Tips From A Master Storyteller
By Tom Ware DTM
An overall view
There is currently on television a show called ‘The X Factor’ in which a panel of judges determine who, among the participants vying for selection, are chosen for stardom. It is said here that only a few of the many hundreds of people who come forward will have the ‘X Factor,’ and only the best of these will win the ultimate prize. This is also the case with Storytelling. It is certainly the case with the Master Storyteller. In the X Factor it is invariably those who have put in thousands of hours of practice who make it to the ‘Finals.’ They’ve probably been practicing for years. They are dedicated. In Storytelling, too, it is inevitably those who have put in thousands of hours who become outstanding in their field. A Master Storyteller is not born. He or she is made – self made.
Attributes of the master storyteller
Now I need to qualify what has been said here. There are certain types of people who are more likely to become good Storytellers than others. Firstly, they will in all probability have led fairly interesting lives. That is, their interpretation of their own lives will be regarded by themselves as being interesting, even adventurous. They will have within them a sense of drama. They will have the capacity to feel more than the average. They will likely have sensitivity, and also an empathy with others. Moreover, they will certainly have vivid imaginations. This is my not saying that those who do not have these attributes will not be able to tell stories; even tell them well. But the Master Storyteller has gone a step beyond just being able to tell stories well. He or she is able to live them in their mind’s eye.
Building the passion
How can this be achieved? Firstly, by encouraging one’s passion to tell stories. We need to embrace this. We need to feed it. The intent has to be there and it has to be strong. From this will follow the necessary motivation to take the steps which will move us towards mastery. The creative ideas, the methodology, the techniques, spring from an ongoing all pervasive intent to tell others how we feel about the world through story. It is our passion for life. Good writers have this. So, too, do good oral storytellers. When storytelling has become almost an obsession you are on the right path to becoming a Master Storyteller.
Now, in mentioning ‘creative ideas’ I’m not suggesting that the stories you use have to be those you personally thought up. You do not have to be the originator. You can use any story that appeals to you. By being creative I’m talking about how you adapt those stories in such a way that they are identified as being uniquely yours in presentation. Your words tell the story. The words come from your mind, your heart. By innovation you can turn a dull documentary into a drama.
What stories should you tell?
So what stories does a Master Storyteller tell? In a sentence: Those which have emotional appeal to the teller and are likely to have emotional appeal to the listener. It is said that ‘Oratory is the Art of Persuasion.’ I would say that ‘Storytelling is the way to another’s heart.’ It persuades – if that is the intention – every bit as effectively as oratory. It is no accident that the teachings which have come down from great masters such as Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and Jesus of Nazareth were put to us as parable, that is, stories. Stories are remembered long after a speech’s content has faded into the recesses of our memories.
Why is this?
It is because we recall things of a visual nature far more easily than non-visual concepts. This is one reason why we are apt to forget people’s names but can recall the circumstances in which we met them. For example: It might have been thirty years since we travelled a certain road. We remember the way even though we can’t recall the street names. The pictures are there. It is the same when we put together a series of pictures in our minds when someone has told us a story. This is fortified by the reason that the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between something vividly imagined and something which has actually happened in real life. It reacts to both in exactly the same way. This is why people can be brought to laughter or tears when listening to a story. It is because the listener has voluntarily surrendered their conscious critical faculties to the story. His or her subconscious mind does not differentiate. To their mind, this is actually happening!
The storyteller ‘disappears.’
The Master Storyteller is not there to be seen. Neither is he or she there to be heard so much as to be a channel for the story. If a story teller is doing it right, they all but disappear and the listener is transported by the visual images that the storyteller is bringing to life in their minds. In a way, two things are happening at once: the listener is seeing and hearing, but the main emphasis, the main attention is the concentration on what is going on within.
But back to real and imagined experiences.
We know that real experiences can change the way we look at the world. What is less familiar to us is that we can have the way we view our world changed by listening to a story. A Master Storyteller knows this. That is why he or she selects their stories with care. It is virtually a morale obligation.
