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Emotional Authenticity for Storytellers




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Let emotions flow through you—and make it safe for your listeners to feel.

(Twelve Skills of the Storyteller, Part 4)
The prior four articles in this series described:

In this article, we’ll take up the skills of emotional authenticity.

The first of these skills is to imagine and communicate the emotions essential to a story; the second is to make it safe for your listeners to experience those same emotions.

Skill 8: Allow Emotions To Flow Through You

The best tellers imagine all the emotions felt by each character in a story, as well as the likely reactions of their listeners. Emotions, after all, are a significant part of human experience.

But here’s the rub: you’re a human, too. You have lots of emotions inside you. Some of these emotions are fully processed and easily available to you, but some aren’t.

Telling a story that requires only fully processed emotions isn’t hard. It’s like a pleasant review of a well organized photo album. You “open” the feeling, tell about it, then “put it back” where it was. In this case, imagining how your character felt is not too different from imagining the color of your character’s eyes.

Other emotions, though, aren’t just memories; they are more like unfinished tasks. Letting these unprocessed emotions flow through you while you try to guide your listeners isn’t so easy.

Your Emotional Closet

Telling a story that brings up unprocessed emotions is not like paging through a photo album. Instead, it’s like opening the door to a closet crammed with a thousand loose photos.

First of all, you’ve probably learned to avoid anything in that closet, because you know what a big project it would be to get the photos back inside if you were to open the door even a little.

Second, you can’t just go straight to the photo you want; you’ll have to at least paw through the ones on top of it, tear off the ones stuck to it, and look at each photo closely to decide if it’s really the one you want.

Third, some of the photos will have unfinished tasks associated with them, like sending the copies you promised to Aunt Nancy or deciding whether to order more copies of your publicity shots.

In other words, the fully processed photos in an album don’t require much of your attention; you can go straight to them and easily close the album when you’re done. But the photos piled in the closet represent a backlog of demands on your attention.

Telling About a Dog

If your dog died last week, telling a story about Jack’s dog might remind you of your unprocessed grief. It may well bring tears to your eyes, tears that desperately need to be shed.

In this case, you’ll be torn between your need to serve as a guide for your listeners and your need to clean up your own emotional closet.

Please note: the issue here isn’t that you might cry while you tell. If you can clearly indicate that you’re okay while you cry, you may be able to guide your listeners through your tears. Rather, the danger is that the pull of the unprocessed emotion can compromise your ability to fully attend to your job as your listeners’ guide – or that your listeners might perceive your abilities to be compromised.

Closet Cleaning

“Unsorted” feelings need to be processed emotionally. You need to cry the uncried tears, laugh away the unprocessed backlog of humiliation or light fears, face the accumulated anger, etc.

Interestingly, the fully processed emotions also seem to get “albumized” along the way. That is, they get stored mentally in a way that allows you easy access to them – with little mental overhead.

Now you can appreciate what Skill 8 really demands. It demands that you have cleaned out your emotional closets (or at least the ones relevant to a given story).

When you have done so, you can imagine the emotions in a story fully and relaxedly. You won’t need to keep the closet door rigidly shut or else let out the whole mess; you’ll be able to open it exactly as much as makes sense for your audience’s optimal experience.

The Hollow Reed

Here’s another way of describing this skill. Think of yourself as a hollow reed. Images and emotions come in one end of the reed and flow out the other to your listeners. Everything in the story flows easily through you.

The key here is to let the reed be hollow. You want to clean it out before you tell, so that feelings don’t get stuck on obstructions in your reed. You also need to hold the reed gently; if you hold it in a death grip, it will narrow and stop the flow.

In advance of telling, clean out the reed. At the moment of telling, though, remain relaxed and delighted with the emotions flowing easily through it.

Skill 9: Create Emotional Safety

When you have hollowed your reed (or cleaned out your emotional closets), you have made it possible to feel your emotions freely. Congratulations! You are halfway there.

What’s the other half of your job? You need to make it safe for your listeners to feel the story’s emotions, too.

Keep in mind that we humans are designed to respond to unspoken attitudes. That’s a survival skill, allowing us to distinguish between would-be allies and enemies. This means that your listeners respond to your attitudes about your telling, not just to what you say or do.

I have learned over the years that I can say highly controversial things without producing a backlash, as long as I say them relaxedly. But whatever I’m nervous about saying, no matter how innocuous, is likely to be challenged.

Here’s an extreme example. Suppose I said, “The sky is falling,” in a pleasant, relaxed tone. People would likely show mild interest but no concern.

On the other hand, if I make the perfectly uncontroversial statement, “The sky is blue,” but say it with a concerned tone, people may leave their seats immediately to check out whatever danger might be descending on them.

One part of creating emotional safety for your listeners, then, is to wrap your whole performance in a relaxed attitude. The second part is to lead the way emotionally.

Joy and Horror

photo of speaker Bud Welch

Bud Welch, master of leading the way emotionally

Back in 2005, a man named Bud Welch gave an unforgetable keynote address at the National Storytelling Conference in Oklahoma City.

Bud’s daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Knowing that, I almost didn’t attend. I didn’t want to hear about horror and loss. In the end, I went but sat in back in case I decided not to stay.

To my amazement, Bud spent the first half of his time talking about the joys of raising his daughter. He told, with real enjoyment, how his daughter Julie was born premature with a 10% chance of survival, but lived to become Bud’s best friend and constant companion.

He told how, in the seventh grade, Julie met a girl from Mexico who didn’t speak English. Yet the girl quickly became bilingual, inspiring Julie to want to do the same. By the time she entered college, she had mastered four languages and spent a year living in Spain.

Bud, raised on a farm and the owner of his own service station, said that the day he took Julie to college in Wisconsin, “I didn’t have a shirt that would fit me, because my chest was swelled so big with pride.”

Bud told about Julie with such joy and love that I opened myself to him. To this day, I feel that I, too, love his daughter Julie, who I never met.

photo of Julie Welch, Bud's daughter

Julie Marie Welch. September 12, 1971 - April 19, 1995

Julie’s love of reaching out across language boundaries led her to take a job at the federal building in Oklahoma City, assisting immigrants and the disadvantaged. That’s why she was one of the 168 people killed by the bomb set there by Timothy McVeigh.

If Bud had been angry and tense at the beginning of his talk, I would have discounted him. If he had been completely unemotional, I would have remained uninvolved. But he shared his feelings about Julie for nearly 30 minutes, relaxedly and unabashedly. He was clearly experiencing feelings of pleasure.

In other words, he walked through the gates of joy and invited me to follow. Once we were there together, I could go with him through the gates of horror and rage, too.

By leading the way, he made it safe for me to feel things I had been reluctant to feel only an hour before. I have been grateful to him ever since.

Still More Skills to Come

In future articles, I’ll describe three skills in these two additional categories:

  • Being and showing yourself.
  • Flexibility in performance

All six categories of storytelling skills are important. Yet the skills of emotional authenticity have a privileged place among them. With these two hard-won skills, you will have a key for connecting more deeply with your listeners – and for opening your listeners to a more profound experience of your stories and perhaps of the world.


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