The following are extracts from long discussions between professional and amateur storytellers on the internet, and stuffed full of valuable advice. You'll see that experienced tellers suffer just as much anxiety as others, but they have found ways to cope.
The quality, amount, and subject range of internet storytelling discussion is very considerable, and contributors include hundreds of professionals, some very famous, from many countries. If you can get access to the internet, join the Storytell mailing list (Go to www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/faq.html#Internet for instructions) to find a wealth of knowledge and a supportive community. Text below enclosed <like so> are email addresses. Copyright remains with the authors.
My name is Zach. I'm a beginning storyteller. I'm 10 years old. I would like to know what you do when you're nervous. I am taking a storytelling class with my librarian after school. Thank You, Zach. <email@example.com>
Hi Zach, the answer is tell a lot. Sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? When I first started telling stories to people I didn't know, I was shaking the whole time. So what I did was join a story circle and told a story there every month. I also told stories to anyone else who would listen whenever I could. Now I don't get nervous very often.
There are a few other tricks I learned that might help too:
1. Know your story - I don't mean memorize the words. You can do that if you want to, but the important thing is to know what happens to who and when it's suppose to happen. Sometimes, I make an outline of the story to study. Sometimes, I imagine a picture for each part of the story with all the important things in the picture. The best way to remember a story is to tell it to some people you trust, a bunch of times.
2. Dress comfortably - that includes being clean and neat. I never get a hair cut just before I have to tell. Nor do I wear new clothes. I don't want to worry about how I look.
3. When you look out at the people listening to you, don't look at people who make you nervous. Try to find the people who make you feel safe.
4. Remember this: Just about everyone I ever told stories to (probably over a hundred thousand now), wanted me to do a good job. If I make a mistake (and I do), they don't get upset. They know it's not easy to talk in public. You can just ignore little mistakes and fill the listeners in if you forgot to say something important. Most of the time, no one but you knows what you were going to say anyway.
5. Only tell stories that you think are fun to tell. That helps a lot.
6. If you do everything in the list, then you'll probably forget to be nervous after a few minutes. Good Luck!
One more thing. I want to thank you for trying. We need a lot more storytellers. You only have to tell stories to be a storyteller.
Pax, Papa Joe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Folks, I've been working in a High School for the last month. One of the goals of the program was to improve the students' oral presentation skills. I've been wondering if we as a group, could come up with a hand-out that we could all use on preparing a story for telling.
Here's mine. Maybe I can post an update occasionally for everyone's use.
Here's an excellent way to prepare for an oral presentation [not necessarily storytelling].
Whether the source is oral or written, a list can be made of all essential elements. The items listed should be short terms with only the most important, if any descriptions. The items should be listed in the order you wish to use them.
Next, visualize a picture, in your mind, of what the item looks like. It should be a vivid picture and include any other of the senses possible. Example: a rose could be imagined as a red flower with many petals from a single axis on a green stem with green leaves and imagine the softness of the petals, the sweet scent of the flower, and the sharpness of the thorns. Each item on the list should have its own complete picture. If the item is an action, the visualization can be like a film clip.
Next, you will need to review the items in order, visualizing each in turn, at least three times during a single study session. You need to bring back the picture or film clip with all the details each time.
Any special parts of the presentation such as poetry or complex phrases can be remembered through rote and/or print them out on cue cards for reference. The more you repeat them out loud, the easier it will be to say them, whether you memorize them or not. By the way, anything can be memorized for life if you repeat it three times a day for at least 21 days. After that you'll only need to refresh your memory by reading the lines out loud once or twice before you want to use it.
Next, find a friendly audience. A mirror wouldn't do (no feedback), but one or two persons will do. Give your presentation to your audience, not to the group, to each person in the group. Use your own words. That way you don't have to remember what to say. Make sure you give each person your personal attention for at least the time it takes to deal with one item on your list. Describe the item to that person. Make sure they understand what you're trying to say. Make eye contact. Watch how they react to each statement you make. The more attention you give to a person, the more attention they'll give to you.
Consider what parts of the presentation were misunderstood. Remember to pay closer attention to those items on your next practice session. You may use your list during practice, but it's better to do without, then check your list afterwards to see how close you were. If you find some items were out of order, consider whether you should revise the list to improve the flow or if you should try to stay with the order as listed.
