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(Twelve Skills of the Storyteller, Part 3)

The prior three articles in this series described:
“Preface”: The dangers of focusing on storytelling skills;
Part 1: Imagination skills;
Part 2: Oral language skills.

In this article, let’s take up the skills of relating to your listeners.

Skill 6: Respond to Your Listeners

When you tell a story, you begin by imagining your story. Then you use oral language to stimulate your listeners to imagine the story in their own ways.

Your listeners, in turn, respond to you by constructing images in their own minds. But they also respond with oral language: facial expressions, posture, laughter, even how they breathe.

Graphic of feedback loop arrows

The communication streams in an endless feedback loop

Then you respond to their response. Each moment builds on the ones before.

For example, you might begin, “There was once a girl so small that she could have hidden in a pea pod.”

Perhaps your listeners lean forward. Some of them smile a bit.

Then you respond to their responses. You smile back. Or perhaps you repeat, “Yes, a pea pod.”

Now maybe some of your listeners laugh a little. Or more of them smile.

Buoyed by their positive responses, you continue in the ”groove” you have created together – which, in turn, weaves the spell even more tightly.

Adjusting As You Go

Of course, your listeners don’t always respond the way you want. In this case, you respond by adjusting your telling to produce a different response.

For example, if your group of 5-year-olds begins to snicker at the word “pea” (taking it for its homophone “pee”), you might say, “Yes, she could hide inside a green bean!” If they laugh at her tiny size (instead of at the saying of a forbidden word), then you’ve gotten the response you want – and you’ll likely replace “pea pod” with “green bean” for the rest of the story.

The Loop Called Rapport

The feedback loop of responding to each others’ responses builds a state of synchronization between you and your listeners.

photo of two women in conversational rapport

When you respond to your listener's response to your response, you create synch, a sense of rapport

Have you ever seen the tandem storytelling duo Gerry Hart and Leanne Grace (“Hart and Grace”), of Pennsylvania? They tell stories as a team, and they tell well. But what distinguishes them most is the almost magical rapport they display with each other as they tell. Sitting down and facing forward, if one crosses her legs, the other does, too – uconsciously, at nearly the same instant. If one puts the palms of her hands on the sides of her chair seat, so does the other. They are always in synch, both mentally and physically.

In storytelling, as in other communication situations, when synch builds, the feeling of rapport builds, too. When you are in such a state of rapport with your listeners, your influence is magnified.

At this point, a nearly invisible raising of one corner of your mouth, for example, may create a ripple of laughter. But if you break the rapport, you lose the “multiplier” effect of synch, and will need to expend more energy again (perhaps you will need to speak louder or gesture more broadly for a moment) to have as much effect.

Intense rapport with an audience is a highly rewarding experience. It requires you to maintain a sometimes precarious balance between attention on your listeners and attention on your story. A moment of distraction (such as when someone new enters the room or when your mind wanders) can sometimes be enough to break the spell. Then you need to re-create it.

Learn to pay close, delighted attention to your listeners. Learn to respond, and to swim in the currents of the resulting endless feedback loop.

Skill 7: Feel Your Listeners

Some years ago, I asked several professional tellers how they experience their audiences during a successful performance. Some talked about responding to individuals: “Tell to one listener at a time,” one said. “If you can get one person on your side, the others will follow.” Many tellers, however, described a sense of the group as a whole.

One veteran teller said, “It’s as though the audience offers their energy to you so you can mold it for them. Their energy seems to meld together above their heads. My job is to give it a shape without trying to take it away from them.”

When Pam McGrath and I give workshops called “Dancing with the Audience,” we have each participant tell a story to the group while blindfolded. Afterwards, we ask what the teller noticed about the audience. Most tellers describe being more in touch with their listeners than usual. I believe that, denied the convenience of sight, the tellers turn to additional ways of sensing their listeners – ways that great tellers call into play at all times.

The Power and the Burden

When you connect deeply, with all your senses, to your listeners, you form a bond of trust with them. The audience gives you a gift of power over them.

The power is not yours to exploit, however. As soon as you use your power to aggrandize yourself or to manipulate, your listeners begin to withdraw their consent. In a way, you are like a coach driver: you are hired to direct the horses, but the horses don’t belong to you. If you mistreat them or drive recklessly, you lose your job.

Such power comes with responsibility, which can feel frightening as well as exhilarating – perhaps like taking the reins the first time you drive a coach-and-four.

Talking About the Ineffable

All this talk about connection with your audience is necessarily a bit indirect, because the bonding happens primarily at a subconscious level. Generally, connection is experienced consciously only after it is established; it is created through a myriad of adjustments, each too small and rapid to be noticed individually.

Describing a strongly connected storytelling event, we often use words that suggest being highly present in the moment, such as:

  • immediacy
  • vibrancy
  • vividness.

More commonly, though, we turn to metaphorical language to describe the effects of connection with your audience. These effects are difficult to analyze but unmistakeable to experience. To describe these effects, we compare them to:

  • physical force:
  • powerful
  • compelling
  • captivating (which derives from “to make captive”)
  • moving
  • “She had her audience in the palm of her hand.”
  • being engulfed or submerged:
  • - absorbed
  • - engrossed
  • - immersed
  • the effects of magic:
  • conjure
  • “The teller cast a spell…”
  • enchanted
  • spellbound

If you want any of these qualities in your telling, pay attention to how you respond to your listeners. That’s where the magic lies!

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