How to Engage an Audience with Storytelling: Part 2 – The Telling

by | Leading | 6 comments

“Artists should always think of themselves as cosmic instruments for storytelling.”—Ted Lange

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In another post on creating a memorable learning experience, I promised to talk more about storytelling. Last Thursday we focused on the story. This Thursday we’ll look at effective ways to tell a story.

While telling stories, I’ve observed my listeners becoming trance-like because they were so immersed in the story.

During a dramatic reading of one of my short stories to adults, my listeners eerily looked off into space. I realized they no longer saw me. They saw the imaginary people my words portrayed.

Another time, I invited four-year-olds to go with me into a Biblical time. During the story, I thought I’d lost their attention when a few whipped around in their seats. Then I realized they’d looked behind them to see the person who I’d told them approached us – the person I saw in my imagination had entered into theirs.

Those are the moments a storyteller tries to re-create.

Storytelling tips.

 1. Be sensitive to your listeners in story length and what you say. You want to move them, not bore, offend, or unreasonably scare them.

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 2. Invite children to participate to hold their interest. For the very young, include repetition.

Me (repeating throughout the story): The donkey traveled to the next house—

Children: [patting knees] Clipity-clop. Clipity-clop.

3. Don’t memorize the story. Know the story well. Picture and internalize the chronological unfolding of what happens next.

4. Dress like the narrator of your story. In 5th grade, I dressed like a gold miner in a flannel shirt, baggy pants, black boots, and a pipe and retold The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service.

For young children, let them see you dress up like a character or you might frighten them.

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5. Enter into your story. Use your body and facial expressions as “props.” I dressed as a blind man whom Jesus healed. During my preparation, I asked myself how I’d feel the first time I could see and when I saw what my parents looked like. I let my answers flow through my emotions, body movements, and facial expressions as I told the story.


6. Invite your listeners into the story. Make eye contact.

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Me: Let’s move closer to the crowd so we can hear what the Pharisees are saying about Jesus. Look, one Pharisee is angry. He says, [I screw up my face and punch my finger as I speak.] “It is time to get rid of Jesus.” (For my young listeners, I used rid not kill.)

7. Set up the where, when, and why. Use colorful adjectives. Mix up narration and dialog. Leave out irrelevant information. Entice your listeners senses.

Me: In 2004, I was a budding author of two self-published books of short stories. Because I longed to write novels, I now had a Christian historical romance I wanted to launch into the world through a traditional publisher.

I needed an agent.

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“You can do this and not die,” I told myself until I almost believed it.

I drove to a writers’ conference in Maryland. While there, I stood in line in a narrow hallway—fraying my fingernails—to sign up for an agent appointment. Soon, I’d sit for fifteen minutes … alone … with a scoffing, what-makes-you-think-you-can-write literary agent … 

8. Use pauses for suspense, faster speech for action-filled moments, and slower speech for calm periods. Vary the volume of your voice. Use unique voices for each story character.

Me: Just then, [pause] the large, old door to the church hall [louder] clunked open. [slower] The door opened, [pause] but no one appeared in the doorway.

What storytelling technique captured your listeners?

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  1. Marcia A. Lahti

    As Zoe mentioned, dialogue was important in my story telling. I also pictured the scene using the five senses and enriched the story by incorporating sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch into my story.

  2. Zoe M. McCarthy

    Thanks for reinforcing the senses from Storytelling Tip #7, Marcia. So important.

  3. Sybil Bates McCormack

    I loved this Zoe — particularly in light of the fact that I wear a children’s minister hat amongst many others. Thanks for the excellent writing and storytelling prompts. Blessings!

  4. Zoe M. McCarthy

    Sybil, thanks for the encouragement. So nice to hear from someone who works with children.

  5. Kiersti

    What wonderful tips! Thank you!

  6. Zoe M. McCarthy

    Thanks, Kiersti. I’m glad you found the tips helpful.

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