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What is Excellence in Storytelling?

In recent years, some respected storytellers have called for the establishment of standards in storytelling. They are aware that public storytelling performances show a variety of skill levels, and that we have no formal way to distinguish the master teller from the less accomplished.

I have been uneasy with the idea of standards. After all, humans have been telling stories well for millennia without the benefit of formal standards. More importantly, in our society we tend to misuse standards to rank what can’t be ranked and to focus on that which can be readily measured – as opposed to that which really matters.

On the other hand, storytelling done well is transformative, whereas storytelling done poorly can be boring or inane. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could separate one from the other or at least identify clearly what needs to be improved?

It’s easy to start making lists of things a storyteller must do in order to be excellent. They range from the physical, like “have good diction” to the structural, like “have a dramatic build to a climax.”

As sympathetic as I am to the intent of this approach, I remain uncomfortable with the fact of an abstract list of what makes storytelling excellent. Why? Storytelling is so dependent on the context in which it’s done. We tell stories differently (and hear them differently) depending on the who, where, and why of the storytelling event.

The story that might be transformative in a bar among friends, for example, would be interpreted differently if told from the pulpit in a house of worship. A story that might be moving and memorable when told to your child at night would not necessarily work at the National Storytelling Festival. Of course, the festival story might not necessarily work well if it were told in a corporate board meeting.

Therefore, standards need to be dependent on the situation. As a first step toward clarity about this, let’s look at the six “bosses” that I believe we serve: six sets of expectations that jointly determine our success.

Suppose you are hired to perform stories. First, the person who hired you (the “organizer”) has goals and objectives. If you don’t achieve those, you will not succeed.

Second is the funder – who may be the same as the organizer or not. If you’re telling in a school and a teacher brings you in as the organizer, the funding may come from a Parent Teacher Organization or a state arts council. The funder’s goals must be responded to, too.

Third is the listeners. In schools, students are the primary listeners – and may have very different expectations and needs from those of the teacher and the PTO. To succeed, you must respond appropriately to all these sets of expectations.

Fourth, the situation in which you are telling brings along its own expectations, both implicit and explicit. The way you would tell a story in a 400-student assembly in the cafetorium of an elementary school will likely differ from what you would do in an individual classroom of 30 students or in a private moment with an individual child – not to mention what you would do in a child’s bedroom at home or in the school committee board room.

Fifth, you have goals and expectations of your own. Someone might say, “YOUR goals don’t affect excellence. The goals of the others are the only goals that matter.” But there is a danger to that perspective. If you aren’t finding a way to engage your passions, if you’re not tapping into your vital energies, then, even though you may meet the surface expectations, your storytelling won’t be fully alive. It won’t have the spark of creativity and joy that only comes when you’re having the time of your life.

Finally, there is a sixth “boss” that can trump them all: the needs of the moment. You can go in with a story that is likely to be perfectly suited to the situation, the listeners, the funders, the organizer, and your own goals. But something can happen at the last minute or even during the performance that changes everything. If you do not respond to the needs of the moment you will fail – no matter how well you’ve met the expectations of others.

Years ago, I told at an international conference of several thousand educators. The conference was large enough to have its own impromptu daycare center. There was so much programming that one of the storytelling performances started at 11pm.

The late-night show included four other tellers and me. The show’s topic was so specific that I knew only one suitable story of the right length. As a result, I knew exactly what I planned to tell.

But when we arrived at 11pm, the emcee made an announcement:

“Some of you know that there was an accident today in the daycare center here. A two-year-old fell off a platform. We have just learned that the child has since died.”

Immediately, the audience began murmuring to each other. Parents who had brought their children to the conference left to see them. Parents who had left their children far away left the room to call them on the phone. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, we were finally able to start the show.

What were the needs of the moment? To speak to these people who had just learned that something terrible had happened.

I had a choice: tell the story I had planned or tell a different story that might better meet the suddenly altered emotional needs of the listeners.

I decided to try to introduce the pre-selected story in a way that might somehow make it connect to the fact of the child’s death. It didn’t work. My story would have been excellent had the needs of the moment been different, but as it was, it failed.

When we are thinking about how to be excellent as storytellers, we cannot rely exclusively on abstract absolutes. As important as standard ways of speaking about storytelling excellence may become in the future, we will still need to relate everything we do to the task of meeting the needs of our six “bosses” – who change their demands from situation to situation, and, occasionally, from moment to moment.

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