We asked our North 40 tellers, "How do YOU do that?"
I think it helps to know what kind of learner you are. Most people use visualization as their dominant learning style. But there are also auditory learners and kinesthetic learners. Visualizers often like to use story boards or picture outlines to get the 'gist' of the story. Auditory learners employ recordings. Kinesthetic learners use movements to act out the story. I've found that a combination of all three is helpful, especially for longer, more complicated stories. I read the story out loud several times, stopping to visualize each scene as it shifts. Then I set the words aside and 'walk' through the story, even moving from room to room as the story moves along. I do this MANY, many times and each time I note what works and what doesn't. During this process I may make minor changes to the story to fit my audience, emphasize certain elements, or clarify. Specific words become 'set' during this time even though I never actually try to memorize. The two exceptions to memorization are that I always memorize the first line and the last line so I have a strong, well-thought-out beginning and ending.
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Making a story your own
OK, you've found a story you like, but it was written by somebody else. You really shouldn't tell the story without giving credit to the author. And if you plan to tell it at a public event - especially if you might get paid for the gig - you cannot tell it without written permission from the author. It is their intellectual property. And besides, it is their words, not yours, so if you just memorize the plot or use the author's words, it is likely that the audience will sense that you are not connected to it. A story is about remembering, experimenting, identifying and interpreting. You must be engaged in the life of the story, in your own words. So how do you do that?

One way is to distance yourself from the words. Write down a brief outline of the key elements of the story. Once you have the basics in your mind, try telling the story without looking at the outline. Tell it in your own words.

An even more interesting way, and one that I love, is to tell the story from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. Reread the story paying close attention to the characters in the story. You might be drawn to the main character, but it might just as well be a minor character. You might even assume the voice of an "off-stage" character - perhaps the spouse or child or friend of the main character, telling what you saw happening and how it affected you and your relationship with the main character. What dilemmas do they experience? Tell it in first person. Now it takes on all the basic elements of the original story, but it is not that story -- it's your story! Depending on what the story is, such as a fairy tale, you might even be able to tell from the perspective of an inanimate object. I told the story of Cinderella at the Tejas Festival... as told by her shoe! Imagine that.

In this way you are stimulated to think about not only the story's shape, but about relationships, motives and responses of characters. Now you can start working on some great opening lines. "I knew it was a crazy idea, but he was so enthusiastic and excited about it, how could I say no?" "It's not easy being a shoe, you know. You try having somebody standing on you all day, kicking and scuffing and pushing you into all kinds of wet and smelly places!" You get the idea.

Go back to the original and search for any important key word or turns of a phrase that might give the story its own special sound. Try to picture every moment as you tell it. Are there sensory details of sight, sound, smell, texture and so forth that you can add to enrich your telling with body language?

The more you tell the story, the more you will internalize it. If you let the story rest for a while and then tell it again, you might find yourself assuming a different style. I once took a story that I had written as a country bumpkin story and retold it as if Shakespear had written it. It was a real hoot! Another story started as a three-minute story, and it blossomed into a seven-minute story as I added delicious details. Now I have two stories grown from the same root.

Don't be afraid to experiment. Some examples of reshaping a story, from Bob Barton, include:






You can think of more. Personalizing the story gives it sincerity and conviction that make the experience truly memorable for the listener. You don't tamper with the meaning of the story or the basic elements, but beyond that give it your voice... be a storyteller.

-- Steve McCluer

(with help from Bob Barton, Tell me Another, Pembroke Publishing, 1986)
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How do they do that?
Selecting a story


Somebody can tell a story that just holds the audience in rapture. You might try telling the same story and think you told it well, but it leaves the audience flat. Was it the words? Or was it the choice of a story? We all have a story "comfort zone." This person might be at her best telling to pre-schoolers, while that person might only tell to adults. This one tells fairy tales and that one tells historical tales. There are thousands of stories out there. Some are just waiting for you. There are many more you should probably avoid. How do you know when a story is just right for you? It is a very personal matter.

If you are searching for a story (rather than creating one of your own), you will probably sift through a great many, and you might get discouraged. But then one jumps up and says, "Tell me!" What makes that happen? If you think a story might be right for you, one way to find out is to read it out loud. Even better, read it out load to somebody else. Many stories can be good reading but do not come alive when told out loud. You can "discover" a story by giving voice to it. If you tell it a few times and it doesn't seem to work, drop it and keep searching. You must like the story in order to tell it well.

I have been asked, on occasion, to tell a specific story to a particular group. I have actually turned down a paying gig rather than tell a story that I did not like or that I did not think I could do well for a particular audience. If you are not confident in a story it will not come across with sincerity and your audience will sense it.

Try to identify what is in the quality of the story that makes it worth sharing. Does it spawn vivid mental images? Does it impart strong truths? Does it give us some insight into humanity. Is it just a fun story to tell?

