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Mastering the Art of Storytelling

Updated on September 4, 2014
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I read with interest that the Singapore International Storytelling Festival 2014, with storytellers of different cultural and ethnic origin, is coming our way.

This piqued the storyteller in me. We all know the old adage. Everyone loves a good story. All writers are storytellers at some point.

A tale that engages moves and compels audiences in many different ways. For those who believe that storytelling is but time-wasting creativity, I beg to differ. It has countless benefits.

But what makes a good story? How should we tell it so that we engage any audience we relate it to?

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1. The benefits of storytelling

Before discussing the what and the how, we have to believe in the merits of storytelling. It has benefits, whether for the children in your care or the employees in your workplace.

a. We explore cultural identity.

Storytelling enables people to attune to cultural identity. It makes children and adults aware that

the world includes different people. It also allows them to connect with their own cultural identity.

It makes differences palatable and prompts people to embrace them.

b. It boosts empathy.

By exposing people to different cultures, storytelling boosts empathy. It opens their eyes to the various situations that others experience.

Storytelling creates possibilities, whether physical, mental or emotional. It encourages people to appreciate others and the obstacles they face.

c. Storytelling offers insights into different values and perspectives.

It does so by showing people that different values and perspectives are possible. A good story makes readers or listeners realize that none of us think alike.

It shows that everyone reacts differently to situations and circumstances.

d. Storytelling prompts people to consider new ideas.

It also shows the audience that new ideas are possible. Listeners and readers realise that there is more than one way of achieving a task or approaching a situation.

Though fantastical, we can tailor these approaches to deal with the real problems that affect our lives.

e. It arouses curiosity.

To add, storytelling builds curiosity. It encourages children and adults to ask questions. It allows the mind to grow.

f. It increases knowledge.

Storytelling also grows the mind by increasing our knowledge. For children, it increases the number of words in their vocabulary banks.

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2. What makes a good story

What, then, makes a good story? A good story is, after all, subjective and depends on the nature of the audience.

a. The readers/listeners must relate to it.

The audience must relate to the story. We all disconnect when the subject matter of the story is irrelevant.

To a listener, a story that is not relevant to their lives is not worth reading or listening to.

b. The subject should interest readers.

Relevance equals interest. The subject of the story should interest the listeners. Relating a science fiction narrative to an audience that prefers romance is not advisable, unless the two are integrated carefully.

Always look out for what is trending. That connects listeners with the story immediately.

c. Use other sources.

To add, draw inspiration from different sources. Television is not all bad. We can modify stories that grace our television screens.

A lovely song tells a story. Another story may serve as inspiration too.

d. Have an engaging hook.

All stories aim to engage. Storytellers only have a short minute to capture the attention of our audiences.

Make the hook creative and engaging. We can start at the climax or the most exciting part of the story. Start with "She looked around furtively and put the watch in her pocket."

It immediately prompts questions such as "Who is she?", "Is she a thief?" or "Why is she so concerned about the watch?"

e. A good story is interactive.

Storytelling is made more effective if we encourage audience participation. If you are narrating a story to children, ask questions such as "What do you think happened next?" or "Who do you think came after this?" to engage their minds and encourage them to interact.

If you are narrating a story to adults, ask for volunteers. Tell a joke, for humor always helps.

f. It has engaging characters.

Create relatable characters. Characters the audience associate with always engage. If they are slightly exaggerated, it makes them fun.

g. It has a message.

A story must have a point. There is nothing worse than a rambling tale without a purpose.

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How to tell a story

3. How to tell a good story

But how to we narrate a story effectively? How do we use a story to compel and motivate?

It all boils down to your audience. Have it in mind and vary your approaches.

a. Children

i. Have eye contact

If you are telling a story to children, make sure that you maintain eye contact with the audience.

As a beginning primary school teacher, I used to make the mistake of lowering my head and eyes. And yes, the children climbed over my head.

ii. Let children participate in the story

Children should participate in the story. If you are telling a story to a listening audience, ask for volunteers.

If you are writing the story, have points when children interact with pictures or puzzles. The online game developer, Her Interactive, does this well. It creates stories told from the viewpoint of Nancy Drew, the famous teen detective created by Carolyn Keene.

The stories involve players, who become Nancy. They tell the stories and solve mysteries from her perspective.

iii. Bring characters to life with creative voicing.

If you are narrating the story, use different voices for different characters. Bring them to life via creative voicing.

Little children equate voices with characters. It helps them to establish the charcter's identities and traits.

iv. Incorporate a creative project

To make the story meaningful, follow it up with a creative project. Help children to remember the story by getting them to dress up as its characters.

