Sunday, August 23, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Become a Storyteller

Storytelling must be one of, if not the, oldest of the arts. We can easily envision the clan huddled around the fire on a cool, dark night, each individual transfixed by a tale spun by an elder or a natural storyteller. Usually, the tale was familiar, one perhaps heard from childhood passed down from one storyteller to another for generations. But also imagine the thrill of hearing a new story for the first time.

The talented storyteller in the ages before mass media, or even the written word, must have been a prized member of a tribe. Can you imagine the power of an all-absorbing story, told with panache at a leisurely pace. With no background distractions, the audience would have been mesmerized. To use a phrase that describes an experience now rare for most of us, the listeners would have been "hanging on every word."

We each have our stories to tell and it's worth spending some time collecting them, honing them, and then telling them. My own children, even as young adults, enjoy hearing stories of my family as I was growing up. And I can recall the times my aunts and uncles gathered around our dining room table and started reminiscing about their growing-up years. I found the tales fascinating, even when there was a debate about whose version of a particular event was more accurate (or, to be honest, especially when there was a debate over whose version was more accurate).

Storytelling is an art, but one which we can all improve on. I recently had a half day of training in telling stories to prepare 30 colleagues and me to raise funds for the United Way. Our goal was to develop stories drawn from our own experiences as volunteers, as family members, and as visitors to agencies whose programs receive United Way funding. We will be telling our hopefully riveting, yet poignant stories to audiences as part of our persuasive efforts to elicit contributions.

Although I've done a lot of public speaking and don't find it particularly daunting, our training gave me some new insights into storytelling as a unique form of public speaking. Like most people, I'm too often tempted to spend valuable minutes setting the stage for a story before I get to the meat of what actually happened. Our instructor's goal was to convince us to trust our audience to fill in the background for themselves as the story unfolds - but to start with "what happened."

We had been given an assignment to tell a 60-second story from our youth to get us started, which I practiced repeatedly the night before, timing it carefully since there would be no extensions of the one-minute rule. My inclination was to start with the background: "It was my sophomore year of college, and my parents were driving me from my hometown in northeastern Ohio to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the back seat was piled to the ceiling with bedding and household items on one side because I was moving into an apartment that year, yadda, yadda, yadda...."

After the instructor's introduction the next day, I realized I was about to fall into the trap of spending a good third of my allotted time explaining the context before something remotely interesting happened. I reorganized my story on the fly and, I'm happy to say, related it within 60 seconds to more-than-polite applause and even some laughter. Which goes to show, even after all these years, I'm still trainable.

I'm guessing your family won't be such sticklers for storytelling methods and rules as my instructor - they'll appreciate you're sharing a memory that's important to you or just plain enjoyable to tell. Seeing your pleasure in the telling will help them experience it vicariously. I wish my own parents had been more inclined to tell stories and I wish I had encouraged them more. My dad did have a few stories that we heard with increasing frequency as he approached the century mark and, although there weren't many, I do remember them and am glad that he shared them. (At the expense of being considered somewhat disrespectful, I will observe that Dad's stories generally ended with him proving someone else wrong.)

Of course, there are courses where you can practice your storytelling skills in front of an unrelated audience of fellow students and an instructor. You'll be able to see first-hand what seems to work, get some pointers, and build your confidence. I've discovered there's a storytelling guild here in Madison that meets monthly and an upper Midwest organization, the Northlands Storytelling Network, whose spring conference is in Green Lake, just an hour from my house. I'm seriously tempted to check it out, whether or not I get up the nerve to tell a story of my own.

You can also find storytelling classes and videos offered online as well as by local community colleges, universities and adult education venues.

In case you've kept reading thus far because you've been hoping I'll share the reorganized 60-second story I told during our training (and I'm sure that's the case) here goes...

"When Dad pulled away from the gas pump, I assumed he was just going to park off to the side to make way for another car. But I quickly realized he was accelerating, heading straight for the on-ramp to the Indiana Toll Road.

"My first thought was, 'Dad doesn't realize that Mom's still in the restroom.'

"My second thought was, 'This could be pretty funny!' But then I thought, 'I'm really anxious to get to Madison but if Dad goes down that ramp, we'll lose a lot of time just to get back here again to pick up Mom! And then, we'll have five more hours in the car with Mom, who will not find this at all amusing!'

"So I turned to Dad and, in a calm voice, said, 'I think Mom's going to be pretty upset when she discovers you've left without her.' Dad jerked around to look in the back seat and slammed on the brakes. We were almost on the Toll Road at this point but no one was behind us, so Dad backed up the ramp, turned around and parked in front of the restroom.

"About 20 seconds later, Mom emerged and settled in the backseat, chatting amiably about a conversation she'd had with a stranger inside. Dad and I said nothing. And, as far as I know, until the day she died, Mom never knew how close she came to being left behind on the Indiana Toll Road."

The photograph shows storytellers who participated in the 22nd Mariposa Storytelling Festival in March 2009. It was reproduced from the Website

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