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Do You Know the First Thing About Storytelling?

By “Do you know the first thing about storytelling,” I mean, “What’s the primary – the most important – thing to know?”

You see, many people come to storytelling with an idea, often unconscious, of what storytelling consists of. When that idea is incorrect or unhelpful, it leads them to tell stories ineffectually.

And the Word Is…

A common idea is that stories are made of words. We’ve been taught that implicitly in school. We treat the words on a page as though they ARE the story we’re reading.

But holding a paper with words written on it is no more holding the story…than holding a cake recipe is holding a slice of angel food, fresh out of the oven.

And when you focus on the words, your telling tends to get drier and less vivid. The flavor is in what you imagine, not in the recipe!

In the Beginning Was the Image?

So it would be a great step forward to think of stories as made primarily of images rather than of words.

In fact, as soon as you understand and act on that idea, your stories will get better! They will have the spark of life that only fresh imagining can bring.

But that’s not the full story, either. To be sure, imagining is part of your job. Standing alone and imagining, though, is not the same as telling.

If You Tell a Story Alone in the Forest…

It’s easy to forget that storytelling has to do with communication. But there have to be at least two people there!

In other words, for both teller and listener, a story-telling is an event to be experienced, not an object or even an image to be admired.

If you think of storytelling as about COMMUNICATING images, your telling will improve even more. You will be more sensitive to the presence of your listeners, and that will help you succeed.

What Do You Mean by ‘Communicating’?

But that isn’t all of it. You see, many of us think of communication as something that is done by the teller to the listener. That’s a mechanical idea of communication: “I speak and my message is conveyed to you.”

When people listen to you telling a successful story, though, they have to actively construct images and meaning. They are not passive recipients. They are active makers.

It’s Not About You

To me, then, the essence of storytelling is “a communicative event in which you stimulate your listeners to imagine.”

When you tell with that understanding, you will avoid many common problems that come from thinking that storytelling is about you, the teller – instead of about your listeners and their active listening.

Don’t get me wrong. The teller is important. The teller stimulates. The teller is the gardener who plants the seed.

But the seed needs earth to grow in. Truly perceived, the earth is always more important than the gardener.

In that way, when you understand the listener’s imagining to be the essence of storytelling, you will be solving the right problem. You will be seeking to entice your listeners to imagine.

For example, you will likely notice when they ARE imagining. You will give them the time to imagine, because you will take the time to notice when their eyes and bodies suggest they are still busy imagining what you just said.

In this and a thousand other small and large ways, your storytelling will blossom according to its full potential. Starting with the most useful concept of storytelling is the quickest way to success.

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