You could also get them to offer alternative endings to the story.

Which is your favorite story genre?

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b. Adults

Of course, we have to tweak these approaches when we tell stories to adults.

i. Bring characters to life with dialogue and expression

You will have to bring characters to life when you stories to adults as well. The characters, however, must seem natural. Make their characteristics mirror those of people the audience will meet in the course of their lives.

Bring them to life with good dialogue and expression. It should be lively, though not exaggerated.

ii. Use transitions.

Stories for adults, whether written or narrated verbally, are longer than children's stories.

To create flow and momentum, use transitions. These are pauses, happening at the right moment, that mark the flow from one part of a story to another.

It leaves the audience asking questions or puts them at the edge of their seats. Cliffhangers are effective transitions. By leaving the end of one part of a story inconclusive, the storyteller leaves a reader or audience wondering what happens in the next part of it.

iii. Be aware of your audience.

This may seem trite, but being aware of one's audience is difficult when you are in the middle of writing or narrating a story. It is easy to get caught up in your own creation.

Always be aware of who you are relating your story to. Have a plan so that you do not go off-tangent.

iv. Use body language.

To end, use body language. It creates interest and helps the audience to connect with your story. It allows them to understand the characters and their motivations. Body language creates empathy.

When relevant, it also creates humor.

4. Conclusion

Good stories have inspired, relatable hooks. Bring them to life with a little creative imagination and a few useful techniques.

Good stories have inspired, relatable hooks. Bring them to life with a little creative imagination and a few useful techniques.

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    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Margaret!

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Michelle, I found this exploration of how to tell a compelling story fascinating, particularly since I sometimes lose my audience when telling a story in person vs. in writing because I go into too much detail. Well written, interesting and useful!

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Aviannovice!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have to agree with each pro that you have listed here. I, for one, am a storyteller, too. It has always come natural to me. Nice work.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Ann. It is indeed an art.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 3 years ago from Orange, Texas

      When I was kid in school, I hated being read to because the teacher was so mono-tone. She droned me to sleep. I remember suffering through the whole book of Tom Sawyer. Years later, when I read it myself, I fell in love with Mark Twain and enjoyed other works by him.

      Reading with expression and interaction is so important as you say! Well done and definitely some very good points to think about when telling stories.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Do share here, Manatittta!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Sharon!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Devika!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 3 years ago from london

      Hehe. I will remember. May see him at the Sufi meet-up tonight. Cheers.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Yes it is, Nithya!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you, Manatita. Sef sounds fascinating. If he comes to Singapore, I will book a ticket!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Bill!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, DealforaLiving

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Paula!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Bill!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 3 years ago from Dubai

      Storytelling is an art! Great hub and storytellers from around the world must be awesome ! Storytelling truly invokes and inspires creativity in adults and children. Great hub, voted up.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 3 years ago from london

      Nice to hear about this Festival in Singapore.

      Your points are valid for us grown ups. Still, it brought me to my childhood. 55 yrs ago things were so different. I grew up in a beautiful and peaceful village called Hermitage. As a child I told stories way into the night. No time for eye contact or anything fancy.

      The pure joy and fun expressed by us all ...ah! the laughter, the camaraderie ... perhaps it helped by poetry. I also wrote stories in my early teens.

      Thank you for your Hub and a timely reminder of the excellence of storytelling. I went to a Sufi evening on Sunday post my return from NY. One Sef Townsend, a well known storyteller, told tales with wisdom from the Great Sheik Nasruddin. Perhaps you've heard of him. Om Shanti, Michelle.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      I am always drawn to any writing about "storytelling" - there are so many inter-related facets… love to see what each person has to say. Enjoyed yours very much. Thanks, so much, for sharing! ;-)

    • Sandra Eastman profile image

      Sandra Joy Eastman 3 years ago from Robbinsdale MN

      I recently attending a marketing summit that advocated story telling in advertising and web materials to engage a prospect and connect with them. Story telling can be important in any area of life because everyone can relate to a good story.

    • DealForALiving profile image

      Sam Deal 3 years ago from Earth

      Storytelling is an awesome skill to use and it comes up in so many situations with others.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A great thought here and so interesting in telling a story.

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      I used to teach Hebrew school and went yearly to a conference for teachers. At the conference I met several professional storytellers who were fascinating to listen to and to learn from. It really is both an art and a skill.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I like your creativity in choosing topics to write about. This is a great example. I love that writers are the storytellers of their generation, and that all of history is told by storytellers. Gives importance to what we do.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      How do we tell a compelling story to adults and children?