READING ESL: top tips for storytelling

Tips for Storytellers

This is an interesting blog post by Sam S Mullins. I’ve summarised it in plain English, but I have also linked to the original blog and provided a vocabulary list explaining the less common words used in the original post. The link and vocabulary list are posted after this summary.

So You Want to Be a Storyteller?

Are you sure? No one will want to date you again, because they might end up in one of your stories.

If you’re sure you want to, get a glass of cheap wine and come along. It’s going to be an exciting ride.

This is a great time to be in the story business. Right now there are a lot of successful storytelling podcasts like The Moth, RISK and many others (there are links to more story sites in the original post). Podcasts like these have made modern storytelling popular, with millions of people listening. Nearly every city in North America now has a regular storytelling event, and there seems to be more opportunities than ever before. For storytellers, things have never been better.

But before you get too excited, most of the customers at the storytelling venues are there for the food, drink and socialising – not just the stories.

Storytelling is magic! It can change people’s lives, and a well-told story will make a room full of people laugh and cry as one. Storytelling is a truly special thing.

Storytelling can also be THE WORST THING EVER.

Being a prisoner in your chair listening to a long, boring, pointless, piece of rubbish storytelling is worse than anything imaginable. When a bad storyteller is standing at the microphone telling a long story that no one else is interested in it is a very painful thing. Your blood pressure rises and your eyes roll so far back that they might never return. Listening to a bad storyteller telling a long story is worse than waiting on the telephone for your cellphone provider to answer as your eye is being attacked with a knife. You are a prisoner, and it is awful.

This happens a lot in storytelling, and I’m going to help you NOT to be that storyteller.

Take this advice from Sam S. Mullins and, when you are onstage at your next live event, you will be a winner!

Number 1. If your story is taking too long it is probably not that good

Sam says he has never wished he had ever spent longer telling a story. Storytelling events have time limits for a reason. The worst stories are always the longest ones. Constant editing also makes better story writing, and a storyteller who can work to a time limit is professional and polite. It’s all about respecting your audience.

Number 2. Outline

You don’t need to write down the whole story from beginning to end, but you do need to map out your key points. You also need to be very sure you know exactly what happens in the story (and when). Story structure is a beautiful thing.

  1. SCENE
  2. START ACTION
  3. ADD DRAMA
  4. EXCITING END
  5. SATISFYING END

Know your story (repeat)

Number 3. Punch it up

Choose your own expressions and describe things the way you see them or imagine them. Try and say things in your own unique way instead of just saying ‘I was happy’ or ‘it was good’.

Number 4. The opening lines are VERY important

Use any way possible to catch the audience’s attention straight away. Use a joke, or a hint of some surprise, or simply get right to the point of the story. When the audience hears your opening line they should put down their phones and lean in to listen to what you have to say. Say something like;

Every family has secrets, and my family’s secret was me.”

Number 5. Yes. We know there is a moral to the story

You don’t need to tell us the moral of the story; we can work it out for ourselves. It is better to end your story with a bow than with an explanation. Remember:

  • Audience members are quite smart; they’re into stories and stuff.
  • Different people will learn different things from your stories – and that’s good.
  • Don’t tell people what they have to learn from your stories

End like this: Thank you / bow / applause / off / music!

Number 6. Don’t worry too much about the theme

A lot of storytelling events have a theme. The list of upcoming storytelling themes can remind you of stories you already know, or they can inspire you to think of new stories. However you work with the theme, you do not need to tell your audience how your story matches the theme. That’s boring. Just tell the story. The audience will work it out.

Number 7. Sometimes it’s too soon

Painful events can become fascinating stories as time goes by, but sometimes painful events are still fresh memories. Don’t tell stories about events that you are emotional about. A good rule: If you’re not ready to laugh about it, then we’re not ready to be sad about it.

Number 8. Keep it Fresh

A professional story teller or comedian has told the same story many times. So as well as sounding polished and professional, a well-rehearsed story can also sound dull and old. To stop a story from sounding dull and old, Sam suggests changing the words and phrases you use for key parts of the story when you rehearse an old story for a new event. He also suggests that storytellers keep trying to find new ways to describe familiar things; eventually you will hit on the perfect description. Most importantly, keeping it fresh means allowing yourself time to think on your feet as a part of your storytelling routine.

Number 9. “Look them in the eye and speak from your heart”

… said comedian Louis CK. Story telling is about speaking from the heart. Use yours. Let the audience see the real you, even the parts that make you uncomfortable.

Number 10. Get to know A LOT about stories

Thousands of the best stories you have ever heard in your life are available for free. FREE! Listen to as many stories as you can. You can listen RIGHT NOW! Try listening to brilliant storytellers like Mike Birbiglia and Elna Wade (links to lots of storytellers in the original article), examine their stories and techniques. Can you understand why one story was more successful than another? Listen to as many stories as you can and become a student of the game.

Number 11. Annoying things that storytellers should AVOID

Storytelling event host Peter Aguero shares some of the things that annoy him when he is listening to storytellers:

Using the phrase “and in that moment I realised …”

Storytellers trying to make one big story out of ten or so small events. It doesn’t work.

Telling listeners what you’re going to do (“let me explain”). Just do it, explaining what you are doing is like putting the story on PAUSE.

Sam S Mullins has also added a few annoying storytelling habits to the list, too:

Starting your story saying something like “My story is about…”, and ending it with “…and that is my story”.

If the audience is laughing at your joke, let them laugh. Don’t try and quieten them down, enjoy the ride and start again when they have finished laughing.

