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

“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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5 Elements That Make a Learning Activity a Memorable Experience

 Personally, I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” —Winston Churchill

5 Elements That Create a Memorable Experience

  1. Use Layering. Plan several activities that add to, build on, or complement what’s to be learned during the session. (I’ll post a future blog on layering.)
  2. Tell a story. Dry material comes alive when it’s presented through examples, personal stories, drama, and humor. (I’ll post a future blog on storytelling.)
  3. Provide participant involvement. This should be something that pulls people into the experience, better than simply breaking up into discussion groups, if possible.
  4. Allow creativity. Guide the activities, but let people express their individuality as much as possible during the session.
  5. Design something profound to happen. Anything that gives participants a blip of feeling, a smidge of identifying, or a helping of new understanding will seal the session as a memorable experience.


I prepared a Bible study for our prison ministry on the creation story from Genesis 1. (See another prison ministry example.)

I could’ve planned the normal: have a prisoner (cadet) read the Bible passage aloud, then have them break up into discussion groups led by volunteers asking pre-scripted questions. This works adequately for some participants.

But earlier, I’d led a creation story for Vacation Bible School. I also used the idea successfully for preschoolers in Sunday school and in Bible Study Fellowship. 

I already had the props: Large, made-from-cloth sun, moon, stars, clouds, and day and night skies. Long lengths of material for water, earth, sand, and grass. Crumpled grocery-bag rocks. Artificial plants and trees. Numerous plastic insects, ocean creatures, and reptiles. Feathered fake birds and stuffed animals.

As twelve cadets filed in, volunteers welcomed them and handed them an item. Curiosity crept onto their faces as they accepted a spider, a flower, a folded length of material, or a furry bear.

The cadets sat in a wide circle of chairs. Volunteers distributed the rest of the creation items evenly among them.

Dressed in a Biblical robe, I launched into a dramatic narrative based on the Genesis scripture.

When the water was to be gathered into seas and dry ground was to appear, I invited cadets who had lengths of blue, brown, and sand-colored materials to spread them on the floor within the circle. Soon I called for vegetation. Cadets set flowers, plants, and trees wherever they wished on the green and the earthy-colored materials.

When night was to be separated from day, I asked tall prisoners to hang the sky-blue and black materials on the wall. Then I called for the sun. The cadet who possessed the sun attached it to the Velcro on the blue sky. Same for the moon and stars on the black sky. 

As I summoned sea creatures and birds, conversations and suggestions began buzzing among the cadets. Finally, I called for reptiles, insects, and animals. Cadets took care to place their creatures on trees, rocks, sand, and grass.

Imagine what that space looked like. One cadet pronounced it beautiful.

Here’s the something profound. I asked them what was missing. Some cadets said, “People!” I invited them to come into our creation. They sauntered in and sat on the colored cloths among the plants and creatures. Some cradled stuffed animals while others toyed with lobsters or birds. 

Then we discussed the experience. Many hadn’t thought much about what God created, but during that moment they were keenly aware of what a wonder creation is.

What profound element have you added to a session that worked?

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I Got Creative – Why Aren’t I Engaging People?

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.  —Scott Adams

I wrote in my last post that I would expand on this tip: Focus not on the creativity itself but on how it will engage others. It’s when we get wrapped up in our creative juices that we risk producing functional bombs.

Here are three invitations to disasters.

1. In trying to add interest to the activity, we make it too complicated.  Either the cool picture of the spiced up activity in our imaginations is unrealistic or we haven’t thought out how to make the idea work.

Example. In my first year as a Bible Study Fellowship children’s leader, I had fun making foam animal masks with colored tongue-depressor handles – sets of tigers, monkeys, lions, and elephants. I couldn’t wait to use them for the large-muscle activity in the gym.

To marching music, I pictured the preschoolers in a circle marching in place holding their masks as I called out, “Tigers to the center!” All the tigers would march in unison from the circle to the center, growling. Then I’d call, “Tigers back to the circle and Monkeys to the center!” The tigers would step to the music back to their places and the monkeys would march to the center ee-eeing.

But preschoolers don’t always picture what we’ve instructed, don’t always march in unison, don’t remember where their places are on the circle. They are easily confused. In a word, pandemonium. My activity was too complicated for preschoolers.

The children would have enjoyed exercising if I’d instructed them to move around with their masks growling, ee-eeing, etc.

2. In having so much fun being creative, we forget to consider the participants’ needs in our activity. See the example with 3.

3. Our creative activity idea has little to do with the point we want to make.

Example. As an actuarial manager in an insurance company, my area set reserves for small business groups. It wasn’t the most exciting work and the monthly meetings to report reserves were monotonous.

My team latched onto the idea of making a 2-minute video of an analyst pulling out her hair over computer glitches, another analyst snatching reserve numbers from the air, and our boss juggling balls in his office. We stayed after work and filmed a wig flying from a cubicle, an analyst deep in thought suddenly saying some ridiculous number and writing it down, and the chief actuary humoring us and juggling. What fun.

During our opening video, the accounting VP’s normal expression didn’t change and the Small Business VP, although smiling slightly, said she hoped we didn’t bill her for the time it took to film the video. The VPs just wanted the numbers and analysis, and the film added nothing to enhance that activity.

Remember, our failures help make future successes.

Your turn. What other oversights invite disasters when adding glitz to your activities?

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