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Do You Show Yourself While You Tell?




photo of woman holding an orange hat over her face

It's not always easy to show yourself

(Twelve Skills of the Storyteller, Part 5)
The prior five articles in this series described:

This article takes up skills #10 and #11, the two key skills of showing yourself.

You can tell very well without having mastered these next two skills, but they are essential to becoming a great storyteller. In fact, if you have either of these two skills, you may be able to succeed in spite of lacking several of the other ten.

Skill 10: Show Yourself

The first skill is showing yourself. This sounds easy. Yet it can be one of the hardest skills of all.

We all have unique characteristics, a unique flavor. Along the way, our most obvious characteristics are likely to have received negative attention. People may have teased us for our way of laughing, our sense of humor, or our way of phrasing things – in short, for having any identifiable characteristic at all.

As a result, we may have learned to hide our uniqueness. Carried to extremes, this may make us inoffensive but also bland.

The best storytellers can allow themselves to be tasted just as they are, to let their flavor completely emerge – and do not try to disguise it with salt or MSG.

Letting Your Light Shine

I met someone 15 years ago at a concert I gave of Jewish mystical stories for adults. She came to several such concerts over the next months. One day, though, she heard me tell participation stories to school children. She said, “I didn’t know you could be like that!”

I said, “What?”

She said, “You were so playful, so uninhibited!”

I understood that she was right. I was showing a side of myself with the children that I had largely kept hidden from adults. I was doing well with adults, I realized. But until I could figure out how to let my playfulness show, too, this hiding would keep me from being the best storyteller I could be.

photo of Will Rogers, cowboy and humorist

“He's always himself. He doesn't try to be funny. He just is.”-- Betty, Will Rogers' wife.

We have all heard storytellers, stand-up comedians, even politicians who, no matter what they’re doing, always seem to be themselves.

Think of Will Rogers, the Oklahoma cowboy, comedian, philosopher, and actor. He had such a strong sense of being Will Rogers – and no one else. His voice, his facial expressions, his attitudes, and his way of expressing himself were unmistakable.

That’s what the best storytellers can do. They have figured out how to let themselves show through, to be transparent. They are not holding anything back. They show exactly who they are.

Skill 11: Find Your Purest Motivation and Stick With It

This skill involves choosing a part of yourself to put forward, while ignoring other parts.

You might say, “But, Doug, you said that we’re not supposed to hide anything!”

Ignoring is different from hiding. Hiding something is putting up a barrier between that part of yourself and the audience. When you do so, you can be sure that your listeners will sense the barrier, sooner or later, and respond negatively.

But “ignoring” doesn’t involve drawing a curtain in front of a part of yourself. Instead, it means to leave that part in shadow while you shine a light on a different part.

It means to put all your vitality into one part of yourself while letting the other parts lie dormant. Those other parts aren’t hidden, but neither are they activated by your energy or your attention.

Choosing a Motivation

We have many motivations for telling. For example, we may love to be the center of attention, to have people love us and applaud us. Or we may be motivated by our self-image as an inspiring teacher, a lively entertainer, or an agent of personal or societal transformation. We may be hungry to see ourselves reflected in our audiences’ eyes as clever, warm, honest, or charming.

Those motives aren’t bad. We don’t necessarily need to purge ourselves of them.

But if these motives come to the fore, we risk betraying our listeners’ trust.

photo of a bottle on a shore with a message inside

Offer a gift of hope?

Somewhere inside us, we also have a motivation that is purely for the sake of the listener. It may be to offer them a gift of hope, or of seeing their own goodness, or of relieving them of a burden (of busyness, guilt or timidity, for example).

In each situation, our motivation for their sake may be a little different. But that motivation (or that cluster of motivations) is what that belongs at the forefront as we tell.

In other words, your listeners didn’t sign up to give you a good time. Instead, they signed up to get a good time for themselves. It’s just fine for you to enjoy the process, but they expect you to be there for them.

Therefore, you need to find the particular altruistic motivation you have in each telling – whether to instruct, to entertain, to delight, or to warn – and place that motivation in the sunlight. Breathe life into that motivation. Let your heart’s blood flow into it and cause it to pulse.

For the duration of your telling, all your other motivations will wither from lack of attention, from the loss of psychological nourishment. They may well be present, and they may come to the fore later on at home. But for this moment, you put this motivation first. When you do, you become a servant to your listeners. You are there for their sake. All else becomes as nothing.

Only then can you become a slave to their delight, to their thirst for meaning. You have the great opportunity then to place your own desire far behind your listeners’ deep hungers – including their hunger for connecting to you, to each other, to the story, and even to the transcendent realities that stories hint at, everywhere and in every time.


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