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How to Be Present When You Tell

When we are “present,” we engage with our listeners and with our story. But how do we do that? How do we connect immediately – rather than half-way through a story or not at all?

Many Ways to Connect

For me, being present with my audience first happened with a group of emotionally disturbed students. For over two months, they had resisted everything I tried to teach them.

Then one day I told them a story. Less than a minute into the story, their mouths were wide open and their eyes had a dreamy look. For the first time, I had the feeling we were on the same side.

This first connection with my listeners, then, came through unwittingly putting them into “story trance.” Once I felt them responding in that deep, silent way, I settled into the moment. Over the years since then, starting with a story that evokes that trance response has remained a reliable way for me to “show up.”

On the other hand, some people, like my wife, Pam McGrath, can connect with an audience more easily by bantering with them.

One day Pam stood up in front of a live audience to record on video her wonderful forty-five minute story called “Mary and Me: an Encounter with Mary of Magdela.” She spoke into her mic only to discover that it wasn’t working. She needed the mic for the video recording, not to be heard by her listeners.

So, while the videographer tried to get the mic to work, Pam just kibitzed with the audience, asking them questions and telling little jokes. This went on for ten or fifteen minutes!

By the time her mic was working and Pam could start the story, she and the audience were exquisitely connected. They were breathing together. Pam gave one of the best performances she has ever given.

A Wake-Up Call

One of Jay O’Callahan’s ways to become present and connect to his listeners is to make an evocative sound, such as the sound of wind at the seashore or of a parent whistling to a child to come in for dinner.

Such a sound can help the audience wake up and pay attention to Jay, while also enticing them to go deeper into themselves. The sound not only evokes the setting of Jay’s story, it calls listeners to leave behind analytical thinking and to respond instead with the image-creating parts of their minds.

Jay’s sound-making does even more, though. It also helps Jay connect to his story.

When he whistles as his father did to signal dinner time, Jay evokes the scene of the stories he is about to tell, his childhood neighborhood. The neighborhood, in turn, can evoke the ways he became more centered as a child, such as climbing the Big Tree behind his house. High in the tree, he got a sense of perspective, a feeling of his own competence, and an experience of connection to the natural world.

For Jay, then, a single sound not only engages his audience but also engages him with the world of his story. As a bonus, it reminds him of a youthful experience of becoming present.

What Are Some of Your Ways?

Most successful storytellers have more than one route to “showing up” during a telling. Pam, Jay and I all have found additional techniques for becoming present when trance stories, banter or sounds aren’t appropriate. Such techniques can be very personal, such as getting the audience to sing a particular song or recalling the face of a childhood mentor.

Of course, we can’t guarantee that any of these techniques will always work. Nonetheless, they are more effective than simply ignoring the problem.

Each storyteller needs to discover ways to step away from the unavoidable pre-performance preoccupations with travelling, setting up, assessing the physical space, and all the other concerns that are necessary for preparation but that interfere with performance.

In short, each of us needs ways to remind ourself of the glorious delights of the moment, of the privilege of interacting with a unique set of humans in a unique moment.

What ways have you found, that work for you?

(The above article is excerpted and adapted from the Storytelling Workshop in a Box, Lesson #17, How to Be Present.)

 

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