Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where storytelling really happens

Every time I tell a story successfully in front of an audience (and this is not every time I tell a story) I am forcefully reminded of one thing.

Sure, I worked on the story. I learned it, thought about it, honed it. But this is not the only crucial factor for storytelling success. Sometimes an improv where I'm making the whole thing up as I go along can be the most successful piece of the night.

And of course, the setting may be just right. The lights are good or the campfire crackles. But I've told stories in some pretty harsh environments and had them work, while other times the best locale has seen me crash and burn.

And I've had experiences where I've selected the right story for the audience, I'm paying attention to them so I can shift my telling along with them and it still doesn't quite gel. Maybe they have other things on their mind (the economy, the overall purpose of the meeting for which I've been hired as entertainment) or maybe a cute baby wanders onto stage. You just can't compete with a baby.

What time and again matters the most for successful storytelling is allowing the audience time to listen, the opportunity to experience and build the story in their own imaginations. As a storyteller, my job is give the audience a well-crafted narrative, well-presented, and then get out of the way.

The real work happens between their ears.

I can tell the most familiar story and every listener will experience it differently. What color is Red Riding Hood's hair? What's in her basket of goodies? While I may never mention those things you know the answers and that deepens your story experience. When I tell an unfamiliar story the listener still fills in the blanks and knows the story with an intimacy that I can never match. If I were to try to fill in all the details (What does Crazy Jane wear? What shape is the Djinni's bottle?) I both take up too much time and steal some of the experience from the listener. I serve my audience and the story better by painting around the white space and letting them fill it in.

The work of storytelling happens in the white space, which the listeners fill in. My job, as a teller, is to give them enough detail that they know the shape and texture of the space, then they can make it their own.

Next time you hear a story try noticing all the things that aren't said. Enjoy the richness of your own imagination. Next time you tell one (even if it's to your dog or partner or kids) notice how much you don't have to say. Who cares what tie your boss was wearing: It's enough to know they were formal in their dress. If you have a chance, ask your listener what they saw and enjoy how their world, made from your words, differs and aligns with your own.

Storytelling lets us build these bridges of words and imagination. It's a marvel to me how many worlds we build together in the simultaneous moment, and how varied and similar these worlds are.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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