You like telling stories. You want to know more about it. What skills do you need for oral storytelling? And how to improve them?
You can divide oral storytelling skills into three categories. First, the skills you need to prepare the story for telling. Second, the skills you need to make the story come alive for your listeners. And third, the skills you need to interact with your listeners.
Any list of oral storytelling skills is an arbitrary list. Still useful, though. Whether you like to tell a story now and then or are a professional storyteller, let’s go down this list. Which skills do you have?
The first three storytelling skills (Imagining, Structuring, and Matching) are all involved in preparing the story for telling.
Imagining is the art of making the story come alive in you. Can you make multi-sensory images of the story? People differ a lot in this area. For example, I can easily imagine being in a scene and placing everything around me. However, this is not primarily a visual thing. Others can easily create full-color movies in their head.
What we all have in common is that imagination works like a muscle. The more you use it, the easier it will become to visualize and make a story come alive in you.
Structuring is the skill of discovering and working with the story’s structure. What are the essential elements? What is the driving conflict in the story? How can you structure your telling in such a way that your listeners stay involved?
Shorter oral stories often have a simple structure. When you tell such a story, you can compensate for your lack of understanding of the story’s structure with other skills (like intense physicality and connection).
However, the longer the stories you tell, the more critical this skill becomes.
Telling stories is like matchmaking. There needs to be a match of the storyteller, the stories, the listeners, and the event.
Most of this matching is done beforehand. To make a good match, you need to know yourself, the event, the listeners. Then, you match them with the stories you plan to tell.
There is no guarantee that your plan will work. You might even have to tell other stories when the listeners or the event turn out to be different than you expected. However, matching for sure is a skill, and you can become better at it.
The following five skills you need while telling the story: Language, Voice, Gestures, (other) Body Language, Eye Contact.
First, language. Storytelling is all about painting images with words and sentences, carried by your vocabulary and grammar. It rests on your grasp of language, which you will need to wield like a skilled samurai wields his sword.
Maybe you never thought much about this skill before.
Which words evoke images? Which words convey emotions? What does your construction of sentences do to the pace of the story?
Using your voice well is a skill.
Have you ever experienced that somebody had such a pleasant voice that you wanted to keep on listening? Or the opposite, that their voice was so unpleasant that you tried to run away?
Luckily most of our voices are somewhere in between these extremes. When you feel your voice limits you, realize that using your voice is a skill. You can work and can get better at it.
What is happening with your hands? Are they naturally supporting your story, or are they doing their own thing, distracting from your story?
You probably have seen people speak who use their hands too much. They have thought out their gestures, and that’s precisely what you are getting: rehearsed gestures. On the other hand (pun intended), some people don’t know what to do with their hands.
Somewhere in the middle, you find that you can intentionally use gestures without having to force them to happen. That’s when your gestures support your story.
7. Body Language
You don’t only tell stories with your voice and hands. You tell them with your whole body.
Of course, this skill might be better called ‘Other Body Language’ because obviously, your hands, your vocal system, and your eyes are also part of your body.
Storytelling is not acting, yet you sometimes need to show different characters with your body. That requires an awareness of your body and how you use it in stories.
8. Eye Contact
Eye contact might very well be one of the most underestimated storytelling skills. Yet, making and maintaining eye contact with your listeners is a powerful way to draw them into the story.
How you make eye contact or avoid it is as much a habit as how you use your voice, gestures, and other body language. When you become aware of it, you can change it for the better.
Somebody skilled in eye contact opens himself to connect with his listeners. When eye contact is missing, storytelling often becomes a spectacle to watch instead of an experience together.
The last three skills have to do with what happens during the storytelling event itself and how you work with it.
First of all, connecting is about meeting people where they are. There are many ways to connect—eye contact, a personal story, a call-and-response, or a song that you sing together.
In many storytelling courses, you are taught how to tell a story. However, in real-life situations, you usually first need to connect, tell a little about yourself, and connect to your listeners.
When you start a story out of nothing, your story often suffers. So it is better to warm up your listeners and get them more invested in your story.
While you are telling the story, you are also listening. Listening to the story afresh, what it is telling you. However, this is something that often goes on in the background.
More obvious is listening to your listeners. Are you aware of what they are telling you? Are they with you or falling asleep? Are you aware whether they are with you in the storytelling bubble?
Finally, the one skill that can save you from many tight situations. The one skill that can flip situations from terrible to extraordinary.
There will always be things happening that you did not plan. The skill of improvising is to deal with the situation and turn it into an advantage.
💡 A simple example: Once, I told a version of the traditional Christmas story. The innkeeper was directing Joseph and Mary to the stables.
Suddenly two mice walked along the wall next to my listeners. Screams and chaos evolved.
When the mice were gone, the whole room was a mess of unfocused attention. Finally, I picked up the story with the innkeeper saying to Joseph: “It’s warm there, only… there might be a nest of mice there.” Everybody laughed, and all attention was back in the story.
Improving storytelling skills
Improvising storytelling skills starts with getting an overview of your own skills. How would you score yourself? Are you a beginner or a student of a skill? Or do you feel like you have this skill? Maybe even mastered it?
|7. Body Language
|8. Eye Contact
You probably will never master all storytelling skills
When I score myself on this list, there are a lot of skills that I am competent in. However, there are also a few skills where I still feel like a student.
For example, Body Language has never been one of my strong skills. It is a skill that does not come naturally to me but needs hard and focused work. I will be pretty happy when I reach a level where I consider myself competent.
Another example is voice, a skill I have been working on in the past year, with professional coaching and help. It is getting there, but I do not feel competent yet.
So, don’t be too hard on yourself when you feel like a beginner or student in many of these areas. Like me, after ten years of storytelling, you still will be learning. 🙂
Focus on one or two skills at a time
In the first years when you tell stories, you will grow in all these areas with leaps and bounds.
After those first years, focus on one or two skills for a more extended period. It is impossible to change everything at the same time. Focus helps you set specific goals, search for particular workshops, and measure your growth.
More about oral storytelling skills
- The work that Veva Gerard and others at the Federation of European Storytelling are doing in this area continues to inspire me. I highly recommend checking out their Competence Model for Oral Storytelling about the roles and skills of professional storytellers.
- I made an overview of YouTube videos of some great examples of oral storytelling.