30 Oral Storytelling Tips for Beginners
Short, concise storytelling tips for beginners. And for everyone else who likes telling a story. These tips are drawn from my experience as a professional storyteller, workshops I give to beginners, and conversations with other storytellers. Don’t try to implement them all at once. 🙂
1. Tell stories that touch you
The story you tell needs to mean something to you. If not, don’t expect it will mean something to your listeners. So find those stories that leave you smiling, crying, angry, or in awe. Find the stories that touch you. And when telling, let those feelings carry the story.
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2. Crawl inside your story
You need to know far more about the story and the ‘story world’ than what you are telling to your listeners. So take your time to ‘chew’ on a story. Look at the characters, their feelings, and their ideas. Look at the setting, visualize the world. Then, your listeners will feel that you know the story.
3. Sharpen the structure of your story
Your story has an inner structure. Sharpen it by writing the story down in 5-7 sentences. What is essential for understanding the story? All else you might forget during the telling, but your listeners need to hear this. When you get lost during the telling, remember your structure.
4. Stretch the contrasts in the story
Stories are built on contrasts. Contrasts between good and evil, small and big, rich and poor, dreams and nightmares, intelligent and stupid. Make a list of the contrasts in your story. Stretch the contrast in the story to stretch the drama and emotional involvement. Keep it believable within the story.
5. Don’t memorize the words; visualize the story
Oral storytelling comes from a time before reading and writing. Stories were usually not learned word by word but image by image. When you memorize words, your audience will see you reading the auto-cue. When you visualize the scenes and talk about them, your audience will see them too.
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6. Tell only personal stories that you have worked through
Stories that profoundly touch your emotions are great to tell. They have the power to connect your listeners deeply. However, unprocessed anger, grief, depression, etc., does not have a place on the stage. Your audience is not your psychologist. So tell these stories, but work through them first.
7. Research different versions of historical stories
When you tell a historical story, be aware that there might be other versions of this story. Do your research thoroughly, and don’t depend on one source for your information. When versions differ, point this out before or after the telling of your story.
8. Know the message of your story
Know what you want to say with this story. Having a clear message will focus your story. It will help you to decide what is essential to the story and what could be left out. Don’t push this message; it is okay when your listeners pick something else to take home.
9. When telling outside, check the sound system
Outside, the sound of your voice drifts away in the open air. Make sure you know the place where you will be telling a story. If people can’t hear you, they will hold you responsible. So in case of any doubt, have a sound system tested and ready to go.
10. Don’t compete with music, other voices, or sounds
It is essential that people can listen to your story. That isn’t easy when you are to competing with other loud sounds. So, don’t perform next to a music concert, don’t accept loud voices close by, and if possible, close the doors. Try to minimize all auditory distractions.
11. Don’t compete with visual distractions behind you
People will see what is behind you during your storytelling. Make sure nothing moves behind you. No windows, no people walking there, no big screens with moving images. Try to prepare your background to be either neutral or complementary to your story’s atmosphere and content.
12. Don’t perform before a clock
A clock does strange things to people’s minds. It will bring up thoughts like: “Ah, it’s almost finished.”, “Have I been listening for so long?” “One hour until I need to pick Jessy up from daycare.” If possible, choose another place to perform. Make sure you keep an eye on the time, though.
13. Take care of your voice
Your voice is the one instrument you cannot do without. The more stories you tell, the more you ask of your voice. Take time warming it up before a telling. Don’t destroy it by drinking alcohol, coffee, or smoking before telling. And give it rest when it needs it.
14. Build a bridge into your story
Your listeners need to cross the bridge from where they are now into the story. Trusting you. That takes some time. Maybe you need first to talk a little about yourself, tell a funny short anecdote, sing a song, do a call-and-response, or give an introduction to what will happen.
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15. Stand, unless sitting is required
Your body speaks. When you sit down, you silence half of your body. And you confine yourself to a smaller space. So stand and use the area that you have. Don’t be afraid to be seen. Exceptions are when talking to a little group, to little children, or in a setting where sitting is expected.
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16. Look your audience in the eyes
Storytelling happens in connection. Tell your story for each individual, looking them softly in the eyes and making actual contact. This can be scary, but it is essential. A good rule of thumb is to connect each sentence to a different person in your audience. Don’t miss the back row!
Your Eyes Speak: Eye Contact in Storytelling
17. Tell less, not more
The more you tell your audience, the less their creative minds have to work. Tell them less if you want them to be more involved in the story. Just enough. Especially adults. And stay connected; when people are starting to look bewildered, you know you need to tell more.
18. Don’t comment on your own story
When you step out of your story to comment on it, you take the audience also out of the story. You risk breaking the story bubble, and you will need to take them back in. It puts the spotlight on you instead of on the story. Most of the time a bad idea.
