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Oral Language Skills for Storytellers

(Twelve Skills of the Storyteller, Part 2)

This series describes the skills practiced, consciously or unconsciously, by masterful storytellers.

To be sure, effective stories can be told with just a subset of these skills. But familiarity with the advanced skills can help you advance your abilities and even recognize skills that you have been unaware of having.

In Part 1 I described three Imagination Skills. Now, on to the skills of oral language.

Oral language

Photo of man with newspaper looking shocked

Oral language has its own operating principles, strengths, and limitations.

At its most basic, storytelling involves imagining or remembering scenes, then describing them to your listeners.


In in-person storytelling, you describe scenes using oral language (spoken language), which differs from its close relative, written language. Oral language has its own operating principles, strengths, and limitations.

For example, written language relies chiefly on words, which vastly overpower the lesser channels, such as punctuation, typeface variations, etc. Oral language, though, uses many communicative elements in addition to words, such as:

  • Tone of voice
  • Facial expression
  • Gestures
  • Body language
  • Eye behaviors
  • Orientation in space (facing toward or away from listeners)
  • and a dozen or so more.

Further, many of the communicative elements of oral language, such as tone of voice, are powerful enough to completely overpower words. Sarcasm, for example, uses tone of voice to give words an opposite meaning. Said sarcastically, “Right!” means “Wrong!”

Skill 4: Master the Elements of Oral Language

There are an infinite number of effective oral language styles, ranging from leaping about the stage and declaiming in Shakespearean tones, to sitting quietly on your hands and shading your words with a subtly raised eyebrow.

Whatever style makes sense for a particular teller and telling, however, the masterful storyteller calls on well-developed expressive abilities in voice, face, eyes, hands, posture and the rest.

The masterful storyteller’s voice easily conveys a wide range of emotion. It creates interesting and appropriate shapes through rhythm, repetition, tempo, volume, pitch, pauses, and more.

The masterful storyteller also uses her or his body well, using postural changes and changes in muscular tension to convey clearly the attitudes of characters and the narrator herself.

The masterful storyteller uses her or his eyes well, alternating naturally among the “big four” eye behaviors:

i) Looking up and to the side while accessing images;
ii) Looking down and to the side while accessing emotions and attitudes;
iii) Looking at imagined objects or people while describing them or pretending to interact with them;
iv) Looking directly at listeners.

Each element of oral language has a wide range of expressive potential. It is possible to master each of them in ways that are unique to you.

Skill 5: Master the Interplay of Oral Language Elements

Not only does oral language use a variety of expressive elements, it also uses elements simultaneously and in succession.

Written language is basically linear: the second word comes inexorably after the first word, and so on. But because oral language broadcasts its communicative power over several channels, it is “multi-linear.” The “word channel” may carry its own programming while the “tone of voice channel” and the “posture channel,” for example, may be reinforcing that programming, negating it, or introducing new nuances.

Photo of woman with hand out and hard eyes

1st photo: all messages the same.

Photo of woman with hand out but soft eyes, etc.

2nd photo: mixed messages

Notice the two pictures of women giving non-verbal messages. In both photos, a woman holds out her hand in a clear gesture of “Stop! Don’t come closer!” In the first picture, all the other oral language channels support that message. The fingers are tightly together; the eyes are hard, the mouth firm, the chin set, the torso squared.

In the second picture, though, the messages are mixed. The fingers of the hand giving the “stop” gesture are somewhat relaxed and separated; the eyes are soft; the mouth is slightly opened (giving a feeling of uncertainty or apprehension); the torso is straight but without tension. The fingers and thumb on the woman’s other hand touch each other nervously. This person is communicating something like “I will stop you” but also “I am uncertain whether I can” and even “I am afraid.”

Taken together, these photos show how powerfully and succinctly oral language can communicate messages, even when the messages are complex.

The interplay of oral language channels also allows complex transitions. Imagine that you are telling about a critical boss’s response to your presentation, like this:

I knew I had said something stupid. Then my boss came charging over to me. He said, “Is that what I pay you to say?”

Suppose your posture begins as your own. Then, when the boss speaks in your story, you switch to the boss’s posture.

My Boss Got Mad At Me, version 1

"Boy, did I say someting stupid!" photo "Boy, did I say someting stupid!" photo angry man pointing
What was said “I knew I had said something stupid.” Then my boss came charging over to me He said, “Is that what I pay you to say?”
Whose words? Narrator’s Narrator’s Boss’s
Whose “body”? Narrator’s Narrator’s Boss’s

Even more is possible in oral language, though. You can go beyond alternating between the narrator and the boss by allowing them to overlap. For example, you could shift to the boss earlier in one of the channels than in the other.

To create this effect, you could begin with your own words and posture (“I knew I had said something stupid.”) But then you could begin shifting into the boss’s posture while you continue with your own words as narrator, “Then my boss came charging over to me.”

In this case, your words remain the words of the narrator. But the posture channel shifts to that of the boss, creating an anticipation of the full-out boss qualities that include the boss’s words, “Is that the way I pay you to talk?”

My Boss Got Mad At Me, version 2

"Boy, did I say someting stupid!" photo angry man pointing angry man pointing
What was said “I knew I had said something stupid.” Then my boss came charging over to me He said, “Is that what I pay you to say?”
Whose words? Narrator’s Narrator’s Boss’s
Whose “body”? Narrator’s Boss’s Boss’s

Masterful storytellers are expert at conveying such complexity through oral language.

An oral language aficionado?

How do you become so masterful? Begin by paying attention to the oral language of others. Notice it everywhere.

Watch videos with the sound turned off, then again with it on. Notice how people walk, stand and sit in airports and shopping malls.

Become an oral language gourmet. Play with it. Be swept away by it. Be tickled speechless by it. Be awed by it.

Try it out in your buddy sessions and your everyday conversation. Go over the top, beyond the limits – and then adjust back to what works. Conversely, start subtly and see which small changes can give big effects.

The ocean of oral language is enormous, offering endless territory to explore over a lifetime. And it fertilizes the river delta of storytelling with its unending expressive potential.

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