hard. I put it off, then get more and more desperate as my performance date approaches.
- How do I remember the story? What if I forget in the middle? How can I memorize?
- What if they don’t listen to me? Aren’t there some tricks I can learn, to guarantee their attention?
- For me, the only word that follows “performance” is “anxiety.” My mouth is dry, my palms are sweaty, my voice is unsteady. Instead of telling this story, couldn’t I just die?
I believe that all these common storytelling preoccupations stem, at least in part, from the same causes! In fact, they can all be cured (and, even more easily, prevented) quite simply.
Consider Conversational Storytelling...
Ironically, a person who tells informal stories to her friends or community almost never faces these problems (except as a result of criticism or unreasonable expectations earlier imposed in school or elsewhere).
Natural conversational stories are told unselfconsciously and effectively, thousands of times every day in every community—with less effort and better results than many beginning formal storytellers ever achieve.
Why is that? The informal storyteller grows a story, first in her imagination and then in connection with listeners. The formal storyteller, on the other hand, all too often ignores the importance of two key ingredients in the storytelling recipe:
Think about it: the informal storyteller only tells what she has experienced or imagined, and does not spend hours reciting in front of a mirror. But the formally educated teller usually takes the advice (explicit or implicit) of the stereotypical classroom, goes through the processes of scripting, memorizing, and reciting alone—and ends up with some or all of the four stressful problems mentioned above.
I conclude that our “write and memorize a script” method of building a story actually creates most of the problems beginners face—problems that rarely arise when using the natural story-growing method.
Two Practices—And Their Results and Cures
Here are two common practices in “scripted” storytelling and the problems that each leads to—followed by the natural processes that can “treat” or prevent the problems.
The First Cause of Problems: "A Failure of Imagination"
I believe that many storytelling problems are caused by neglecting the storytelling imagination.
Worrying about words, not images. Spending hours fiddling with language but not imagining a story’s sensory and emotional details.
Symptoms can include:
- Falling in love with your words, not with the story or its effect on others.
- Over-doing the creation of ever-more-complex figures of speech, elaborate descriptions, dramatic gestures, funny lines that may or may not advance the story.
- Wooden delivery, artificial body language, and/or overly-dramatic vocal inflection.
- Fear of forgetting the “perfect words” you have practiced.
- Actual forgetting of the emotional journey of the story; losing track of where you are emotionally, sensorily, and cognitively at various moments of the tale.
- Lack of connection with your listeners. (If you aren’t imagining something that is both vivid and meaningful to you, it’s unlikely that they will, either.)
- Spend time, both alone and talking aloud to a listener, imagining every moment of your story.
- Imagine sights, sounds, smells, taste.
- Imagine the sensations in your gut, your muscles, your skin.
- Imagine the emotions of every character, and how those emotions express themselves in the characters' bodies.
- We have at least twelve physical senses: pay attention to all those that matter in your story.
- You will delight in re-imagining a story's scenes each time you tell it. Your unconscious use of oral language subtleties will make you ever more expressive.
- As a result, your listeners will be more likely to delight in imagining the scenes, too.
- Your brains will begin to share similar neurological processes.
- You will experience both empathy and engagement, letting the story’s images and actions guide you into a sense of flow, of deep rapport with your both your imagined characters and your actual listeners.
The Second Cause of Problems: “Trying to Communicate When There’s Nobody There."
Still other common problems stem from neglecting the two-way nature of communication.
Trying to practice alone. That’s what you were taught in school, so you assume (or were told) that you should “study” a story alone, then take the “test" of performance.
Symptoms can include:
- Dreading story practice, and procrastinating. Increased fear of failure as a performance approaches (because you have not been accumulating experiences of successfully engaging listeners with the story).
- Cluelessness about how to engage your listeners; desperate attempts to “beef the story up,” “be interesting,” or “put lots of energy into your telling, so they won’t be bored."
Spend most of your practice time telling to live listeners, especially Helping Listeners (listeners who agree to listen for your sake, not theirs—a crucial ingredient in your listening mix.)
- You’ll practice responding to your listeners, not reciting as though they weren’t there.
- The more you practice by actually telling the story and noticing what a variety of listeners respond well to, the more confident you’ll be.
- If you stay in close touch with your listeners’ responses, you’ll find yourself unconsciously adjusting how you tell, in order to continue to engage them.
- By the time you face a formidable audience, you’ll have learned lots of ways to gain, regain, and keep your listeners' attention with this particular story.
Engagement and Interaction—Not Suffering in Isolation
I’m not saying that scripts are never useful, nor that words are unimportant. I am saying, though, that humans learn some highly effective, unconscious processes for growing stories—and, in our culture, at least, are systematically discouraged from using them.
The results are unhappy for all of us. Storytelling becomes something only for the few, not for everyone. It can become a way to impress people more than a way to relate to them. Even worse, we are all deprived of the joy of hearing everyone’s significant stories, of being enriched by sharing the amazingly varied experiences of “this human race.”
Fortunately, the cure is close at hand. We can unlearn the bad habits and unhelpful concepts by simply returning to story-learning processes based on the most universal aspects of being human: imagination and connection. Those two quintessentially human activities are not only needed for stories; they are needed by humans in general. In fact, stories don’t merely reflect imagination and connection; stories also increase them.
By putting the horse where it belongs (before the cart) or, phrased more organically, by germinating the seed through imagination, and watering the seedling through stimulating another human to imagine it with us, we can avoid the most common causes of stunted storytelling. Even better, we can enjoy the fruits of storytelling: meaningful experiences shared, eagerly and engagingly, by people with open hearts and inquiring minds.