19. When you forget what’s next, pause
The best thing you can do when you forget what to say next is to pause. No need to panic. Just give yourself some rest and time to think. Lean back a little. Walk slowly to another spot. Pick up your glass and drink a bit of water. And then pick up the story again.
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20. Expect the unexpected disturbances
A phone will go off. A child will pee in his pants. A mechanic will start to repair the light two meters behind you. Some mice will run by. Unexpected things happen. The best initial reaction is often to pause, to receive them as a surprise gift, and to think for a moment.
21. Ignore what is possible to ignore
The deeper you are together in the story, the more your listeners will ignore what you ignore. So that child that is wildly jumping up and down to the side? Or the loud sounds in the distance? Only give it attention when it has already taken your audience’s attention away from your telling.
22. Become a friend with silence
Three seconds of silence can feel like an eternity when you tell a story. But silence is oh so powerful. Before starting, after a scene, in an emotional moment, in building up tension. Learn to be comfortable in silence before a group. It supercharges your telling.
23. Don’t rush the funny parts of your story
You already know the story. Your audience does not. They need time to ‘get it’ when you tell a funny part of your story. If you rush the story because you are afraid they will not find it funny, you set yourself up for failure. Just pause and give them some time.
24. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story
Every telling adds things and leaves things out. Storytellers always consciously and unconsciously choose what they tell. It’s okay to embellish your story, to make it shine more. Keep it believable, and all people will understand because that is how we all tell stories.
25. Don’t use words for feelings; feel them
Telling your listeners that a specific character in your story is full of joy does not make them feel much. Instead, feel the emotions of your character inside you. Tell the images and action of the story. They will pick up the feeling without you telling them with words.
26. Be aware of the storytelling trance
When you take your listeners into a story, don’t be surprised when they will start to become very silent and look at you with blank stares. That’s a good thing. It means they are experiencing the story with you and have fallen into a slight storytelling trance.
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27. Don’t step on the audience’s reaction
The storytelling happens between you and the listeners. You tell the story, but they also tell the story with you by giving something back. It’s important to receive their reaction. So be aware of your audience. Don’t continue telling during a big laugh. Take time to receive their applause.
28. Stick to the time you are given
Your listeners give you their time and attention. It’s impolite, unfair, and often not practical when you go over your allotted time. Be aware that your listeners have activities and things they want to do when you are finished. It’s better to be shorter than to go over your time.
29. Don’t tell the moral of the story
Either your audience got the moral or message of your story, or your story was poorly told, and adding a moral won’t make it better. Nobody likes it when he is told what to take away from a story. Except for maybe tiny children, for them, it can help to end with a clear moral.
30. Have a clear ending to your telling
You know when your story ends, but your listeners don’t. Make it clear to them by having a strong last sentence, a nod of your head, or a little bow. When they still don’t get it, you can always say something like: “And that’s the end of the story of …. Thank you.”
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31. Receive feedback without discussing
When somebody gives you feedback, usually it is best to simply receive it. After telling, you are generally not in the best mood to think about it. Remember, feedback is like a gift. Some gifts you give a special place in your house, others you dump in the trash can as soon as the guest is gone.
32. Tell the same story again and again
A good story is like a good pair of boots. You need to break them in. Walk a little, walk a little more. And after a while, they will fit you perfectly, and you will happily walk in them. A rule of thumb: tell the same story seven times to different audiences.
33. Slowly develop a repertoire
A short story. A long story. A funny story. A scary story. A love story. A personal story. A myth. An epic. A story for four-year-olds. A story for ten-year-olds. A story for teenagers. A story for adults. Tell different stories and grow your repertoire over time.
34. Learn from the best
Find the storytellers that captivate you. Maybe the ones that are in front of a lot of people. Maybe not. Find the ones that tell like you would want to tell. Listen to their stories. Listen some more. What are they doing? Buy their books. Pay for their workshops and courses. Buy them a beer. 😉
Choose one of these storytelling tips for beginners
These storytelling tips for beginners flow from my experience as a professional storyteller. They are meant to give you some principles, not to say everything there is to say about a specific aspect of storytelling.
Take heart if you are a beginning storyteller and feel overwhelmed after reading these storytelling tips for beginners. Rome was not built in one day. At least not that I know of. 😉
Just keep telling stories and do something with a couple of tips that struck a chord with you. And come back in half a year and take some other tips to heart. These are things I have been coming back to again and again.
If you enjoyed these storytelling tips for beginners, you also might want to read: How to tell a Fairy Tale in 5 Steps.
Photo credits: Unsplash / Storyblocks
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