If you practice your presentation three times, you will find it runs rather easily. Just review the list before each presentation, ensure that you have your visualizations down, and remember to talk to each person, one at a time, not try to talk to the whole group at once. Try for a different audience each time if you can find one. That way they won't know what you're trying to say until you've told them.
Breath. Don't forget to take a couple before you start.
Be comfortable with how you look before you go.
Speak loudly enough to be heard by all.
Have fun with the presentation. If you don't like what you have to say, no one else will. Everything you feel shows. So feel good. An audience wants to feel good too.
Don't worry about being nervous. The more you get into your presentation, the more you'll forget to be nervous. So be part of it. Get into it.
Sometimes I recommend being loud and crazy, but that depends on what your subject is. Don't do that at a funeral.
Big Hint: Do plan ahead. It saves a lot of frustration later.
Finally, practice, practice, practice and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite are the keys to success.
You can always call and leave me a message if you need anything.
I can add to that from Papa Joe, a handout I prepared specifically for secondary students (but it has been working very well with adults and older elementary kids). They were comfortable with their stories, but felt that standing up in front of their peers was like being the guest of honor at a firing squad...
The following hints for controlling their physical behavior made an astonishing difference for them. We practised this "formula" first, in the safety of our class. (I demonstrate the worst possible example, breaking all these rules; then demonstrate a best-case example. The students brainstorm what the differences were, which usually covers all the points. Then I give them the handout, and we practice together -- with group applause.) After they showcased for their peers, they crowed backstage "Ha! I fooled them! THEY THOUGHT I KNEW WHAT I WAS DOING!!" -- that's the impression given by these non-verbal behaviors. Works like a charm. I call it:
1. HIT YOUR SPOT
Pick it in advance, front and center. Keep your mouth shut until you get there. No apologies, no explanations. Walk out there briskly, confidently. No cringing, no slouching, no wringing of hands. Just walk.
2. LOOSEN UP.
Are your knees locked? Bend them a little. Is your throat frozen? Hum very softly to clear it. Unclench your fists and teeth.
3. MAKE EYE CONTACT.
Gaze around the audience looking into their eyes. Identify bad vibration sources and don't look at them again. Identify good listeners and tell your presentation to THEM.
Breathe. Keep introduction and explanation as brief as possible. You may want to memorize some opening lines but from there you can wing it. You have shown the audience that you know what you're doing; from here on it's up to them. Remember what you love about the story, and ENJOY!!
Take your time, but not the next speaker's. Be on, be good, be off (vaudevillians' rule). Closing line: practice a clean punchline or closing comment. "And that's the story of __," will do. Thank your audience. You're a storyteller!
Just to add a bit to the discussion of stage fright and how to handle it, here are some of the things I tell my students (some of these overlap with what other people have said, but since I can't remember which are repeats and which brand new, here's the lot):
1. Making mistakes is a natural part of performing. It is not a question of what to do "if I make a mistake," but simply a matter of "when I make a mistake." You are going to screw up at some point, so don't worry about it. You can tell a story letter perfect a hundred times in a row and then on the hundred and first telling blow it completely. The most important thing to keep in mind is to stay calm and keep going. It's no big deal.
2. Don't be scared of your audience. Your audience is (usually) your friend. They want you to succeed. And, since many of them are also nervous about talking in front of people, they'll be sympathetic when you screw up. (Many of them will be relieved that it is you, not them up there, and admire the way you pull everything off.) Obviously, this sympathy is somewhat dependent on the venue. An audience that paid $20 a seat to see you perform at Carnegie Hall will expect perfection. (Anyone know where I can find an audience to pay $20 a seat?)
3. The audience doesn't know you've made a mistake unless you tell them so. Don't tell them! Never admit to a mistake (at least not during the performance.) As far as your audience knows the way you told the story is the way you meant to tell it. (I have even screwed up a story so bad that I had to stop, admit confusion, go back and unravel it, and the audience thought it was all part of the story done for comic effect.)
