Twelve Steps to Storytelling with Style

One of my favourite stories is “Letters from Frank”. I’ve been telling it for so many years the characters are good friends. When I tell the story, I get to have a visit with them. Marvin’s still working at the Post Office at 23rd and Union in Seattle. Sissy still drops by every Monday at ten to see if she’s received a letter from Frank.

Cathryn at Stagebridge Tellabration

Cathryn telling stories at Stagebridge Tellabration in Oakland, California, back in 2004

When I first started telling the story, it was longer. But every time I reached a certain spot in the story, the audience clapped. It took me a while, but I finally had to admit the audience was right. What happened after the applause was a coda, not the story.

I still tag a sentence on, but it’s short and seems to satisfy both the audience and me. The omitted part? Well, maybe one day it will still end up in a story, just not this one.

The tips below have been useful to me. I hope they will be to you, too.

1. Carefully plan your beginning and ending. The middle will flow well once you are off to a good start, and a satisfying conclusion lifts the heart of your listeners. Confidence is contagious. Knowing how you are going to enter a story and just where the exit is will give you that confidence. Once you are well launched in the story, the middle comes easily.

2. Observe yourself when you are telling stories to a friend who listens well. You may be animated, humorous, intense, relaxed, depending on the story and your inclination. The critic who whispers in your ear at other times is still. You are free to speak from the heart. This kind of natural storytelling is a key to your personal style.

3. Tell the story while you are in the first flush of enthusiasm. Polishing can come later, as you discover parts of the story that need work. Find a sympathetic audience, such as a friend or spouse, and try out the story.

4. There are many ways to find just the right images for your story. Read poetry aloud for inspiration. Listen to storytellers and storytelling tapes. Play a favorite instrumental recording, and try telling your story to fit its rhythms and moods. Walk, dance, run, jump—use your body to explore the story.

5. Use simple, evocative language. The listener can’t put you on rewind so has to catch the magic the first time through. Gamble Rogers used to incorporate a mega-syllable vocabulary in his stories, with hilarious results. Most of us will do best sticking with simpler words.

6. Try telling the story from a different point of view. The cat who pulls down the Christmas tree sees the event quite differently from the person who hung the family’s fragile heirloom ornaments on it.

7. Watch other people tell stories. Imitate those things which work best. Experiment with their gestures, character voices, turns of phrases. Keep the things that work for you; discard the rest. It worked for Shakespeare, who borrowed heavily from folklore and paid attention to the varieties of human speech and manner.

8. Each story has its own rhythm. Tell the story in different ways until you have found its internal beat. This is another time when music makes a good partner. Try telling the story to the beat of a tango or a lullaby or a waltz or a march. You’ll have fun doing it and discover nuances in the story you didn’t know were there.

9. Practice with a mirror or a tape recorder unless they make you self-conscious. Try out facial expressions and gestures, dialects and character voices. Become the characters, letting your body and voice reflect the boldness or timidity or sauciness of each. Don’t hold back. No one but you is listening or watching. Then use what the mirror or tape recorder teaches you when you tell the story to an audience.

10. Stories you love reflect essential truths about you. We all choose stories that reflect some image of life as we see it or wish it might be. The stories that resonate deeply in us, whether they be serious or funny, are a joy to tell. When you crawl inside of them, experiencing them as you tell them, not holding back, your telling will be received as the gift it is. The best stories are an authentic reflection of the teller, whether they are original or being passed on.

11. The more often you tell a story, the more you will enjoy it. It’s true that sometimes stories wear out for us, no longer reflecting our view of life. Set those aside. But some stories are so true for us that they are forever fresh. The first few times you tell a story like that, you will probably be concentrating on the sequence of events. The real fun starts when you have told the story so many times you no longer have to worry whether you will remember it. You will find yourself keenly anticipating some particularly delicious passage, anxious to see the audience discover it for the first time.

12. The more stories you learn, the more easily you will learn stories. Exercising your story memory is like exercising a muscle. When you use it regularly, it becomes elastic and takes less effort. Fortunately, story learning does not require a photographic memory. What it does require is a willingness to surrender to the story, following its path rather than stopping to examine each stone along the way. Some stories, such as those of Rudyard Kipling, are dependent on words, the stones the author used to build the story’s path. Most are not. Your own words will keep you on the track, without fear of straying. The first few stories may be a struggle to learn; the next fifty will be easier.

©2010 Cathryn Wellner

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Katharine Hansen - January 22, 2010

Do you recommend that folks write stories down as part of planning when they are planning to deliver the story orally?

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storyroute admin - January 22, 2010

Good question. There are different schools of thought on that. For me, it’s dependent on learning styles. I generally prefer to do a brain dump onto a mind map. Then, as I organize elements into a story structure, I create an outline.

Unless the story is to be published – say, as part of conference proceedings – I seldom write the story down. Instead, I work from the notes and tend to modify on the fly, depending on audience reaction.

Story boarding is a good method for people who work visually.

Generally, I find I can tell the story more compellingly if I give myself the leeway of working from notes rather than text. My intent is to tell the story, not read it, because that gives it more immediacy and allows me to maintain eye contact with the audience.

Thanks for the question.

Cathryn

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Ellouise Schoettler - January 25, 2010

What a wonderful, comprehensive list of tips which lead storytellers, newbie our experienced, on their journey to a story. Very glad to find it – I will be watching for more of your wisdom.

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storyroute admin - January 25, 2010

How kind of you, Ellouise. Welcome to Story Route!

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