Storytelling is a practice that dates back to the earliest moments of human speech. It is a way to share ideas, imagination, and to entertain in a way that detaches oneself from the physical world and enters a world with no boundaries. Stories have been used to teach morals, history, settle arguments, entertain, and honor deities and ancestors.
The most common historical use for storytelling was to pass on information. Native Americans are well-known for their imaginative and rich tales, usually dealing with a moral issue or a question of how the world works. Chinese storytellers, from as early as 202 BC, were popularly found in marketplaces and bazaars. Their tales served as a kind of school for the largely uneducated population by passing along historical information and culture through their performances.
Regardless of a person’s occupation – be it a parent, teacher, or regular worker – storytelling can open up a level of communication between a person and their peers or children that will enrich the lives of all participants. Storytelling can serve to expand vocabulary, provide entertainment, teach lessons or morals, inspire imaginations, teach listening skills, and spark a love of reading. The best part is that much like a person going about their daily work, such as leaving a voicemail or working at an answering service, all that is need is a voice and a commitment to the task.
The first step to becoming a storyteller is to determine what kind of story is to be shared. A particularly amusing story from the storyteller’s family’s history or a myth from a different culture the person is particularly fond of could be used. There are several storytelling sites offering lesson plans and online stories that may be selected from, or used as inspiration. Whatever the choice, it should be something the storyteller will enjoy telling. If choosing a story to tell to children, look for something lighthearted, with humor scattered throughout. Children love to laugh, and the more positive the experience, the more they will remember whatever moral or lesson the storyteller is looking to convey.
Once a story the storyteller likes well enough to tell has been found, they should read it, and re-read it. It should be read until it is memorized by heart. Write it out – decide what words should be used, where to throw in inflections with their voice, and make note of any good gestures to incorporate. Cue cards or index cards may prove helpful. A person can experiment to see what works best for their particular style. Inspiration can certainly be drawn from more experienced storytellers; there are numerous audio recordings, books, and video recordings of performances to be found online, or at the local library, but strive to develop a unique method of storytelling. The storyteller needs to make the story their own.
From there, all that’s left to do is practice. A person may desire to get a tape recorder so they can listen to their own performance, and evaluate it that way. If they have a friend who wouldn’t mind being a guinea pig, they can invite them to listen and then ask for feedback. Practicing anywhere they can is good; if they happen to be standing in line at the grocery store, and the older woman in front of them is counting out exactly one hundred and twenty-five pennies for change, they can run through the story in their mind, and imagine what they would do to make the story interesting for the woman.
To spice up the story, one may want to practice “voices” for the characters in the tale, so that each is distinguishable from the other. A very young child will call for a voice that is higher and more squeaky in pitch, while an older man or woman will generally speak with a low, gravelly voice. If telling the story from the perspective of someone actively a part of the story, they may choose to dress up as that character to help the believability. If they are speaking from the perspective of a cowboy or ranch worker, throw on a western hat and practice their best swagger. Bring in a stalk of wheat to chew, or an antiqued coin or watch to fiddle with while telling their story; only to reveal later, of course, that a person obtained said coin or watch from Bonnie and Clyde as a thank you for diverting the police.
While rehearsing in front of family and friends, remember to keep the story interactive. The storyteller wants to engage their listeners with direct eye contact, and even member participation if they can. Keep the piece from becoming a performance, and make it a conversation. Critiques should be asked for after the storyteller is finished. Did they ever feel like the story was strained? Was their attention caught throughout? Were there any particular sections they enjoyed or disliked? Does there need to be more humor or more drama? Refine the story as would a glass of water be done – filter out any dirt and add in as many nutrients as needed for the final product to be crisp, sparkling, and enjoyable.
When the story is the storyteller’s own, they should go find an audience and share it with them! They shouldn’t be afraid to approach it as a kind of play – storytelling is fun, and the goal is to enjoy it right along with their listeners. So the storyteller should ask a grade school if they’d be interested in having them share a story from The Odyssey for their Greek curriculum, or steal the show at a local Open Mic Night. Go make Homer proud!