The "right" story depends upon the "right" audience, and possibly on the right venue. A flannel board story that enchants a dozen kindergartners would probably not work in an auditorium before a hundred children. If you know in advance who your audience will be, you can gauge how well you should be able to hold your audience by things such as the average age, size, experience, attention span and interest of the audience. If you are an experienced teller, you might find yourself sizing up the audience just before you take the stage, whereupon you pull out the appropriate story from your vast repertoire. I have seen many professional tellers completely change their program on the spur of the moment after assessing the audience or after picking up a "theme" from previous tellers. If your audience is a mixture of all ages, a fast-paced and amusing story can often entertain everybody. If your audience is an adult church group, a more subdued and introspective story may win the day.

Above all else, you must be able to visualize the story and tell it as if from your own personal experience. "I was there. I saw rabbit go into the monster's cave. And here's what happened!" If you can't see it in your mind, you can't tell it with conviction. No matter how good a story is, if you can't internalize it, that story is not for you.

-- Steve McCluer

(Borrowing from Bob Barton, Tell Me Another, Pembroke Publishers 1986)
Learning a story
At festivals the average story is 15 minutes. Professional tellers sometimes keep us enthralled for 20-25 minutes - or even longer - with a single story. The difference between your typical library "story time" and a true story teller is that we do not read the story. We learn it and tell it from memory, or perhaps from some other 7th sense that internalizes the story and allows us to impart the tale as if recalling a personal experience... which sometimes we are.

The mantra we learn is, "Do not try to memorize the story word-for-word." (Unless, of course, you are reciting a poem, in which case rhyme and meter do not permit deviation from the written word.) A good teller can pull up, at a moment's notice, any one of 50 stories from his or her repertoire. A professional can draw from 250 tales.

How do they do that?
When faced with learning a long story, whether one you have written yourself or one you have pulled from a book, how do you do it? What techniques do you use to ensure that you don't hit that wall of "Uh-oh, what comes next?" in front of an audience that has come to be entertained by you?

Here is what they shared.
Gwen Caldwell
Minetta Smith
Since I usually tell traditional folk tales or fairy tales, I look for 2-3 versions of the story and choose the parts I like best from each one. I then outline the story, a little like a story board, but with phrases. If there is a critical phrase or a certain description that has to be exact, I write that out. To learn the story I read over the original stories several times so I have them in my head and then I start practicing my version of the story. When I tell the story it's like a movie is playing in my head and I'm telling what I see.
Dean Keith
I visualize the story as a movie. There is a sequence of events usually leading up to a climax, and often there doesn't need to be much more than the climax. In order for the end of the story make sense, you have to build the background. This has the details of the characters, location, environment and any other relevant factors. Once all this is in place, the fun begins to lead the audience along the path, pointing out what they need to see to arrive at the destination. In short, it is like telling a good joke. Unless the details are in place, they won't get the punch line.

The other factor to make it your own is to imagine it happened to you. I think that is why personal stories are a little easier to tell. If you can put yourself in mindset of a character in the story and really picture yourself there, it is easier to remember it as if it was an actual memory. In stage work, we would say, "Be the character!"
Betsy Mosier
I am a pretty lazy storyteller and hope that it doesn't show too often. I run the story through my head over and over, but I rarely tell it out load in practice. I took a couple of classes from Kendall Haven and he said something that I have always tried to incorporate in my telling" You can't tell it if you can't see it." Not that as a teller you need to fill in all of the details, but as a teller you need to be able to visualize the story as it unfolds in order to give your audience enough to do the same !
Jyoti Subramenian
Just like Betsy, I visualize my story. One thing that's very important to me is that the story needs to flow naturally. In order to let it flow I just use my regular vocabulary instead of trying to get flamboyant. It's the story itself and the way you tell it that matters, not the vocabulary - although it helps to know specific words to set the scene. Since I practice telling my story out loud, I look up synonyms in the thesaurus when I think that a certain word doesn't sound perfectly right. Ha! Not that I remember to use the exact word when I'm telling - but that's what I mean. If you have to probe for words, let it go.
That's my two paise (pennies in Indian currency).
Steve McCluer
I make cue cards. I outline the story with all of the key features of the story, with just a few key phrases on each card. Whenever I have some spare time and I'm not around people, I try to tell the story out loud. It's much harder to do it aloud than it is in my head. I frequently do it when I'm walking my dog, so I suppose the neighbors think I'm one of those strange guys always talking to himself... and they keep their distance. When I get stuck for what comes next, I pull out the cue card. When I can tell the story several times from beginning to end without cue cards and without lots of awkward pauses, then the story is ready to tell. I also will go through the story in my head as I am drifting off to sleep. Dream state may help me create the mental images that I can recall later. Whenever possible I will tell the story to a sympathetic audience at least once before putting myself on a real stage. The cue cards will come in handy when I try to re-learn a story I haven't told in years.
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