Don’t speak off mic. Use the microphone like a professional

Don’t use storytelling as your way to actively promote any of your personal political or religious views.

Number 12. Some tips from the PROS

Here are some tips from experienced storytellers. There are a lot more tips from a lot more pros in the original article (linked below).

TJ Dawe – Canadian monologist

Make your story specific. You might think that a more ‘general’ story would appeal to a more ‘general’ audience, but the more SPECIFIC a story is to you, the more realistic it is for others.

If your natural speaking speed is ‘fast’, then pauses are your friend.

Be a good editor; don’t be afraid to cut out well-written, catchy words or phrases if they are not directly important to your story.

Martin Dockery – award winning monologist and Moth main stage performer

Just get up on stage and do it

Do it often
And that’s it. Remember when you are walking on stage, as you approach the microphone, these people have come here to listen to you. You have their undivided attention. Don’t waste it.

Here is a link to the original blog post:

so you want to be a storyteller?

Vocabulary list:

(It’s a LONG one!)

DATE YOU (v) go out with you for a romantic evening

PHENOMENON (n) an event or occurrence, something that happens

RACONTEURS (n) storytellers

CRACKLY (adj) crac-crac type noises

ROTI (n) south Asian bread, often served with small bowl of meat or vegetable sauce

MAGIC (n) making it look as if unusual or unreal things are happening. E.g. pulling two white rabbits and one silver scarf out of a hat is a famous magic trick. A magical mirror in a story can show you the future

ALTERNATELY (or alternatively) (adv) in this case ‘on the other hand’

MEANDERING (adj) wander without direction

LONG-WINDED (adj) overly long explanation, reason or story

SELF-INDULGENT (adj) satisfying your own needs completely without thinking about the needs of others

MIC-SPINNING (v) mic = microphone. A DJ ‘spins’ records, so a story teller ‘spins’ a story (‘spin a tale’ means ‘tell a story’) a mic-spinner spins a tale into a microphone

YARN (n) a story (‘have a yarn’ means ‘have a chat’)

HOSTAGE (n) a prisoner who will be released if certain demands are met

CRUSH IT (expression) perform at a high level. Do very well at something

KILLING (in this context it means the same as ‘crushing it’)

BUDDY (n) friend (in this case the word is addressing the reader as ‘friend’)

FREAKS (n) unusual examples of things (can be used as an unpleasant word to describe people who do not look or act like ‘everyone else’)

INCITE (v) to encourage certain behaviour or action

STAKES (n) investment amount, amount of risk (raise the stakes means raise the risk, but also raise the prize)

CLIMAX (n) the most exciting or pleasant part of an experience

DENOUMENT (n) an academic term for bringing a story to a satisfying end with all questions answered and all problems resolved

CHISEL (v) a chisel is a tool for shaping either wood or stone. To ‘chisel away’ at something is to ‘work at it’ until it is how you want it to be.

VULNERABLE (adj) open to attack and unable to defend yourself

INFESTED (v) over inhabited (in a bad way)

SYNTH (n) synthesised drum (people who ‘march to the beat of their own drum’ like to do things their own way)

CRYPTIC (n) a hidden clue, something difficult to figure out

HAM_FISTING (v) acting in a clumsy unorganised way

CONCISE (adj) short and brief

DUDE (n) a form of address, like buddy, used among friends

DEDUCED (v) figured out the answer, solved the puzzle, arrived at the correct answer by a process of elimination

CHEESY (adj) cheap and insincere

SWELLED (v) became larger, or in this case, louder

JUST GIVE KIMMY GIBBLER ONE LAST ZINGER AND HIT THE MUSIC (a North American cultural reference that I don’t get)

GET HUNG UP (expression) Become too worried and concerned about a particular topic (‘don’t get too hung up about the details’ means don’t worry about the details)

EXCRUCIATING (adj) very painful (‘excruciating pain’ is a common expression, it means ‘painful pain’!)

TRAUMA (n) extreme stress caused by accident, injury or psychological harm

RECOLLECTING (v) remembering

OBSESSED OVER (v) spent too much time thinking or worrying about a particular thing

SPONTANEOUS (adj) something that is done without planning, a sudden decision to do something

OFF-THE-CUFF (expression) unrehearsed

SPRINKLE (v) add a small amount over a wide area

GRASP (v) reach out for something, maybe something that is a little bit too far away

BOOBY TRAPS (n) hidden traps (a trap is something you can use to catch wild animals, they can get in, but they can’t get out)

GIMMICK (n) an eye-catching or unusual thing that is designed to get people’s attention. Usually used for sales purposes.

AFICIONADO (n) expert

STAGGERINGLY GOOD (expression) very good

DISMANTLE (v) take apart into small pieces

PET PEEVES (expression) things that particularly annoy you

IRK (v) annoy

ANECDOTE (n) personal story

CRINGE (v) inwardly or outwardly curling up in disgust

TRUE DAT (expression) ‘true that’

STEER CLEAR (expression) avoid

SOAPBOXING (v) making a political speech in a public place

PLAGIARISE (v) pretend that someone else’s ideas are your own

CONSPIRACY THEORY (n) an idea that governments or aliens or secret rulers are ruling the world with a secret mission behind world events

ACCOMPLISHED (adj) very skilled and experienced (see noun and verb meanings as well)

BUDS (n) friends

MONOLOGIST (n) a person who tells stories (single voice)

SELF-SABOTAGE (v) setting up your own failure

CALIBRATE (v) measure

PRETENTION (n) social manners hiding true intention or feeling

WINDOW DRESSING (n) surface decoration

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