Often aspiring storytellers ask me to name the single most important factor in learning to be a good storyteller and/or staying a good storyteller. Early in my life I fumbled for an answer, or had a different answer each time I was asked that question.
Now I know the only answer that works for me: First, Love Your Story.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Reminds me of the story about the man who asked a wealthy neighbor how to make ten million dollars.
"Easy," replied the multi-millionaire. "First, get a million dollars. Okay, then..."
Of course the man was stopped cold that the millionaire thought it easy to get that first million, when we all know thats the most difficult million to get.
Same with "First, Love Your Story."
You might think this is an obvious requirement for all who would try to tell stories: youve got to love the stories you tell. But to love a story, or a person for that matter, or an idea - to truly love any of these - is no mean feat.
Thats because true love for anyone or anything - I am convinced now more than ever - requires care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge.
So, if you are to show that you Love Your Story, then you must show:
CARE. You must sincerely care about your story, and you must SHOW it. How? By wondering AND wandering. You must care ("I wonder...") where the story came from. You must care enough to research it. You must care about the storys author(s) and find out what you can about her or him or them. You must care about the audience that will hear it and whether its one of the best possible stories to tell this audience. You must care about your presentation of the story and rehearse it if need be by pre-telling to "practice" audiences you can find, even if you have to wander around to find that practice audience. You must think of ways to show that you care about your story. And you must continually ask yourself: Do I really care about this story? Why? Care enough to search for honest answers that are truly yours.
RESPECT. You must respect your story. Protect its integrity. If you must cut some words from the original rendering, respect the story enough to study what parts might be left out and answer "why" you are leaving certain parts out to your own satisfaction and that of a trusted friends. A storys essential emotional truth should never be compromised by a tellers editing. Some stories should not be tampered with AT ALL (Where the Wild Things Are comes to mind), and should be told word-for-word as the author wrote it. You must go out of your way to show that you respect your story. Ask yourself: Do I respect this story? Why? Respect your story enough to search for honest answers.
RESPONSIBILITY. You must take full responsibility for telling your story well. Excuses you might offer for a lack of preparation (rehearse, rehearse, rehearse) make NO sense to anyone and only serve to undermine your credibility with others, and, more importantly, with yourself. Only you are responsible for how the telling goes. Not your audience, not your employer/sponsor/promoter, not your story or its author. Only you. Take that responsibility and run with it until your last breath. Are you acting responsibly about telling this story to the best of your ability? How? What else could you be doing to prepare? Be responsible and search for honest answers.
KNOWLEDGE. You must seek to learn all that you can about yourself, your story, your audience, and the occasion for your telling your story. Know your limitations. Then learn how to stretch yourself. Know your audience and its limitations, and what they expect, can handle, would enjoy, might not understand, etc. Know your story frontwards and backwards, from the inside out and outside in, and "by heart," which does NOT mean word for word in every instance but DOES mean you understand the emotional flow and direction and key words and feelings the story conveys if told well. Your heart MUST be involved in this, as well as your head. You must KNOW that you love your story and have no doubt about that, and you should be able to explain to anyone who asks why you do love this story and why you are telling it. Have you acquired this level of knowledge about your story, your audience, and the occasion? Then how can you best do so before you tell this story? Find the answers and you will have acquired the knowledge necessary to tell the story well.
There you have it: Through Care, Respect, Responsibility and Knowledge, you will arrive at that place in your experience as a storyteller where you either Love Your Story or you dont, and you will know the difference in your heart of hearts, where intuition lives. If you truly Love Your Story, you will tell it beautifully. If youre fakin it, you wont be makin it as a storyteller.
Keep in mind that great Bible quote about love: "Our love must not be a thing of words and fine talk; it must be a thing of action and sincerity." - 1John3:18 (Barclay translation).
Choose to Love Your Story. Your story will love you back. So will your audience. So will you.
Share a story with someone you love today.
(c) 2002 Storyteller Joe Paris. Used with permission from the author.
Storyteller Joe Paris has been telling stories professionally since 1969. He has studied storytelling in graduate school and has taught storytelling in elementary schools, high schools and universities in Louisiana and Texas. He now lives in Seattle and can be contacted at email@example.com