Nothing can substitute for doing when it comes to many things and storytelling is one of them. As the absurd saying goes, it goes without saying that the best way of learning how to tell stories is to tell them; have a crack, put your name in the hat, tell a friend or the neighbours cat. Just getting a story out of your head and onto your tongue will always have something to teach you about storytelling that you can’t learn any other way.
Having said that, there are a few things you can do before you open your mouth that will help, and this post is about five of them. They are not rocket science, but neither is mindfulness, what is needed is persistence. They come with a warning though: do not use these ideas as an excuse, a delay tactic, a procrastination point, to avoid getting on the story horse; don’t be the stablehand who does lots of grooming and feeding and patting, but no riding.
1. Read and learn: Many people have gone before us and learned well the lessons of story and they have left a trail of knowledge for us to apply as we tell. So read or listen to the ways of story. Here are a couple of my favourite learning resources:
Podcast: The Art of Storytelling: A long running series of in depth interviews with storytellers from North America. While most are tellers of traditional stories, the principles of storytelling also apply to personal stories.
Book: Improve your Storytelling by Doug Lipman. I haven’t quite finished reading this, but the parts I have read are excellent.
Book: Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. An excellent book aimed at people writing their personal stories, but much of it is applicable to oral autobiographical storytelling.
2. Listen and watch: Attend storytelling events and listen to the tellers with an ear for how they do it. Ask yourself what was it about the stories you liked that worked? Listen to stories told at live events, recorded and broadcast on podcasts and radio shows. Eg The Moth, Story Wise Woodend.
3. Tell folktales: Apprenticing yourself to the traditional tales will give you great experience with two very important areas - performance and dramatic expression, and classic and time tested story structure. The ‘old’ stories are rich with wisdom, even for adults, and working with them will give you a few stories in your pocket, waiting for just the right occasion.
4. Attend and learn: Enrol in workshops, courses or programs, particularly ones where you can develop and tell a story. They can be hard to find, sometimes very expensive, but they are great way to get your hands dirty in a safe and supportive environment. Every story teacher will have new ways of looking at story and something to teach you.
5. Get a coach: Individual coaching is the rolls royce of story learning, especially with a coach who has a nose for story, is supportive and curious about what you want to say in the story and what the story wants to say to you. With a coach you get to practise, get feedback, talk through all the aspects of the story, go deep, remember, and have deadlines. A good coach will hold you accountable and push you to be better.
6. Review: Ask for feedback after you have told a story, from people you trust to be gentle and honest. Also read between the lines to the unsolicited comments people make. Journal after you’ve told to an audience, the things that you think went well and the aspects you would change. If you have a recording of you telling, re-listen to it. Many people baulk at hearing themselves, but if you expect other people to listen to you, it stand to reason you need to listen to yourself, it is one of the best ways of improving.
So there you have five ways to get ready, before you get on the story horse. I’d love to hear any other resources or suggestions you have in the comments section below, (and if the logging in to comment drives you bananas, as it does me, let me know and I’ll try to sort it out).