It is very likely that the man or woman who can tell an oral story exceptionally well also has within them a lot of the actor’s craft. It might not have been taught. In many cases it is innate. As one moves from narrative into dialogue with imaginary characters, this showmanship comes to the fore. It is almost as if one is able to jump from the actions and reactions of one character to another. If the teller can imitate different accents, dialects and brogues then these will emanate from their voice almost automatically. Likewise with sound effects. Indeed, anything which will enhance the story but not sound contrived will do the trick.
How many stories?
How many stories does a Master Storyteller tell?
The writer once met a man who is the Official Storyteller of a Scottish Clan. In order to become the Clan’s Storyteller he supposedly knew over three hundred Clan Stories. This is a tradition from the olden days before the printed word. Perhaps the same could be said of certain tribal elder Storytellers of the American Indian Tribes and of our own indigenous Australian Aborigines. Story was the only real link to the history of the tribe.
The writer – who has been deemed a Master Storyteller by others – is of the belief that one needs to know far fewer stories than that. The prerequisite is that they tell stories well…very well. Also, that is it is agreed, by and large, that this Storyteller is a Master because of this. They have mastered both the Art and the Craft. In other words, they are truly effective at what they do.
Improving Your Stories
The words you use, the gestures and sound effects you make, should all be used to enhance the story in your audience’s mind. You do this by using the right type of words; gestures which flow naturally, and sound effects that augment the story. Nothing should seem contrived. And, unlike comedy, nothing should be suddenly incongruous. A seemingly natural spontaneity is the way to go. Let us look at these.
First the words you use. If a word is not readily and easily understood by the listener it is not a good word. The listener might not know the exact meaning of that word or term but it should be easily interpreted within the context of our sentence. For example, a nautical term might be used such as “A huge wave threw the ship onto her beam ends.” The expression beam ends might not be familiar to the listener, but the fact that the ship is in a storm would suffice to make what is happening clear. And you can always paraphrase to make it doubly clear. “Her rail right under, water sloshed her deck.”
One might think it would be easier to avoid the languages used in specialist fields such as the Maritime, Aviation, Mountaineering, Building, Sport or whatever the general background of a story, but to this I say a resounding “No.” It is your very use of these words – if they are familiar to you because you have lived this life – that will make for the authenticity of the story. To avoid words which spring naturally to our lips could well be a sort of affectation. Use your words! Use the words you ‘think with.”
Avoid the deeply technical
On the other hand, to strive for effect by using terminology you’re not familiar with is an affectation your audience will see through. It will detract from what you have to say. Don’t trot out sentence after sentence of specialist terminology that it is unlikely the listener will understand. For example, if you were a medical doctor you could use a few of the more common terms understood by the layman. Achilles tendon, artery and biceps, are fine. Femur might not be. The term Anterior Tibial Artery without carefully explaining what it is would leave a non-specialist listener firstly, confused and, if this sort of thing was kept up, resentful…or asleep.
You will have picked up the use of these specialist words in your life experiences. Avoid the ones you’re pretty sure the listener won’t readily comprehend. But we can make a deliberate and sustained effort to add colorful and useful words to our vocabulary so that our storytelling – indeed, our general speaking skills – are enhanced. Certainly this was a method I pursued for some time.
Building a Storytelling Vocabulary
One way to do this is to buy for yourself a book of Synonyms and Antonyms. No, don’t rely on a computer program on your PC. These words must be affixed in your memory banks not your computer’s. They need be words that you have practiced in some way to make them your own. You may have done this by writing them into a sentence or three, so that you have actually used them before.
Why Synonyms? Most people need to expand their vocabulary so that it goes from a certain coarseness to one of smoother grain, one of subtlety. Take a look at these words.
Gleam, glisten glint, glow, shine, shimmer. All refer to the way an object might be perceived by the eye but there are subtle differences. Learn them. Practice using them all.
Another word with an enormous amount of synonyms is big. We have large, enormous, gigantic, huge, massive, gargantuan, colossal, immense – and great – the last of which is generally done to death. So use all of them instead of just big or great.
One could also generalize and say that the word ‘great’ is a lazy person’s word, used for multiple purposes. It’s over use really does detract.
