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Hook `em or Lose `em - Notes from an Excellent Workshop
by Chris King

When starting to tell a story, you notice that there is rustling, whispering and the general feeling that a number of the listeners are not engaged. Then, as you get into the meat of the story, the group settles in. But not all of them. Wouldn’t it be great if you had everyone’s complete attention from the beginning?

We had just completed our 2005 Annual O.O.P.S! (Ohio Order for the Preservation of Storytelling) Conference. This year our featured teller was Jackson Gillman, a.k.a. The Stand-Up Chameleon, who addressed this topic in his excellent workshop, Hook `em or Lose `em. In this article, I will share some of the useful tips and ideas Jackson revealed.

Jackson tells stories to all ages - but often to the “show-me” crowd of high schoolers and middle schoolers. He also presents programs for businesses and corporations. His outrageous style and many of his techniques will not work for you and me, but his theories and wisdom will. We just need to translate them to what is comfortable for us.

Jackson’s words of wisdom on how to relate to the audience from the top:

  • Make friends with the space. Jackson suggests arriving early enough to be able to get the space set up the way you want it. This is the most effective way for your movement and program. He does many different movements, from mime, to rap, to even lying down and pretending he is asleep (yes, this gets the audience attention). The idea here is to be set up with the best setting for you.
  • Give your listeners a reason to pay attention. All audiences are thinking, “Who is this person and why should I listen to him/her?” Jackson had many ways to establish this instant rapport:
    • Catch people off-guard. Jackson called this “Greasing the skids - so you can slide into each show.” You can start with absolute silence. You can come in from the back of the room. Start with a boldness or surprise (he starts a program on drugs as a cool rapper). He has even interacted with audience members ahead of time when they are not aware of who he is.
    • Never appear like a heavy. Jackson pointed out that Junior High kids like you if you are weirder than they are. A bit of weirdness can go a long way to get attention with listeners of all ages. When Jackson told stories during the Conference (Friday and Saturday night) he had our attention immediately. And we weren’t Junior High kids.
    • Breaking the wall. Work on segues and use hooks for every transition to a new story. The goal is to give energy and get energy back from the listeners. You can ask them questions, use an instrument, use crazy humor - Jackson was a master of this - and take on a variety of unusual characters (i.e., that’s why he is called The Stand-Up Chameleon).
    • Usher the audience in. Think of your audience and listeners as guests. You are the host, welcoming them into your space and your world.


I realize that a lot of the techniques that Jackson uses are possibly too outrageous and uncomfortable for you to try, but there were some other useful tips that will help us all to become better.

Jackson deputizes a "watchdog" before a show. It's usually the sponsor or some other ally, and it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility for the program. He lets them know ahead of time that he is comfortable dealing with most audience behavior or surprise disturbances. Intervention might be more distracting than either ignoring it or letting him deal with it creatively from the stage. If need be, he can look to look to them discreetly for assistance. This allows the watchdog to relax, knowing whether or not to intercede on the performer's behalf. It also gives the performer peace of mind knowing that there is a support person looking out for the unexpected.

Note: whether I am telling stories or giving a presentation, early on I am looking listeners in the eye. Very soon, I can figure out those who are “with me” and truly enjoying the program. These are the people to focus on for energy. If you see someone sleeping, don’t go back.

Make notes after each show. Even though we have heard this before, I wonder how many of us take the time to write down what worked and what didn’t. What we tried and what we forgot and should use next time. Today, with our wonderful use of computers, it is easy to keep a file just for these notes. Once they are written down, they are much easier to remember.

I want to thank Jackson Gillman for his excellent workshop and stories. I hope I have caught the true essence of his presentation, and I know that it will improve my storytelling in the future.

If you want to know more about Jackson, click HERE. And for information about O.O.P.S!, click HERE. Our Annual Storytelling Conference takes place in May. We are now planning our twentieth in 2006. Hope to see you there!

 

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