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Storytelling Lessons I've Learned the Hard Way
by Chris King

We’ve been working on developing a story repertoire, telling people we are available to tell stories, and we are starting to get some calls to tell at local schools and a neighborhood event. We feel we are ready and we are excited, because we know that our listeners are going to love our stories as much and we do. As a beginning storyteller, however, we have no idea of what’s ahead and the questions we should have asked before agreeing to tell.

Never, never assume, always confirm. I find it always a good policy to confirm dates, times, and places. I learned this early on when a woman called me to tell at a nearby school. She was in charge of setting everything up for a special week of storytelling. We decided on a date and time. Even though she sounded in control, I should have given the school a call, because when I showed up at the time in the afternoon she had told me, the school people were upset for they had expected me in the morning. It took two more years before they hired me, and this time I called ahead. This leads right into the next tip.

Check the surroundings and make requests. Oftentimes, new storytellers are so excited to be asked or hired for a “gig” that they don’t find out the important particulars. First of all, ask where you will be telling and if there is any kind of sound system available. First and foremost is whether or not the audience can hear you. A small classroom or meeting room in a library works fine without a microphone, but it is nearly impossible for people to hear you in a large gym or auditorium with no sound system. Telling outside can be an incredible challenge, even if you have a mike. People are walking by, there may be a band on a nearby stage, or you might be hired to tell at a campfire. A storyteller friend of mine showed up to tell ghost stories at a campfire and found a group who had been drinking all afternoon and were more interested in making s’mores than listening to stories. I have told at museum events in a side room, where people wander in and out. Usually, however, you will find a group that really enjoys the stories and stays for the whole session, so you mustn’t let the activity of the others throw you off. I was also hired by a musician to take part in a Halloween celebration at a large mall. Next to me was a loud clown blowing up balloons and making animals which was quite distracting. The microphone was a singer’s mike, which I discovered gives a speaker a different voice, and there were so many ages in the unruly crowd, I had to change my program completely to not telling even the non-threatening ghost stories.

Prepare twice as many stories as you will need to fill the time. This follows from my last statement. It is amazing how many times we feel we have checked everything, yet when we arrive to tell, the picture is far from what had been painted for us by our contact. The age level of the children is completely different than we were told. It becomes obvious that the stories we are telling aren’t being appreciated by the group. Or, we are told that there are to be no ghost stories, even for the older children. Therefore, it is imperative to have enough stories in your repertoire that it is no problem to change gears, and go a different direction. Knowing how much fourth graders and older love scary stories, I always ask ahead whether they will be acceptable. I don’t choose to tell bloody or witch stories, but I love ghost stories myself.

Don’t be afraid to slow down or stop. Many new storytellers, when faced with the nerves of telling to a group or noticing that people are starting to squirm, will start to speed up. Don’t. Keep your stories short and to the point, but tell them slowly with pauses, so your listeners have time to think about what you are saying. Also, if something happens in the background to make a lot of noise or a big disturbance. Stop. I’ve heard storytellers who have tried to just yell over the noise. This break can give you a chance to have everyone stand up and stretch for a moment until the noise subsides. Then bring everyone back to where you were and continue.

Welcome the unexpected. When we encounter some of the mishaps and unplanned for happenings, we need to welcome them as our teachers and lessons for future success. They just serve to make us better and more in control as tellers.


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