Beginning Storytelling

So, you would like to be a storyteller? The good news is, you already are.

Storytelling, the development of an unfolding narrative, is fundamental to human communication. Everything you think, everything you say, is part of a story you are constantly creating and adding to. We all tell stories… we cannot NOT tell stories.

If you would like to extend the range of your storytelling to include the more formal telling of stories as tales to an audience expecting entertainment, the likelihood is that you have many of the skills necessary already. Some practice, some reflection and some feedback will take you a long long way in honing your ‘bardic’ skills.

Choosing Your Stories

The first thing you will need to decide is what type of stories you want to tell. Then you need to know who it is you want to tell them to. I suggest finding a practice environment suitable to the stories and the audience… there are many Storytelling Clubs and Spoken Word groups springing up around the country that welcome new storytellers.

These days there are many sources available online for choosing stories. You can choose stories because you have heard them being told by another teller (either recorded or live), you have come across them in a compilation or you have found them online. Project Gutenberg is a great resource for folktale collections, for example… a google search or search on youtube can result in many videos of traditional tales told by a variety of tellers in different styles.

As a rule of thumb, keep your early stories short. I would recommend stories that are more than 5 minutes in length but less than 10. Long enough to be interesting to you and your audience but not so long you feel intimidated by the thought of learning it. Bear in mind that all stories consist of shorter stories strung together (my first public performance included the first branch of Y Mabinogion, told over 45 minutes and broken down into 3 parts each part of which was itself made up of 3 parts of approximately 5 minutes each).

Learning Your Stories

There are many ways of going about learning a story. I strongly advise not learning a story word by word by rote. This, in my opinion, is not what telling a story is about. Unlike acting, the storyteller brings something of themselves to the party.

When I set about learning a new story, the first thing I do is break it down into its most basic constituent parts. This may be a bullet point list of the main scenes, or of key narrative points. I might then note particular aspects of a scene that I want to remember… a kind of “Note to self: Expand on sights and smells”. Sometimes, a tale might require a certain repeated phrase or formula for you to learn and that is fine, but the rest of the story is best told in your own words.

Sometimes, with longer stories, it can be helpful to employ a memory strategy such as the “Memory Palace” (also known as the Method of Loci) to memorise the sequence of key plot points… this entails planning a mental walking route with key location points and associating the story part with the location in your mind. If you do use such strategies it is important not to rely upon them within your actual storytelling but to use them only while you are learning the story itself.

Then tell the tale. Try it out on friends and family. Immerse yourself in it. Listen to other tellings, try it out at local open mic nights, any where you find a safe environment.

Finding Your Style

The things that make a story entertaining and compelling are not just the plot. In fact there is a lot of evidence that the plot is the least part of it. An audience will hang on to your tone, to your timing, your facial expressions and your gestures. They will remember how you ended the story as much as how you told the story. Some stories may demand a particular style… others will allow you to express yourself in different ways.

Pay attention to your tonality, the rise and fall of your voice and your expression (how your tone emphasises the emotional part of the story)… listen to other tells and decide what works for you. Some tellers will adopt a more theatrical approach, grand gestures and projection of voice. Others will adopt a more minimalist style, relying on far more discrete tone and facial expression. This will depend in part on the setting, the preference of the teller and the story itself.

Unless you are very good at them, avoid accents. They are not necessary and rarely add anything to the telling, while if done poorly can be quite damaging to the overall effect of a tale, even to the point of being potentially offensive to members of the audience.

Remember

It is as fun to tell stories as it is to listen to them. You are there to enjoy the experience of telling as much as your audience is there to enjoy the experience of listening. Some things to remember to improve the enjoyment for both of you.

When telling a story, don’t apologise for how bad you think you are going to be! We have all done it, apologised in advance for a poor performance, but it won’t benefit you or your storytelling, and your audience don’t want to hear that. They have come to be entertained and you are the person ready to deliver that entertainment. Greet your audience warmly and with confidence.

If you stumble, again, don’t apologise. Pick it up and carry on. Play for time while you retrieve the storyline… describe sights, colours, sounds and smells. This brings your attention to the story and the current setting, allowing you time to pick up the thread. Alternatively, take a dramatic pause, take a deep breath and carry on… no one knows what you had intended to do at this point so if you cover and recover with confidence it simply becomes part of the story.

Take your time… don’t rush the story, don’t rush the ending.