In a presentation, if the same adjective is used over and over again it starts to ring in the listener’s ear. The thought occurs: “Is this the only word the speaker knows to describe this?” and once such a thought arises, being absorbed is lost. The story goes out the window. I cannot emphasize enough that as speakers and storytellers ‘words are our tools of trade.’ The more we’ve got in our tool boxes, the more adaptable we will be.
Additionally, the shorter the words the more power they convey. A generalization, perhaps, but it is true in most instances. The Greek, Latin, and French words might have a certain ‘pizzas.’ They might indicate an intellectual or highly educated man or woman. They don’t do much for story. Take an example from the famous writer, Ernest Hemingway who, in his story, The Old Man and the Sea, uses sentence after sentence of single-syllable words. This is power!
The Anglo-Saxon and Norse words are the English words you want to add to your vocabulary:
Leg, cut, hit, dab, stab, club, ran, fled, plot, plod, clod, plop, clot, clash clank, cliff, cleft, hew.
Most of these words are familiar to you – do you use them? Learn as many short, single syllable words as you comfortably can. Three letter words. Then four letter words – no, they’re not all swear words. Yes, most of those are Anglo-Saxon. And haven’t you noticed how so many long words are deliberately shortened nowadays? Information becomes info, policeman, cop, and psychiatrist, shrink, application becomes app. We like short words!
Learn to use short, powerful words
Devise a system to learn short words. Don’t overdo it and say, “I’m going to learn fifty a week.” Learn two or three in a week. After a year or to you will have many more colorful and useful words to draw on. And as the years go by you’ll add more. One thing about Public Speaking or Storytelling, generally the older we get the better we get. Like Creative Writing it is probably one of the few fields of endeavor where we never get ‘beyond it.’ Discounting medical conditions such as senility and Alzheimer’s of course. We are better at eighty than we were at forty. So give yourself time to become that Master Storyteller you are perhaps envisioning now.
A few words on Creativity
In my book, The Raconteur – Speaking to Entertain, I say:
“We can only develop our preparedness, our readiness. Like holding a
Lightning-rod to the sky in a thunderstorm we can, by our intent, place
Ourselves so that the ‘lightning flash of creativity’ will jump into consciousness.
We cannot will it. The best we can do is open ourselves to it.”
So how can we develop our preparedness? How can we ready ourselves so that what is held within will ignite into a spark, then a flame, then a conflagration? By having plenty of highly combustible fuel. And what is this fuel? It is plenty of useful knowledge that can be mixed, molded, blended and fabricated within in minds. It was not without a great deal of forethought that the famous Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlisle pronounced,
“That man is most original who can adapt from the greatest number of resources.”
What Carlisle was getting at is that the more widely versed we are, the greater our chances of coming up with new ideas. He was inferring that we should study widely rather than specialize in narrow fields of endeavor. If you look at the great inventions of the world you will see that many of them were discovered or invented by people who were not within the particular field to which that invention might apply. Alexander Graham Bell was a vocal physiologist not a technician or engineer. Samuel Morse was primarily an artist, a painter. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were bicycle mechanics!
If you have studied, say, Anthropology, Economics, Psychology, Engineering and Zoology you’ll probably have a much wider data bank for your subconscious to work on than if you spent your entire life studying Medicine. Chances are you’d be the one to come up with the medical breakthroughs (even if it did upset The Establishment) rather than the medical specialist. Now you may not be an intellectual or a ‘boffin,’ but you do have the opportunity to study widely throughout your life, if only by reading widely. And it is this reading widely that will provide the fuel that will be ignited by the spark of intent. With the knowledge within, you’re only awaiting intuition to tell you when the time is right.
Read, read and read some more…
If you want to become a really good storyteller but have been stuck, or are stuck, in what you consider a rather boring, humdrum life, read widely. Escape into story! Most of us escape into the visual stories presented on popular television every day. Change just a little of this by escaping into written story. That way you are in a far more active state. You are creating from the stories you read with pictures in your mind. As I said, you’ll be in an active rather than the passive state of watching television.
