Do You Have These 11 Oral Storytelling Skills?

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, you need to have the skills to prepare the story for telling. Second, you need the skills to make the story come alive for your listeners. Third, you need the skills to interact with your listeners.

Any list of oral storytelling skills is arbitrary, but it’s still useful. 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?

1. Imagining

The first three storytelling skills (Imagining, Structuring, and Matching) involve 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.

2. Structuring

Typical structure of simple oral stories

Structuring is the skill of discovering and working with a story’s structure. What are the essential elements? What is the driving conflict in the story? How can you structure your telling so 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.

3. Matching

Telling stories is like matchmaking. The storyteller, the stories, the listeners, and the event need to match.

Most of this matching is done beforehand. You must know yourself, the event, and the listeners to make a good match. 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 turns out to be different than you expected. However, matching is definitely a skill, and you can become better at it.

4. Language

You need the following five skills to tell the story: Language, Voice, Gestures, (other) Body Language, and Eye Contact.

First, language. Storytelling is about painting images with words and sentences, carried by your vocabulary and grammar. It rests on your grasp of language, which you must wield like a skilled samurai wields his sword.

Maybe you have 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?

Storyteller Sam Cannarozzi about mastering Words

5. Voice

Using your voice well is a skill.

Have you ever heard somebody have such a pleasant voice that you wanted to keep listening? Or the opposite, their voice was so unpleasant that you tried to run away?

Luckily, most of us have voices somewhere between these extremes. When you feel your voice limits you, realize that using your voice is a skill. You can work and get better at it.

6. Gestures

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 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 forcing them to happen. That’s when your gestures support your story.

Storyteller Sean Buvala about what to do with those hands

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 your hands, vocal system, and eyes are also part of your body.

Storytelling is not acting, but you sometimes must 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.

Making eye contact or avoiding it is as much a habit as using your voice, gestures, and other body language. Become aware of it and change it for the better.

Someone skilled at making eye contact opens himself to connect with his listeners. When eye contact is missing, storytelling becomes a spectacle to watch instead of an experience together.

Your Eyes Speak: Eye Contact in Storytelling

Eye contact is crucial for storytelling to a group of people. In my storytelling courses, I see most people underestimating this vital storytelling skill. So, how do you connect with your eyes? Practical tips and mistakes to avoid.

9. Connecting

The last three skills involve what happens during the storytelling event 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 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 begin telling immediately, your story often suffers. So, it is better to warm up your listeners and get them more invested in your story.

10. Listening

While you are telling the story, you are also listening—listening to the story afresh and 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 of whether they are with you in the storytelling bubble?

11. Improvising

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 directed 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 on the story.

Improving storytelling skills

Improvising storytelling skills starts with getting an overview of your 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?

1. Imagining
2. Structuring
3. Matching
4. Language
5. Voice
6. Gestures
7. Body Language
8. Eye Contact
9. Connecting
10. Listening
11. Improvising
Score Your Oral Storytelling Skills

You probably will never master all storytelling skills

When I score myself on this list, I see that 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 does not come naturally to me and requires 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 worked 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 areas. Like me, you will still be learning after ten years of storytelling. 🙂

Focus on one or two skills at a time

In the first years of telling stories, you will grow in all these areas by leaps and bounds.

After those first years, focus on one or two skills for a longer period. It is impossible to change everything at once. Focus helps you set specific goals, search for particular workshops, and measure your growth.

More about oral storytelling skills

Photo credits: Product School on Unsplash

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