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How to Prepare For and Handle Common Storytelling Challenges
by Chris King

As you become known as a storyteller in your area, you will start to get phone calls asking you to tell at various events, gatherings, schools, and libraries. You are eager to tell the stories you have been working on and delighted to get the phone calls. But, before you say yes, there are questions you should ask about the venues and once you are telling, there are other challenges that pop up and can destroy your performance. In this article, I discuss some of these common challenges.

Be sure to establish where you will be telling. I mentioned this in one of my earlier articles, but it is worth mentioning again. You will get many calls where the group calling wants you to tell stories outside or in a large open space — possibly at a fair or festival, at a busy shopping mall, a museum, or often around a campfire. All of these spaces can spell disaster for a storyteller if they are not set up properly with a sufficient sound system and a proper stage or platform.

First of all, find out what else will be happening during your storytelling. If there is music nearby, or a baton twirling contest, or a clown or magician acting out, I would suggest turning down the opportunity. Trying to compete with all of these is impossible, no matter how wonderful your stories are. A storytelling friend of mine told ghost stories at a campfire while the adult group who had been drinking was busy making s’mores and paying no attention to him. If there is any way to get a separate space set up for the telling, try to. Otherwise, reconsider before agreeing to tell. A bad session won’t help your storytelling career.

Don’t undervalue your work by agreeing to tell for “free” unless it is for an excellent reason. When we are just beginning to tell stories publicly, we need the experience, so giving free programs makes sense. They help us with our marketing, by getting glowing testimonials, and also provide the opportunities to test our stories and our telling ability. Once, however, we start to feel comfortable charging for our services, we must be firm about what we charge. I feel very strongly that if you have set a fair and comfortable price that you shouldn’t negotiate down, unless you feel there is a legitimate reason. There will always be another storyteller who will charge less, and if the group calling is choosing a teller by price alone, let them call the other teller.

Groups who hire tellers talk to each other about everything. How would you feel if they found out that Group A got you for one price, while they paid you more for the same program? I also have noticed that the majority of storytellers undercharge. I also do professional speaking and easily receive double the amount of most storytellers without any questions asked. An exception to this rule is if you are asked to take part in a special benefit program, like the yearly Tellabration sponsored by storytelling groups all over the world under the auspices of the National Storytelling Network. I also have special non-profit associations and organizations that I support, so will agree to tell free in return for a testimonial letter.

Be prepared to handle unplanned for disturbances. It is incredible to me and many other storytellers how unthinking and rude some adults can be. For example, they answer cell phones right in the middle of a story. They allow babies to cry and small children to run around making noise and loud remarks. And one of the most outlandish incidents I had to deal with was while telling in a small cafeteria — enough of a challenge in itself — after the teachers had admonished the young group of children to “be quiet and listen up.” Then as I started telling a story, the teachers standing right behind me were carrying on a conversation in loud voices. The children were attentive and listening, so I turned around and said, “Shhhh, please be quiet. The children can’t hear me.”

What do you do, when any of the above happen? I know tellers who stop right in the middle of the story, and ask the child who is running around to find his or her parents or for the parents to come and get the child, so everyone else can hear. The cell phone problem persists, even if it has been announced prior to the program to turn your phones off. One teller I know actually walked up to the woman answering the phone, and spoke into it saying, “We’re here telling stories. Glad you could join us. Hope you enjoy it.” That takes a lot of chutzpah! And, on the other side of the coin, are the teachers who are so overbearing about keeping the children in line, that they can prove to become a disturbance and interference while doing their job.

I am not complaining, because I find that in the majority of situations, the telling of stories is pure joy and the reactions from listeners are wonderful. I just want you to be aware that it is not always smooth and easy, so you will be prepared with a comfortable way to deal with disturbances. If you can handle a situation, like the loud train that constantly goes by the aptly named Railroad Tent at the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival, with a touch of humor or clever pre-planning, you will be remembered as a professional storyteller who knows what he or she is doing.

You might experience time and telling challenges when sharing a program with other tellers. Usually, when several tellers share a program or concert, each is allotted a certain amount of time for their part of the program. Make sure that your story falls within the specified time, even if you have to shorten it and/or pick a completely different tale to tell. A teller who goes overtime quickly develops a far from perfect reputation, for no matter how wonderful his or her story is, it isn’t fair to cut into the other tellers’ times. Another problem that can arise if you tell well-known stories is that a storyteller who tells ahead of you on the program tells the story you were planning to tell. Always be prepared with several alternate stories. Even if someone doesn’t tell your chosen story, yours may not fit the mood that has already been established by the other tellers.

Please send me the challenges you have experienced and how you dealt with them! We will all welcome and benefit from your FEEDBACK!


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