"The Most Important Storytelling Advice NOT to Follow"

What are the most common problems of beginning storytellers? Nearly every struggling beginner has urgent concerns like these:

  1. Practicing is hard. I put it off, then get more and more desperate as my performance date approaches.

  2. How do I remember the story? What if I forget in the middle? How can I memorize?

  3. What if they don’t listen to me? Aren’t there some tricks I can learn, to guarantee their attention?

  4. 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 few 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 the key ingredient in the storytelling recipe: the teller's sensory imagination.

Think about it: the informal storyteller only tells what she has experienced or imagined (including stories others have told her), and does not spend hours memorizing.

But the formally educated teller usually takes the advice (explicit or implicit) of the stereotypical classroom, goes through the processes of scripting and memorizing—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.

The Number One Cause of Storytelling Problems: "A Failure of Imagination"

I believe that many storytelling problems are caused by neglecting the storytelling imagination.

Consider traditional storytelling in Tanzania, as reported in a classic book by folklorist Peter Seitel. To request a story, listeners say to the teller, "See So That We May See."

In other words, the very words for initiating a storytelling event reflect the key process in storytelling: the teller imagines first. Then, when listening to the tale, the audience is stimulated to imagine the tale, too.

Note that the traditional Tanzanians do not say, "Recite so that we may know." Instead, both teller and listener understand that the true magic of storytelling comes when the teller's sensory imagination (carried by the teller’s unconscious oral language) triggers the sensory imaginations of the listeners.

The Key Self-Defeating Storytelling Behavior:

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.)

Treatment:

  • 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.

Result:

  • 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 brain and your listeners’ 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 Derailing of Unconscious Processes

I’m not saying that words are unimportant or that they should never be memorized. I am saying, though, that without being taught (and in the absence of harmful misinformation) humans learn some highly effective, unconscious processes for growing stories. Sadly, in our culture, at least, people are systematically discouraged from using them—by over-focusing on words and under-focusing on our amazing birthright of oral language talents.

When people don't imagine vividly while they tell, the results are unhappy for all of us. Fewer of us tell effectively. In time, storytelling becomes something only for the "talented," not for everyone. Once we forget that everyone can tell naturally, storytelling 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.”

We Know Better!

Fortunately, the cure is close at hand. We can unlearn many bad habits and unhelpful behaviors by returning to story-learning processes based on the primacy of the sensory imagination.

Don't forget: imagining and sharing sensory experience isn't only needed for stories; it is needed by humans in general. It builds connection and shared purpose. It creates deep bonds between people. In the end, stories don’t merely reflect imagination; stories also increase it.

By reclaiming the primacy of imagination over words, we can avoid the most common cause 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.