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Audience Participation Adds Pizzazz to Your Storytelling
by Chris King

I have mentioned audience participation and its importance and in previous articles, but decided to really delve into more thoughts and ideas about the why, what, who, where, when, and how of audience participation while telling stories. There are many forms of audience participation from the subtle interaction between teller and listeners to the many out-and-out call and response techniques used between teller and audience members.

Why should we as tellers strive for audience participation? When we achieve participation — even if it is only intense listening and hearing — with audience members, we form a bond and a special rapport. Our stories become their stories, and they internalize those stories and take them away with them forever. Subtle participation comes from taking our time to let the audience anticipate where we are going. It also comes from avoiding the use of too many descriptive details, so that our listeners can imagine and fill them in for themselves — thus participating in our story. They picture the characters, the setting, and the scenes through their own eyes, thus enriching the story for them. Of course, raucous, obvious interaction through call and response, sounds, and singing will also bond teller and listeners — especially the young.

What kinds of participation should we foster? One of the first and foremost ways to raise the level of energy in an audience is to use humor. Laughter serves as energizing exercise, and when we all laugh together, we immediately form a bond with each other. Everyone loves to laugh, so start with a funny story and give everyone time to catch up and laugh. For the very young, I find that if I start with stories where they can take part and use their voices and/or their hands, they will be “with me” for the rest of the telling. Movement of any kind is relaxing and removes any apprehension that might be lurking for either the audience or the teller. If I note that the group has been sitting for a length of time and are beginning to wiggle or look uncomfortable, I’ll have them all get up on their feet for a stretch along with a hoop and a holler! Another form of participation that well-known storyteller Ed Stivender uses is to ask the audience to name characters, a time and a setting, and he then proceeds to fashion a new story using their suggestions. Everyone has a grand time, but realize that this approach takes a courageous and confident storyteller.

Where and with whom should I use participation techniques? If you feel comfortable, asking for participation from audience members will work in any storytelling situation. If you are at a reunion or family gathering, ask other family members or attendees to share a quick story. If they are uncomfortable getting up on their feet, let them tell from a chair. You will be surprised how quickly others start to volunteer to tell once they see others chiming in. When telling to a brand new audience, and those who are unfamiliar with storytelling, it may take a bit of coaxing — you might want to get names ahead of time of some of the outgoing people attending, and ask them for help. Remember that there will always be those children and adults who just won’t take part, and you don’t want anyone to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. Usually I find that if I am telling to a group of children with a teacher who is a good sport, that once he or she participates, most of the children will too.

When and how should I encourage participation? We should always strive for some form of participation, even if it is just intense listening. The special part of being a storyteller is the personal interaction we build between ourselves and audience members. We need to give each listener the feeling that we are telling this story especially to and for him or her. One way to accomplish this is through individual eye contact. Rather than looking off or up in a different direction, try to look each person in the eye for at least three seconds before moving on to another set of eyes. They will catch your energy and you will catch theirs. This is a subtle, yet probably one of the strongest levels of participation you can achieve. As far as using music, call and response, finger play and even bringing people up on the stage with you to act out or take part in some other way, you must be totally comfortable with the ideas and techniques involved. Some storytellers thrive on this kind of participation, while others despise it. To feel and be successful, use the participation techniques that you enjoy. That is the wonderful part of being a storyteller — there is such a huge latitude of ways to tell stories. Everyone is free to be unique.

Remember to be prepared with your participation techniques. No matter how subtle or how outlandish you plan to be, it all takes practice, practice, practice. And once you take the risks, you will find it does become easier and definitely more FUN! And your audience will enjoy every minute and ask for more.

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