by Helen McKay

When you start out as a storyteller, be aware that it takes time and a great deal of effort, to build an interesting repertoire. You must research and mine stories from the great stack found in libraries, communities, newspapers and other story repositories. Australia is littered with incredible stories that are lying around unused, like gemstones waiting to discovered, picked up and polished for performance. Listen to the folklore of this country and develop your own version of those stories.

Look for inspiration to Aesop, the Bible, and other historical stories of heroic endeavour. Read the back-files of newspapers for stories of real people, winning against almost impossible odds. Talk to elderly people, who are the repository of a swag of interesting stories from the past. They’ll be delighted at your interest in their lives. Tell fascinating family and personal stories. We’re all curious about the secrets of other people’s lives

Be aware! Some stories may be unsuitable to tell in their current form; so be prepared to hone and improve them for telling by making them more immediate. Make sure you gather a wide selection of stories ready for presentation. Try them out on your family, friends, the dog and the cat. Your enemies will tell you exactly what they think of the stories.

Start out with a bag of five or six good tales, so you are not telling the same story to your audiences. I’ve groaned – along with the audience – when a renowned teller, drags out the same old tale, you’ve heard him tell so often and presents it in the same tired old way – it’s terribly sad to see the teller hasn’t progressed.

Your first step in this journey, towards a finished story, is to identify the audience for your stories.

  • Who is your target audience?
    Are they adults, small children, family, teenage or the elderly?
    I had to tell stories in a prison and became quite concerned about my choices of stories. I needn’t have worried, as I found the prisoners are still only people like you and me and they loved the stories I told.
  • Is your purpose to entertain or educate? Make sure you understand the purpose of the storytelling session. Always be entertaining though.
  • Maybe you want to persuade people to:
    do or believe something,
    be aware of history, religion, politics, social issues, or
    relate to personal experiences you want to use as examples.

Once you’ve identified those three factors, – your purpose in storytelling and the audiences to whom your stories are targeted – the task will become much easier for you.

Selecting what story to present is critical, so seek stories that resonate with you or your audience. Make sure you don’t offend or bore them. Your story must be enjoyable and entertaining. If it’s a sad story, try to leave them laughing at the end.

Master storyteller, Margaret Read MacDonald, suggests: ‘Don’t waste your time on material that doesn’t inspire an eagerness to tell. And it might take quite a search to find a handful of those gems that feel `just right’ for your telling”.

Interactive stories

I suggest you start with two interactive stories – stories that involve some audience participation. Use one of these to draw your audience towards you, before you begin to tell more serious stories. The second one may reconnect them, if they begin to drift away.

Gather some funny stories – interesting ones – to help the audience relax and enjoy themselves. These are a great follow-up to a more serious story. We all have funny experiences in our lives. Develop your own personal stories, so your audience can enjoy some part of your life. Personal stories are the best; as they involve your feelings and emotions – the stuff of life and storytelling.

Craft your story, so it fits into the time allotted to you for telling – try not to run overtime.

When you arrive at the venue, it’s possible to find that the story you have chosen, has been used by someone else. I’ve experienced this and know how uncomfortable it makes an audience, having to listen to the same story told by a second – and probably – inferior teller. Maybe the story you have chosen is unsuitable for that particular audience, so be prepared to make a switch at the last moment. Try to entertain rather than offend. Audiences can be quite unforgiving.

Storytellers must be flexible – ready for any contingency. Have sufficient stories in your repertoire, so you can switch, as you believe is necessary.

Be passionate

In order to grab and hold your audience’s attention, you must be enthusiastic about your chosen story. Recall those stories that have left a deep impression on you and seek out tales that evoke a similar response. If you like the story and feel a passion for telling it, you’re assured of success.

As you come across new stories, adapt and refine them to suit your telling style, so they are accessible when you need them. Remember, not all stories are suitable for all types of audience, so do your research beforehand. Preparation is the key to success.

Permission for telling copyright stories

If you intend telling professionally and you choose a modern story from a book or CD, protected by copyright, permission must be obtained from the author and publisher. Let’s face it – it’s just good manners really.

Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, not in the public domain, are considered indigenous property and you must seek permission to tell these stories.

By Helen F. McKay ©


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