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Give Your Storytelling Some Muscle

(Kinesthetic Imagery, Part I)

Years ago, my friend Charles told me about the first time he heard a certain rising executive speak to a group. Charles said, “I thought, who is this man? Why do I dislike him so much?”

Charles went on to tell me how stiffly the man stood. “And when he gestured, it was as though he was cutting the air. I felt instantly that I needed to defend myself against him. I decided right then not to trust him.”

What Charles Saw

Charles is unusual. Not because he received a negative impression of the executive that day; many others felt “put off” by him.

No, Charles is unusual because he could articulate sensory information that, for many of us, affects us only unconsciously. Charles was one of the relatively few who is aware of taking in kinesthetic information. But nearly all of us are deeply affected by it!


Kinesthetic sensations are those of our muscles, joints, and guts. We feel them in our own bodies, but, because we tend to subtly synchronize our postures and muscle tensions with the one speaking, we also get an impression of what another person “feels like.”

Have you ever called someone else “a pain in the neck”? This figure of speech arose because, through imitation or defense, many of us tense our neck muscles around such people. The person who is “off kilter” makes us feel uncentered; the one who helps us “take a load off” our minds is the one who helps us straighten up and feel lighter.

As a culture, we tend to focus on words and sight: what people say and how they look. But the kinesthetic (how people stand and move) unconsciously guides our sense of how to interpret their words and facial expressions. It communicates intention. As a result, it helps determine the attitude we take toward people – and toward the people in our stories.

Kinesthetics in Characters

Kinesthetic imagery is, as a result, a doorway to powerful characterization.

If you can find your character’s intention and then find a stance that communicates it, you will convey the character’s attitude instantaneously and continuously.

Your listeners will get a “feel” for your character, not just hear a character voice and be told about the character’s actions.

How to Find Intention

How do we find a character’s intention? Start with the MIT (Most Important Thing) about your story: your meaning, message, goal or touchstone for a story. Then decide how your character relates to your MIT.

For example, suppose you are telling “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and you wish to create the character of the giant. Instead of starting with “my giant should be large and scary,” I suggest you start with your MIT for the story as a whole.

What is “Jack and the Beanstalk” about for you? Is it about courage rewarded? About regaining one’s rightful inheritance (in some versions, the giant’s magic objects once belonged to Jack’s father)? About innocence and perseverance overcoming brawn?

Putting Flesh on the MIT’s Bones

Suppose your MIT is as simple as “the small can overcome the large.” Well, how does the giant relate to that? To be sure, he is large. But what is his attitude toward the small? Does he disdain Jack’s puniness? Does he lust to inflict pain or incite terror in defenseless Jack? Or does he feel clumsy and find Jack a reminder of how difficult it is for him to control his own motions?

Talk to a willing listener about your giant’s attitudes toward the small. Ask your listener to stop you the instant that you do something physical that communicates whatever you’re talking about at the moment.

Finding the Attitude

Suppose I am coaching a teller who says, “The giant feels excluded from ordinary society because of his size and crudeness. He hates small people, especially smart ones. They remind him of his painful inability to fit in. He sees Jack as a flea come to torment him. He just wants to swat Jack out of his life.”

As the teller says, “He wants to swat Jack,” I interrupt.

“There!” I say, “What do you feel right now?”

The teller says, “I feel like I want to turn away from Jack. But I can’t. I’ve got to deal with him.”

I say, “Do you feel that in your torso?” (That’s where I saw something happening in the teller.)

The teller says, “Do you mean how I’m kind of twisting away on one side?”

“Yes,” I say. “Talk about that.”

The teller goes on to explain: the giant’s stance toward Jack is that of wanting to get away from him, but being unable to flee from his own home. So, along with his strong urge to turn away, the giant feels forced to deal with the painful annoyance that Jack represents. His right shoulder turns away even as his head bows down and sticks out in front of him.

This postural stance is so all-encompassing for the teller that he doesn’t have to “create” a facial expression, gestures, or a voice for the giant. They all come naturally as an extension of the posture, which, in turn, has come from the giant’s relationship to the teller’s MIT for the story.

Don’t Underestimate the Kinesthetic Power!

Seeing this posture, the teller’s listeners will perceive the giant’s attitude and understand, intuitively, how it relates to the overall struggle between large and small that animates this teller’s “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

The kinesthetic imagery serves, in this case, as the central image that embodies the story’s meaning. Partly because it is received unconsciously, it has the power to shape the listeners’ congitive and emotional responses.

Is it going too far to say that kinesthetic imagery is, like Jack, able to overcome the brawn of visual and word imagery, precisely because it can sneak in unnoticed?

In more ways than one, it is the hidden muscle of your storytelling.

(Part 2 of this article will cover “Kinesthetics And Your Audience.”)

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