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What Can Storytellers Learn from Tulsa?




Note: I am re-posting this newsletter, which I first wrote in November, 2005, in honor of my upcoming move from Oklahoma back to Boston (scheduled for July, 2009).

Since I moved to Tulsa last winter, the city has been my storytelling teacher.

One day last month, I walked between my car and the car parked next to it, as I was about to leave a crowded parking lot. Fifteen feet ahead of me, I saw a woman in a denim jacket standing there, smiling. I smiled back at her.

II got in my car, then took my time arranging my seat belt and my CD player. Finally, I started the engine and backed out of the parking space.

As I pulled out, the woman in denim walked into the space where I’d been standing and got into her car.

I realized with a start that I hadn’t known she was waiting for me. I had thought she was just standing there, perhaps enjoying the day. I felt a twinge of guilt, because I certainly would have moved faster, if I’d understood.

Then I remembered: this has happened to me before in Tulsa. I don’t always recognize that people are waiting. Why? Tulsans have a behavior that I never recognized in 35 years living in Boston, which I call “placid waiting.”

In Boston, if someone is waiting for you, you know it! Their body language gives many clues, some subtle, some not. The most obvious signs, which are fortunately rare, include glancing at their watches, folding their arms, and even tapping their feet. But the less obvious signs are just as clear. People stand with their weight forward. They may even lean forward at the waist. They have an expression on their faces as if they are about to take a breath and leap into something.

They do not look placid.

Now, whenever I catch myself leaning forward impatiently, I think to myself, “My impatience won’t really make this line at the grocery go faster. I might as well enjoy myself.”

When I can remember to wait placidly, I love it. I feel like I’ve been freed from an evil enchantment and can now enjoy the world around me – including the people who are making me wait.

The Storytelling Connection

You might be wondering, “What does placid waiting have to do with storytelling?”

To understand the answer to this question, you need to realize that your storytelling thrives because of many factors. For example, it’s important to imagine your story well. It’s also important to shape your story well, It’s equally important to be in touch with the emotions of the story’s characters. And much more.

But, in the end, imperfections in any of those factors can be compensated for by one skill. Further, if that one skill is absent, your storytelling will almost cetainly fail.

What is that one skill that, when present, almost guarantees success – and that, when absent, nearly always means failure?

The skill is relationship building. If you build a good relationship with your listeners, you will succeed. Your listeners will forgive you many mistakes, because they feel that you are talking to THEM. Conversely, even if you’re wonderful in every other detail, they will tire of you if you’re not creating an honest relationship with them.

What is the most important part of creating a relationship with your listeners? You must begin by letting them know that you choose to be with them, that you respect and care about them.

Sending the Message That You Care

How do you show your willingness, respect and caring? Don’t try to put it into words. As soon as you say, “I care about you,” your listener will think, “Why? You don’t really know me. What do you want from me?”

Instead, you reveal your attitude through HOW you talk, not through what you say. You convey it with tone of voice, with the pace at which you speak, and through a number of subtle but observable behaviors: How far forward is your weight? How much tension is in your head, your neck, your throat, and thus your voice?

People will respond to these cues, usually unconsciously – but all the more strongly because such signals operate below their awareness, and therefore they can’t compensate for them consciously, as they can for your words.

How do you give the right cues? It’s easier than you might think. To be sure, it’s possible to break these elements of body language into small pieces. You can work on any habitual tension in your neck, say, or on where you place your weight when you tell.

That isn’t usually the best way to improve, though. It’s often counter-productive, and, at best, not a good use of your time. Actually, the best tactic is to find your placid place, your sincerely pleased place inside you.

The Simple Way to Tell Like a Tulsan

As you tell, remember that you’re not in a hurry for the storytelling to be over. You’re not in a hurry for your listeners to like the story – or to like you. Rather, you’re having the time of your life, wanting nothing more than being right here with these people, right now.

If you find that placid place, then your subtle body language will convey a respectful invitation to your listeners. Then, if you follow up well, you and your listeners will form an ever-more-solid relationship. And that is about the most important secret ingredient of your storytelling success.

When you’ve succeeded – when you can look back at storytelling well done – remember to thank the people of Tulsa. They may not have received much recognition for their city yet. But they’re enjoying themselves anyway, while they wait.



Want to put the ideas from the Article of the Month (above) into pracitce? I’m giving away an exercise you can do with a partner (or a group), to notice the effect of your stance as you tell.

In this exercise, you will have a chance to learn the effects of a very specific change in your way of telling – a change that can make the difference between success and failure.

Here are the full instructions for an exercise you can do with a partner (or a group), to notice the effect of your stance as you tell.

1. Choose a story that you know well. Tell about 2 minutes of it to your partner.

2. Ask your partner for appreciations: What did your partner like about the story, your telling of it, or the effect on your partner?

3. Now spend a moment finding your relaxed, confident state. It may help to remember a time when you felt completely relaxed and alive, when you didn’t want anything to be different from how it was. Perhaps you remember:

a time you were in a favorite place?
a time you were with a favorite person?
a time you were engaged in a favorite activity?

Focus on how that time felt. Then try to bring that feeling into your body.

4. Now, tell for another two minutes. Perhaps you would like to:

tell the same exceprt or story again.
continue with the next section of the story you told
tell a different story. (This may make #5 less conclusive.)

5. Ask your partner for appreciations. Then ask one or more of these questions:

Was there anything different between the two times, about the way I told?
Did you feel differently toward me during the two tellings?
Did you notice anything different about the way I stood? About the gestures I used? About my tone of voice?

6. Talk to your partner about how the two tellings felt to you. Did you notice a difference. Did you feel differently toward your listener?

If there was a difference that you or your partner noticed, what does that difference tell you?
If there was no difference, check out with your partner which of the following may have caused the lack of difference:

Perhaps you always tell with relaxed confidence.
Does this fit your and your partner’s experience?
Perhaps you were unable during the exercise to become relaxed.
Does this fit?

7 (optional) If you wish – and your partner consents – you can try to tell one more time.

8. Switch roles with your partner and repeat steps 1-7.

Let me know how this goes for you!

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