102. Oral Storytelling Part 1

Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Want to make a point or raise an issue?  Tell a story. — Janet Litherland

Stories matter! For centuries, storytelling was one of the main ways traditions were passed down to future generations. Storytelling is still an important tool in handing down cultural memory.

Storytelling can be simple or complex. Many of the most memorable times of your life can be told through simple storytelling. Your children and grandchildren will remember some of these stories because they belong to you and are told by you, stirring the imagination, bringing humor, sharing sadness, lifting spirits, and otherwise giving vignettes of your life.

Oral storytelling can become complex, like Garrison Keillor does as he weaves intricate and convoluted tales. Simple or complex, oral storytelling has the advantage of voice inflection, cadence, volume and the eye contact that is needed to transmit the feelings and sensations one is trying to explain.  It can be great fun to tell our stories. Remember all those stories around campfires when we attempted to outdo each other with spooky tales? Remember the insistence of grandchildren who often request, What was it like when you were a boy, Grandpa?

There are some things you can do to prevent  becoming that boring uncle who goes on and on. Here are some of my suggestions:

Keep the story focused to one main tale! There are folks who go on much too long in relating stories to anyone who will listen. They go down side paths, wander around the point, and turn back again, nearly forgetting where the story started. We tend to avoid folks who prattle on and on about endless details of stories. We like focused, to-the-point stories that basically relate to one topic, such as last week’s example: In Grandmothers kitchen!

Keep your story short (less than five minutes). This is especially true when telling a story that is one among many stories, like at a reunion. Keeping the story short will also endear you to your listeners, especially if they are very young.

Feel free to embellish your story. I often tell the story of one of our daughters dating a young man that came attired in a very unusual outfit, ready to take her to the prom. I describe the orange cummerbund, the checkered tennis shoes, and other unusual apparel. In my telling of the story I add a few touches, such as a streak of purple hair and a ponytail. The point of the story is that at first glance, this young man is not a person I wanted dating our daughter, but when we got to know him, he was, and still is, a fine young man. Appearances can be very deceiving, and we really have no good reason for judging solely on appearance. So, adding a bit of embellishment simply makes the story richer.

Tell your own story. This does not mean that the story has to be about you, but it should be a story that personally involves your learnings, your understandings, or the insights learned from the story. For example, I can tell a story about my father and how he always wore bib overalls and steel-toed, high-top shoes. The story is not about me, but about my memories of what my Dads outfit meant to us as children. (Hint: all those pockets held wondrous things, such as a small, 6-inch channel-lock pliers).

Practice. You are not going to compete in any storytelling contest, so why would you want to practice? The reason we practice is to get a good handle on how the story is going to play out. This means that you can tell the story to yourself while you are driving alone in the car. Just dont do it at a traffic light, where others can see you because you may need to explain your behavior. Tell the story out loud to an empty room, pretending your grandchildren are sitting on the floor and they are enthralled with your story.

Have a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story. Once upon a time may not be the best lead in, but something like, When I was 11, I had a dog that was blind in one eye and only had three legs. His name was Lucky. This stirs the imagination and creates a mental image of what you are about to describe in your story. And even though your story has a beginning, middle and end, you may want to actually start your story in the middle, then refer to the beginning, and finish it up with a grand ending. For example, I recently told a story at a public event that had me standing on a ledge with a sharp drop-off to my right and a mountain wall to my left, and I was trembling with fear. Later in the story, I revealed how I actually ended up at this mountain path. But the story started with the line, Nothing in my childhood or growing up years could have prepared me for this moment!

In my next blog, we will look at some ideas about how to get started in doing some real, live, current storytelling.

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