Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Telling Life: Knowing when to say "no"

I love performing. I love the connection with the audience, the rush as I see them lean into the story, the chatter afterwards. It's exhilarating and addictive. I need to be careful though, like any addiction my desire for performance can lead to bad choices. I remind myself that there are times when I should say no to a gig.

I've written about this before, in conversations about ethics, but it's on my mind again in the wake of Joe Biden's decision to not pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, in part because he and his family have needs greater than that particular public office would allow. Regardless of what you think of his politics, his decision to forgo something he desperately wants because he cannot fully devote himself to it is to be commended.

I have made the mistake of taking gigs I wasn't the best teller for. I have found myself in front of wiggling 2 year olds and thought I don't know what to do here.  I've taken gigs that I knew would be emotionally difficult. I'd like to think I have learned something from these experiences, because now I am much more willing to say, "No, thank you, I'm not the right teller for you but so-and-so is." It's hard to do. Every single time a part of me cringes and fears I will never get more work, but when I say no to a gig that I am not suited for I am creating space for those that suit me best as well as behaving with an attitude of abundance.

Think of it this way, no one can be everything to everyone. Chefs specialize. Firemen specialize. Dancers and writers specialize. Professors, garbage men, politicians, librarians, construction workers, teacher, painters... I cannot name a field where there is not some specialization. I think it's hard for storytellers to do this because storytelling is such a basic part of what it is to be human: We all tell stories so those of us who do it professionally should be able to do all of it, right? Wrong. None of us are superb at every aspect of this art.

When we take that bold path of recognizing that we are not suited for a particular gig (whether it's personal circumstances as in Biden's case, training, natural inclination or for other reasons) we create several positive effects.

  • We raise the standards of our art by making sure our audiences hear great stories suited for them and those who hire us have a deeper appreciation for the art.
  • We build deeper relationships with our fellow tellers, by being generous and giving them the chance to be generous in the future.
  • We have an opportunity to increase our skill set. If we know we're not ready now we can learn more and be ready in the future. If you're not comfortable telling to preschoolers take a class and volunteer at the local homeless shelter. They need the stories and you need the practice. 
  • And, like Biden, sometimes we just need to admit we aren't prepared to devote ourselves fully to what is a very demanding art form. Would you run a marathon without training?
I know this may be hard to imagine but I have found that by turning down gigs for which I am not suited, I get more of the gigs for which I am the best suited. It sounds a little mystical maybe, but there it is.

This #tellinglife requires us to be mindful and honest with ourselves as well as our audiences. And isn't that a basic part of what storytelling is about anyway, authentic joy in the art and connection with the audience? No one would choose this path if they weren't passionate about it, it's too much work, so do the work you are passionate about and help others do it too by giving them the chances you don't need.

I'd love to know about your experiences saying no or about the times when you didn't and maybe should have. 

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. I needed to hear this! I have passed up several gigs for some of the reasons you mentioned and I felt guilty. Because of the historical content and dialogue of the historical subject it is very important I have the appropriate audience. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. You're welcome! I know how hard this is to do, so congratulations on making that difficult choice. hugs!

  2. Yes, I understand this too. I recently turned down a gig for preschoolers because I just wasn't up to speed with them--it's been too long and I needed time to brush up. Also turned down a campfire telling and passed it on to others.

  3. Know exactly what you are speaking to and about. If you are telling is best to finish as best as possible. And to thank everyone. Never admitt to the audience you worries, They hear a good story and are forgiving. Most would never be on stage.

  4. Storytelling is a difficult artform at the best of times. I applaud your dedication. I have said yes to all sorts of things that I should have thought about a little bit more, but something gets me through, perhaps confidence; maybe bonhomie, I don't know, perhaps blagging is a better word!!! Albeit i will never cheat or underestimate my audience, they are the ones who give you the one thing that money can't give you, and that is the magic.


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