I believe it to be no accident that those who were born before the advent of popular television in the home are much more imaginative and enjoying of oral storytelling than our younger generations. Older people were brought up on a diet of radio plays and variety shows where voices and sound effects came over the airwaves for them to create the pictures in their own minds. However, we all realize that we will not be returning to those days. Yet it is possible to get stories that can be read or heard, rather than viewed. Go for them! Grab CDs in which they feature. Put ‘em on your iPod.
How to Practice Delivery.
Once again it gets around to the written word and reading. Here, you practice reading out aloud. You read in such a way that your words are clear. You read in such a way that the pauses are apt. You read in such a way that the meaning of the story rather than just the information is conveyed. You tape it. You play it back. You time it. You tape it again. You play it back. You time it.
If you want to go a bit further and develop the voice you’d like to have to deliver stories, you practice voice exercises to extend the range of your voice. If you’ve been blessed with a beautiful voice, then use it to effect. If you feel you’d like to improve, then get to work with those voice exercises. There are lots of books out there which will tell you how to do this.
Do not interrupt a story to ‘explain.’
Once you have commenced the story do not stop until it is finished. No asides that will take your audience away from its continuity; no explanations about why this particular part is as it is. The audience doesn’t want a description of how you put the yarn together, or where you picked up a particular piece of information. If you stop the continuity it spoils it for your listener. As you speak he or she is gradually building up a picture of events. They could well be creating the ‘personality and character’ of the story’s hero in their minds by the words you are saying. Remember, these are their creations, and if the audience comprises a hundred people there will be a hundred slightly different heroes in those minds. It’s a matter of semantics. Is the ‘dog’ a Kelpie, a German Shepherd, a Border Collie or Jack Russell Terrier? They’re still working on that as you proceed.
That said, if the aside does not in any way detract but rather enhances the comprehension of the listener, by all means use it. For example, in my story about a pilotless aero plane over Sydney, The Runaway Auster, I stop and ask if anyone here has noticed that when they have a car accident how the tow trucks arrive almost as if by magic. This is not only humorous but allows the story to jump to how the News Media find out about the situation without me going into a long rigmarole.
What if you’re telling a series of stories?
In my own repertoire of stories I have yarns which go for anything from five to fifty minutes. On some occasions, particularly when one has to do some quick adjusting because my time slot has been reduced, I might switch to a shorter story (provided they haven’t heard it before) or a number of short stories. If I do this, I take the advice of the professional comedians. I use three, or five – an odd number. More often than not, three. The shortest one often goes in the middle. I present my second best story first, the weakest second, my best last.
Best? What’s this best?
It depends upon the audience. I determine in which order I think the audience will warm to the stories I tell. For example, if the audience is made up of both men and women, I tell a story which would appeal to both sexes first. The second might be aimed at the men in the audience, the final one at the women.
I generally tend to tell a story that is well practiced first up. It is very important to win the audience early. The stories that might be less familiar to me, maybe a little controversial, and have more of a message rather than entertainment value, might be placed in the middle. The last story is generally one aimed at their heartstrings. Not always, of course. But this is a general practice. You are, in a way, putting on a show.
If you have stories which have religious connotations don’t present one of them first. The audience could well decide that you’ve come along to preach. By all means use these stories if you have them, but use them sparingly and after your audience have ‘sassed you out’ and warmed to you. This does not apply, of course, if you are speaking to a Church Group. They’ll probably love those stories with a religious flavor.
You forget something in your story
Don’t worry about it. Unless it is essential to the plot nobody will ever know. It’s your story after all Just carry on. Don’t apologize and then try to include it. That will make for awkwardness and a feeling of it being contrived.
It is essential to the plot?
Then work it back into the story in way with a phrase such. “But what had happened earlier,” or “As it happened at that time a…” or some such. I’ve done that before today. However, you need to be so familiar with the story that you can do this and no one will ever notice that ‘you went back to put in something essential.’
The microphone fails. An alarm goes off in the building. Once again, if you know your repertoire of stories backward, so to speak, as soon as the fault is rectified you go back a sentence or two from where the interruption occurred and carry on. Don’t leave the story half-way through and start a new one. Finish the story.
I hope you have gained something from the tips given here.