You want to tell a story, but memorizing it is hard work! Is there another, maybe even better way, to make sure you will remember the story?
You do not need to memorize a story to tell it. Learning a story word by word often leads to a forced delivery. Storytellers commonly do not memorize a story but remember the story through visualization and telling it often.
So how do you make sure you remember a story when you do not memorize it? And what is the difference in delivery between a story that is memorized word-by-word and one remembered through imagery? Let’s dive in.
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Do you need to memorize a story to tell it?
Storyteller Kindra Hall talks in this video about a performance she did at a storytelling festival. She memorized an 8-minute story word by word. Afterward, she was not happy about the result. She asked her mentor Donald Davis about it. He said: “You told the words, you didn’t tell the story.”
Memorizing word-by-word leads to disconnect
When you tell a story, many factors influence how you tell it. The environment, your mood, the listeners, what the story is telling you at that moment, etc.
Memorizing the story word-by-word cuts you off from these factors. You disconnect. You don’t need anything else because… you have your words memorized.
Your listeners will feel that disconnect.
They want a story connected to you, the place, and the atmosphere. And they want to be part of the story. Memorizing can easily take all of that away.
Reading the internal autocue
Have you ever seen somebody give a presentation where they seemed to be reading from a screen inside their head? Sometimes even moving their eyes from left to right?
They had their stuff memorized. It’s pretty funny to see somebody reading the internal autocue, but it makes for lousy storytelling.
The fear of forgetting your story
People are afraid to forget what they will say. That’s why they memorize.
We can all relate to this fear. But the solution of memorizing a story word by word is not very safe. Because when you forget a few words or a sentence, you will start to struggle.
Memorizing the words can increase your fear of failure.
You cannot lose your text when you have no text.
How do storytellers remember stories?
So, what is the alternative to memorizing stories word by word?
A key to learning stories for telling is to look at a story as a serie of multi-sensory images—a movie, but with smell, taste, and touch (and more) involved. You can compare it to the images you see when you dream.
Most, not all, of the storytellers I know work this way. First, they take the time to read the story, visualize parts of it, discover their feelings about it, and map out its structure. Then, after that, they tell the story as much as possible.
How to remember a story for telling
Step 1: Read the story out loud
If you are working with a story from a text, read it once or twice aloud. No more. Just to get a feel of the story and understand what is happening.
Of course, if you are planning to tell a personal story or a story you only heard, you skip this step.
Step 2: Visualize the part of the story that gives you the strongest feelings.
Remembering a story has everything to do with the images and the emotions attached to them. So close your eyes, relax, and focus on the strongest image/emotion you found in the story.
Step 3: Go through the story scene by scene in your head
Try to visualize other parts of the story. Go through the whole story, but stay relaxed.
It is pretty normal when you cannot visualize the whole story at this moment.
Be aware of what you feel about what happens in the story.
Step 4: Write the story down in 5-7 sentences
It’s time to write down the simplest form of the story. Summarize it in 5-7 sentences to get a good overview of the story. Make sure that you include the main characters and their plan/problem in this overview.
Step 5: Tell the story informally to as many people as you can
You learn a story best by telling it.
Ask friends, family, and everyone else if they want to listen to a story you are working on. Take some days for this process. Then, in the time between your ‘tryouts,’ see if you already can visualize more parts of the story.
Step 6: Take a last look at the text of the story
Only now return to the text. If you have one, of course. Note where your version of the story departed from the text. Do you want to keep it that way?
Step 7: Trust yourself with the story and tell it
You have prepared the story. You have told the story a couple of times, and it is growing inside you. It is starting to become your version of the story. Every telling of the story will be a little different.
That’s perfectly normal and part of the fun of storytelling. Trust yourself.
What to do when you forget your story?
Sooner or later, you will forget a part of your story. Unfortunately, it happens to all of us.
When you forget your story, pause. Do not panic, do not make excuses, and do not tell your listeners. Just pause. Maybe drink some water, or take some steps. Then, go back in your mind to what you last remembered and pick it up from there. Most listeners will not even notice your pause.
Storytelling in the moment
Storytelling is an art that happens in the moment. There will always be unexpected things happening. Maybe you forget a part of the story, something happens in the audience, or maybe the sound system breaks down. You will need to improvise.
The more experience you have, the easier it is to trust your ability to make the best out of any situation. Experience comes by telling a lot of stories.
Besides simply telling many stories, I recommend you read the book ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone (link to Amazon). He is one of the fathers of improvisational theatre, and this book will help you with some improvisational basics that are very useful when telling stories.
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