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Are You Being Selfish in Your Storytelling?

By and large, storytellers are unselfish. Compared to some who practice other artforms and other livelihoods, we tend to be cooperative, sharing, and generous.

But there’s a way in which I think we may be selfish – unintentionally.


We don’t demand good enough help with our storytelling.

You’re kidding, Doug, right?

I’m not kidding. Of course, being “undemanding” is hardly the definition of selfish.

But what happens when we allow ourselves to go unsupported? What happens to us, but, even more importantly, what happens to those around us?

Are you like Georgina?

“Georgina” was an early storytelling leader in her region. She caught the flame of storytelling years ago, and it quickly began to burn bright in her.

Generous of heart, she shared what she knew with those who had less experience. She became a leader in her storytelling community. In many ways, she still is.

But somewhere along the way, Georgina’s storytelling flame began to stutter.

It wasn’t her passion for storytelling; that continues to fuel her life. Rather, she fell into an all-too-common trap. Since she was the local expert, she didn’t insist on getting ever more help for herself. She may have even felt it would have been an admission that she wasn’t qualified to be a leader.

So her storytelling hit a plateau. Without the right kind of help – supportive yet challenging – her growth as a teller slowed to a near-stop.

By itself, that’s tragic. But even worse, her lack of growth slowed the growth of many around her. Anyone in her circle who turned to another teacher was seen as somehow disloyal to Georgina. Those around her (not Georgina herself) actually discouraged each other from getting the cross-fertilization they needed.

The net result? Her whole community’s storytelling, with rare exceptions, remains stalled. In spite of much good work there, newcomers stay interested only a little while before they catch a whiff of the staleness of the storytelling “scene” and turn to other endeavors.

Have You Gotten Stuck?

Maybe your problem isn’t like Georgina’s. Maybe you started off like a storytelling rocket and then hit turbulence. Before too long, you decided that “I just don’t have the talent” or “festival organizers just don’t like me.”

Or maybe you felt that you were growing as a teller, but those around you were not. Maybe, looking around at others who were stagnating, you decided to give up on storytelling and find an artform with more “excitement.”

Or perhaps you are a story listener who “got burned” one too many times by storytelling that could easily have been better than it was. Maybe you lost your enthusiasm as an audience member or as a volunteer at storytelling events.

In each of the above cases, storytellers failed to demand better help and, as a result, let others down. Do you see why I call that failure “selfish”?

Is This Failure Necessary?

None of this has to happen. It isn’t the fault of storytelling as an artform. It isn’t even the fault of our communities, although our communities have the power to change it.

Rather, these downward spirals can be reversed by even one teller saying, “I won’t settle for ineffective help. Storytelling is too important to be held hostage to my own timidity.”

What’s the Cure?

Expect good teaching and coaching from others. Don’t settle for teachers who imply, “This is how I do it, so this is how YOU should do it.”

Rather, expect teachers to respect your artistic intelligence – and to arm your intelligence with the vital information it needs, in order to make effective storytelling choices.

Expect those who come to YOU for teaching and coaching to succeed. Don’t settle for “blaming the victim”: if the student does not succeed, the teacher has failed. By trying again and again and even getting outside help for the student, the teacher can model high expectations.

Encourage tellers around you to explore sources of help, especially if they feel stuck in their storytelling. Likewise, accept the encouragement of others when you feel stuck.

If you can’t remember that it’s important for you to demand the best help, try to remember that FAILING to do so affects everyone around you: your teachers, your colleagues, and your listeners. Don’t be too selfish to succeed – and, therefore, to help storytelling itself to succeed.

This is issue #77 of “eTips from the Storytelling Coach” You can sign up for your free monthly subscription (complete with money-saving subscriber specials and announcements) in the upper right corner of this page.

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