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eTips from the Storytelling Coach - Number 7

How to Harness a Hidden Power

May, 2001

eTips is a free, monthly electronic newsletter from Doug Lipman. You can subscribe, unsubscribe, or read a more detailed description of the newsletter at the eTips page. You can also read the other back issues.


"How to Learn a Story" tape to ship soon; Telling Stories to Children workshop; shorter line lengths in this newsletter.
Article on "framing" - managing unspoken expectations in the storytelling event:
3) WORKSHOP ANNOUNCEMENTS: COACHING MINI-WORKSHOPS - a chance to be coached without giving up an entire weekend.
Full description:


* News tidbit #1: The third issue of the Storytelling Workshop In a Box (TM), "How to Learn a Story," describes a natural way to make your stories interesting and flexible. It will ship in a week or so. Your membership can begin with this issue or with issue number 1, "Secrets of Listening":

* News tidbit #2: There are still a few places left in Judith Black's and my 4-day workshop about the joys and techniques of telling to children - June 25-28 in Marblehead, MA:

* Note: in response to readers' requests, I have shortened the line lengths of this issue. Please let me know how this looks on your computer!


Just yesterday, I coached a storyteller who, before telling, talked animatedly and convincingly about his new story. Once he stood up to tell, however, his effectiveness plummeted.

What happened? I believed that his relatively poor telling stemmed from a common storytelling misconception. If he could just understand four points about the true nature of storytelling and oral language, I was convinced, he could restore the power that his storytelling was missing.

a. The Storyteller Stimulates Images

First, telling stories is not primarily a matter of communicating words, but of sensory images: imagined or remembered sights, sounds, smells, gut feelings, tactile sensations, etc. The teller imagines the scenes of a story and tells the story. Then the listeners imagine the scenes in their own ways.

So the primary job of the teller is to stimulate the listeners to imagine. How? With the tools of oral language, including words, gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, pauses - and many more.

Words, of course, carry a vital part of the "message." But other "channels," often overlooked, carry much of storytelling's power.

b. Metamessages: The Power Behind The Words

Reliance on words alone limits your "tool box," leading you to ignore additional ways to stimulate images. Worse, focusing solely on words can actually sabotage other powerful oral language channels.

Some channels of spoken language do not primarily carry "message" at all. Rather, they carry "messages about the message": metamessages. Thus, a sarcastic tone of voice tells you to interpret a verbal statement to mean its opposite. A sagging posture tells you to interpret a smile as submissive, whereas an erect posture can lead you to interpret the same smile as joyous or proud. Subtle pauses and stammers may lead us to think of a speaker as sincere or perhaps uncertain.

(You can read more about the unspoken expectations in storytelling, in my article about "framing":

c. Warning: Your Intentions Are Showing

Here's what people forget at their peril: the metamessage channels are *always* carrying meaning. Everyone listens to tone as well as to words, in order to know how to interpret the words.

This is why, for example, we often form opinions about politicians which are not based on what they say, but on how they say it. Knowing the candidate's temptation to tell us what we want to hear, many of us value honesty and sincerity above articulateness and fluency. And we judge things like honesty primarily through what is communicated by the metamessage channels.

Why is this crucial to the storyteller? If you are trying to remember something you have read - that is, if you are imagining words on a page - your audience will often unconsciously perceive your attempt to imagine something flat and white, as well as your intention of getting something right. If you are imitating someone else's style, your listeners will usually perceive your attempt to be something you're not. You may be dressing yourself up in words, but your intentions always show through!

d. Making the Story Work

To avoid these problems while telling, put your attention on what you want to communicate. We have all learned how to use metamessage channels unconsciously to convey our intentions. If you are excited about something you are imagining, your oral language will automatically tend to convey both your attitude and your physical reactions to what you are imagining. This, in turn, will stimulate your listeners to imagine excitedly, too.

What happened to the teller I was coaching? After appreciating his story, I asked him some questions about the main character. When he began to talk effectively again, I asked him, "What are you thinking about, right now?"

He said, "About how wonderful the old woman was, to do what she did."

I said, "What you just told me was powerful and fascinating! Can you tell me that scene in the story, while keeping in mind how wonderful she was to do that?"

He told the scene again. I stopped him once or twice when he fell back into his old habit of thinking about the words he had written and his effort not to be boring. After a few minutes, though, his telling was consistently more lively and yet less affectedly "dramatic." He had shifted his attention as he told, from the printed word to his feelings about the old woman and what she did. This freed up much of his natural use of metamessages.

Our communication when telling should be at least as effective as our communication when telling a best friend about an exciting day. With a few conceptual re-alignments - and occasional assistance from a helping set of eyes and ears - it can be.


In the last year, I've re-discovered a workshop format that allows you to receive in-person coaching without giving up an entire weekend for one of my coaching intensives.

The four-hour coaching mini-workshop gives you 40 minutes to work on your most pressing story - or storytelling issue. Even more, you'll watch three others receive help, too. Often, the sessions of others - when you are "off-line" and therefore free to reflect - are at least as helpful as being coached yourself.

If I'm already travelling in your area, workshops like these can be easy and inexpensive to set up. In the coming months, I'll probably have time to schedule a mini-workshop or two in these parts of the country:

  • Providence, RI (July, before or after the National Storytelling Conference)
  • Atlanta, GA (July and August)
  • Northern IL or Chicago/Milwaukee area (August and September)
  • Jonesborough, TN (October, before or after the National Storytelling Festival)
  • Denver, CO (October)
  • Schenectady, NY (end of November, early December)
  • Lakeland, FL (December)
Curious about what happens in a coaching mini-workshop? Read the full description on my web site at

Please contact me if you're interested in setting up or attending a mini-workshop in your area.

All the best,


P. S., Email me for one or all of these, or view them on the web:
* What you get with the Storytelling Workshop In a Box:
* Telling Stories to Children workshop:
* Free article on "framing" - managing expectations in the storytelling event:
* What happens in a Coaching Mini-Workshop:

(To unsubscribe to this newsletter, just email me your request. No special format is needed, because a person will read your message, not a machine!)




Doug Lipman

152 Wenonah Road, Longmeadow, MA 01106 U.S.A.
Phone: (781) 837-1940
Alternate Phone (rings the same line): (413) 754-6728
Fax (toll-free): (888) 300-6665

This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2001 Doug Lipman