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Beware the “Storytelling Voice”!




Wherever I travel, I try to listen to local storytellers perform. I like to support them and hear what they’re up to.

Much of what I hear encourages me: honest communication, well shaped and well delivered.

But nearly everywhere I also hear something I have learned to dread. I call it the Storytelling Voice.

A Warning!

I have hesitated to write about Storytelling Voice. Rather, I prefer to call attention to the good and let the bad fade away.

But Storytelling Voice is insidious. Unless your attention is called to it, it’s difficult to realize that you have this destructive habit or learn how to free your telling from it.

A Performance Virus?

Some tellers tell conversationally. Some tell more theatrically. Others use a distinctly elevated tone, suggestive of myth or ritual.

But some use an artificial tone of voice, a voice that suggests “I am a storyteller! You can tell by how I sooooound!”

There is no way to convey the sound of this voice in print. Its many variations all have one trait in common: the voice differs from the teller’s conversational voice for reasons having nothing to do with communication or the peculiar qualities of the tale being told. Rather, the teller imitates what the teller has perceived as “the way storytellers sound.”

In short, the teller is imitating (usually unconsciously) a way of speaking that is unnatural and contrived. Doubtless, the teller has picked it up from other tellers and assumed that this way of talking is a sign of belonging in “the storytelling club.”

Said differently, the Storytelling Voice is a virus passed from one well-meaning teller to another.

Sad Symptoms

The Storytelling Voice is not usually a fatal disease, although it can sometimes weaken storytelling communities alarmingly.

You see, when tellers succeed in mastering this artificial voice, they have little incentive to try to convey the nuances of expression that their stories demand. They are less likely to discover their own, unique forms of vocal expression.

Further, an artificially theatrical tone of voice can serve as insulation against truly experiencing the emotions, attitudes, and intentions of the story’s characters.

As a result, tellers and communities infected with storytelling voice tend to skate on the emotional surface of their stories. Their performances tend to lack variety and depth.

Tragically, audiences who come to a performance dominated by Storytelling Voice either buy into the idea that storytelling should sound like stilted acting, or they leave in search of a more compelling artform.

Invisible Symptoms

These symptoms are usually invisible to the well-meaning storytellers. They are unaware that they are doing something artificial. In their minds, they are simply “telling a story.”

Since they are not conscious of the habitual vocal style they have adopted, they have no way to notice its effect on their listeners and their community. When listeners fail to return, for example, the tellers simply bemoan the small numbers of people who seem to like storytelling.

It’s true: if you accept these tellers’ unconscious “definition” of storytelling, few people off the street find it compelling.

What Kind of Disease?

Storytelling Voice is an example of what I call “misdirected effort.”

“Misdirected effort” is a category of obstacle to your storytelling progess. It consists of trying, usually unconsciously, to improve your storytelling by exerting effort that, unfortunately, makes your storytelling worse.

An unconscious attempt to “sound like a storyteller” limits your storytelling. But, since your effort is unconscious, it’s hard for you to stop trying to speak that way.

There is a Cure

It’s not easy for a coach to do, but it is possible to help tellers notice their unconscious, misdirected effort. The easiest approach is to find a way to help the teller to NOT apply the effort for a while. Then you can help the teller notice the difference between what just happened and what the teller usually does.

For example, while leading a coaching workshop once, I listened to a teller – let’s call her Edna – whose version of a folktale was dripping with Storytelling Voice. I asked her, “Would you like some appreciations?” When she accepted my offer, I told her some things I liked about the story, her adaptation of it, and her way of characterizing one of the characters.

Then I said, “Would you like a suggestion?”

She said, “Yes.”

I said, “Before the suggestion, just tell me what happens in the story, in your own words. Don’t tell it; just tell me what happens.”

Edna began summarizing her story. Within a minute, she had begun telling it – but in her ordinary tone of voice. I let her finish, then I asked the others for appreciations. They were unabashedly enthusiastic. One said, “That was magnificent! I imagined what you were saying so vividly!”

Edna said, “But I wasn’t really telling it.”

I said, “How did it feel to “not really tell it”?

She said, “It felt kind of funny.”

I said, “Tell me more about how it felt.”

Edna said, “Well, I was so busy thinking about what happened that I didn’t really try to tell the story.”

I said, “Did you feel that somewhere in your body?”

She said, “You know, it felt a little more relaxed, like I didn’t have to put the story across to you.”

I said, “I think I can see the difference in how you stood. When you were ‘trying to tell the story,’ you leaned forward more. Does that feel correct?”

Edna was quiet a moment while she experimented with her stance. “Yes,” she said. “When I was just telling you what happened I felt more relaxed, almost like I was just waiting for a bus.”

“I can see it in how you’re standing now. It looks very centered, relaxed yet powerful.”

Edna’s eyes sparkled. “I can feel that!”

I said, “Your job, then, is to stand ‘like you’re waiting for a bus’ when you tell. That stance is very inviting to us. You don’t have to push the power of the story forward. Instead, invite us into the story. Does that make sense?”

“I’ve got it,” said Edna. “I can do that.”

Replacing the Misdirected Effort

To help Edna stop using Storytelling Voice, I needed to take her through four steps. Each teller will need unique help, but these steps will apply to most:

1. Tell at least part of a story without using Storytelling Voice.
2. Notice what it felt like NOT to use it.
3. Rescind the decision to use Storytelling Voice.
4. Replace the unconscious intention to use Storytelling Voice with another intention, in Edna’s case to “tell like she is waiting for a bus.”

Now Edna will be free to explore and develop much more interesting and varied approaches to her voice, to her characters, and to her stories themselves.

Treat the Patients Gently

In my mind, Storytelling Voice is a danger to our storytelling movement. It scares off potential audience members and keeps potentially wonderful tellers stuck in slavish imitation of an affected manner of speech.

But that doesn’t mean that we should be harsh toward those who have this unfortunate performance habit.

Instead, we need to treat them gently, like the devoted storytellers that they are. We can offer to coach them supportively, like I coached Edna. We can offer them information about this common problem. (Depending on your relationship with them, you might even be able to give them this article to read.)

We can perhaps say, relaxedly and affectionately, “I wonder if you have a touch of Storytelling Voice? Would you like to experiment telling a story the way you talk to a friend?”

We will need to be creative in approaching this issue and in helping unwitting sufferers recover. It will require patience, respectfulness, and genuine affection.

But the task is too important to ignore. After all, stories have power, and many more people could benefit from experiencing that power.

Even though we can’t afford to drive away audiences with too much Storytelling Voice, neither can we afford to drive away impassioned tellers who, in their eagerness to pass on the living breath of stories, have developed a common bad habit.

We need you; we need them; every true voice needs to be heard.


Do you want to learn to coach others? Do you want to be an informed consumer of coaching for yourself?

In either case, you need to understand what makes coaching work, and how a coach can support your creative thinking – not substitute the coach’s thinking for yours.

The Storytelling Coach book

Back in 1995, I wrote the first (and still the only) book on coaching storytellers, The Storytelling Coach: How to Listen, Praise, and Bring Out People’s Best. ( )

Now I am recording the entire book (I am actually “telling” it more than reading it), in segments that are 5 to 10 minutes long. I will make these recordings available each week as episodes in this podcast.

These recordings are free for your personal use.

The first episode, “A New Kind of Helper,” is online now. You can listen online, download the file, or subscribe to the podcast.

Please subscribe, to be sure not to miss an episode!


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