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Four Roles for Storytellers – and Those Who Help Them

Years ago, Jay O’Callahan and I led a workshop together where he told his then-new story “Pouring the Sun.” Afterward, we talked about the crucial part our coaching relationship had played in the creation of his story.

Word picture: coaching, interviewing, directingHearing how I had helped Jay overcome some key hurdles, a participant said, “So Doug was one of the parents of the story, huh?”

No! Jay and I were emphatic. I surprised myself with how emphatic I was.

I said, “Jay was the story’s only parent. I was a midwife, helping the story be born.”

To be sure, in my style of coaching, it would be a betrayal of Jay for me to be a co-parent, to supply creative material for his story. Rather, I see myself as a helper who assists Jay in uncovering his own creativity.

Still, the participant could hardly be blamed for not knowing Jay’s and my deeply held belief about coaching, especially since other coaches base their work on different beliefs. My strong reaction was an indicator of a problem: how can we describe different coaching philosophies succinctly?

Are Interviewing Styles Similar?

This issue came back to my mind recently while reading books about interviewing. Many of the books treat interviewing as a one-way act of collection, as the interviewer “getting” information from someone. In this model, the creativity comes from the “data miner” not from the “data holder.”

This style of interviewing may make sense for a census taker or hospital intake interviewer. But it doesn’t work well at all when you are interviewing for the purpose of eliciting personal-experience stories.

In this latter case, both parties are seeking something that doesn’t yet exist: a particular version of the story of the person’s experience. To be sure, the experience already exists. But the interviewer and the person are about to create, together, a new STORY about that experience.

Again, the question popped up: How can we describe the various possible styles?

The Four Roles

All this put me to thinking: what are the actual similarities and differences between different approaches to coaching and interviewing? How can we explain them clearly, to ensure good matches between a style and a situation?

In response, I came up with four pairs of roles that coaches, directors, and interviewers (and others who work with storytellers of all kinds) can assign either to themselves and to those they work with:

1. Beneficiary or Helper;
2. Creative Director or Creative Assistant;
3. Evaluator or Contributor;
4. Elicitor or Story Source.

Each style of coaching (or of interviewing or directing) assigns the coach, etc., one role from each of these four pairs, and assigns the teller (or interviewee or actor) the other role. In some cases, a role can be shared. But how a coach assigns these four roles gives a clear, general description of the coach’s style.

Which of these roles do you want when you coach (or direct or interview) someone else? Which role do you want when you are being coached, directed, or interviewed?

Role #1: Beneficiary. Who is the event for?

In most professional interactions, one person has the role of Helper, while the other has the role of Beneficiary. For example, in a paid performance, the teller is the Helper, whereas the listeners are the Beneficiaries. In other words, the event is held for the sake of the audience, not for the primary benefit of the teller. That’s why the audience pays.

In coaching, on the other hand, the teller is usually the Beneficiary and the coach is the Helper.

Role #2: Creative Director. Whose creativity is given priority?

In my approach to coaching, the teller (not the coach) is the Creative Director. That is, as coach I apply my creativity to assisting the creativity of the teller, not directly to creating or adding to the teller’s story.

In many theatrical productions, on the other hand, the stage director is the Creative Director. The actor/storyteller is an instrument of the director, whose creativity is primary to the production. Some storytelling coaches see themselves as Creative Directors.

Role #3: Evaluator. Who evaluates the results?

In a story slam where the audience rates the tellers, the audience is the Evaluator. But if a teller hires a coach or other expert to evaluate the teller’s stories, then the coach serves as the Evaluator.

Role #4: Elicitor. Who draws out stories from the other?

In my role as coach, I often take the role of Elicitor. I question the teller, helping her or him find new stories or parts of stories that will meet the teller’s goals. Other coaches, on the other hand, expect the teller to do that work on her/his own.

Interviewers, of course, are almost always the Elicitors. Interestingly, some theatrical directors expect to pull stories out of actors and therefore take on the Elicitor role; whereas others leave the work of Elicitor to the playwright.

Coaching Styles Defined?

With these four role-pairs in mind, we can describe the basic philosophy of different coaches.

For example, in my model of coaching, I expect the roles to break down this way:

Beneficiary: the teller;
Creative Director: the teller;
Evaluator: the teller;
Elicitor: the coach.

That is to say, I coach for the sake of the teller and see myself as an assistant to the teller’s creativity, not as a substitute for it. The teller is in charge of deciding what suggestions of mine are worth acting on. And, whenever achieving the teller’s goals calls for it, I am happy to elicit additional scenes or stories from the teller.

In another of the many possible coaching models, however, the coach might have these expectations:

Beneficiary: the teller;
Creative Director: the coach;
Evaluator: the coach;
Elicitor: the teller. (The teller is expected to dig for stories outside the coaching session.)

These simple descriptions show important differences in coaching philosophy. I believe there is a place for many styles of coaching. At the same time, it is vital that the coach and teller match each other’s expectations.

Directing Styles?

Similarly, a very traditional theater director might expect:

Beneficiary: the director;
Creative Director: the director;
Evaluator: the director;
Elicitor: the playwright.

That kind of traditional director expects to be the creative “dictator” of a production that interprets a playwright’s work. But a different kind of director, one who expects a collaboration with actors (or storytellers) in creating new material based on the actor’s creativity, might expect this:

Beneficiary: the actor;
Creative Director: the actor;
Evaluator: the actor;
Elicitor: the director.

Both styles (and other variant styles, too) have a place. But if actors and directors expect different styles, trouble can ensue – especially without a shared vocabulary to describe these different expectations.

And Now, Interviewing Styles

With all that in mind, we can look at interviewers. The data-seeking census interviewer, for example, probably expects:

Beneficiary: the interviewer (ultimately, the interviewer’s
boss, the government and the people it represents);
Creative Director: the interviewer (The census taker interprets what the interviewee’s statements mean);
Evaluator: the interviewer (The census taker evaluates whether the required information has been obtained);
Elicitor: the interviewer.

What about the story-seeking interviewer? I can imagine several different, equally valid styles.

Suppose an interviewer wants to discover the stories a teller knows, but doesn’t want to find stories of a particular kind. (This might be true when interviewing a family member in the hopes of finding some family stories of any kind.) In such a case, the interviewer might expect:

Beneficiary: the interviewer;
Creative Director: the interviewee (The one being interviewed decides how to tell the stories);
Evaluator: the interviewer (The interviewer gets to define what a “family story” is);
Elicitor: the interviewer.

Now suppose that an interviewer is helping a family member discover stories, so that the family member can write a book. The expectations might be:

Beneficiary: the interviewee;
Creative Director: the interviewee;
Evaluator: the interviewee (The interviewee decides which stories s/he might want to include);
Elicitor: the interviewer.

Finally, consider the case of someone from a charity, interviewing a person who has benefited from the charity’s programs, so that the charity can use the person’s stories for fund-raising. In the case where the interviewer wants stories that will meet the organization’s purposes but also preserve the intention of the interviewee, the interviewer’s expectations will be:

Beneficiary: the interviewer;
Creative Director: shared between interviewer and interviewee;
Evaluator: the interviewer;
Elicitor: the interviewer.

I have summarized these examples in a chart (and explained them further) at

Which Roles Do You Want?

When you seek a coach, director, or someone to interview you, ask yourself these questions:

Do I expect to be the Beneficiary? Who do I expect to be the Evaluator, the Creative Director, and the Elicitor?

Just as importantly, ask yourself the same questions when you find yourself coaching, directing or interviewing.

In all cases, take the time to compare your expectations with those of the other person involved. You CAN get what you want – but first you may need clear terms in which to describe it.


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