4. That nervousness you feel before going on is good. That is your performance energy. That is what will get you up on stage and into your story. If you don't feel it, if you don't have some energy inside you, your performance will fall flat. Furthermore, as Skip mentioned in an earlier post, the energy is an instinctive reaction to stress. The body knows something is about to happen and is preparing for action. However, the emotional content (fear vs. excitement vs. joy) is entirely conscious. Research shows that physiologically, fear, anger, excitement are all identical. The body is reacting in the same way. Your mind determines how you react to those stimuli. You can say, "my stomach is tense, my heart is pounding, my palms are sweating...I must be scared. This is scary. I don't want to do it!" Or "my stomach is tense, my heart is pounding, my palms are sweating...I must be excited. I'm psyched. I'm excited. I want on that stage right now. Here I go!" Your emotions are under your control. With some practice, you can control whether it is fear or excitement running through your head before going on.
5. Most important--don't give in to the fear. How you reacted last time will have a great impact on how you react in the future. If you say "I'm scared. I can't do this. Forget it, maybe next time." then next time, in the back of your mind, you'll be saying, "this is really scary. I can't do it. I know I can't do it, because last time I tried, I couldn't do it. So it must be scary." And the fear grows with every attempt. Or, if you push through the fear, it grows less, because you make the same calculations "Last time I could do it, so this time I can do it."
Oops. As usual, I've rambled on much longer than I meant to (We spend an entire session on this material in my storytelling classes, and that just kind of takes over.) Hope some of this proves helpful.
Another good suggestion for stage fright is from a Toastmaster I know. She was so terrified at first that she couldn't even stand to introduce herself. She has learned to over come her fear so well she is now teaching training classes and seminars to others. She read about an interview with Mario Andretti the race car driver. He was asked how he kept from hitting the wall. His response was that he thought about the space between the wall and the car. So concentrate on the spaces between speaking, not the act of speaking. This helps to control the fear by keeping your mind off of it. Hope this works for you too.
Presenting a less than perfectly polished tale can be a great way to present the process of learning a tale in a workshop or classroom setting. Our "professionalism" can sometimes be a barrier for folks with budding interest in telling stories. When we make ourselves vulnerable, we open a space for others to take risks. Get your participants to help you learn a story, employ the techniques that you would have otherwise been "teaching" and you may end up with a surprisingly tellable tale, one with more power than you might have been able to summon on your own.
Well said, Bob. I teach many kinds of improvisation to storytellers, and in it lies the source of everyone's creativity. Most people who consider themselves uncreative or have problems with it, suffer from too much self-control over their thoughts or behaviour when trying to create. Often this is through a desire to be good enough, "professional", to avoid the feeling that they are not trying hard enough or giving their best.
Unfortunately this attitude tends to prevent the playful freedom that gets the creative juices really flowing. There's nothing wrong with trying to improve, perfect and present something really well crafted. But that stage should come after the free play.
We've recently heard some of the ways that various people practice on their own, which is usually full of experimentation. I would add that a sense of fun and play at this stage, rather than serious disciplined effort from start to finish, works wonders.
But I agree with Bob that it's a very valuable thing to tell stories in a half-formed improvisatory way to a real audience, since they will help you fully form the story in a different way to how you would do it on your own - and you are aiming to make it tellable to an audience.
I think the main block to anybody feeling unable to do this is simply fear of embarrassment - of getting the story wrong, or telling it badly. But if the telling of the story is at a playfully changing/experimental stage, then how can you get it wrong? Play has no right or wrong. What is more everyone loves play, even crusty old adults who thought they'd forgotten about it, so it will usually improve the enjoyment of the telling session, not damage it, if done with an open attitude. The excitement of uncertainty for the teller can be a pleasure rather than a panic, and if the teller enjoys it then so will the audience.
If this needs to be in an informal session, outside of normal professional engagements, then so be it. But adults and kids will revel in this kind of flexible performance. In my storytelling company we always keep an element of this play in our performances to adults, and it gives an edge, a slight feeling of danger which can really lift things if handled properly. One extreme example recently was by Darren, who is superbly talented at comic bumbling. He told the tale of Sir Isaac discovering gravity after an apple dropped on his head. Except that he kept on drifting into other stories about apples by "mistake", and getting dragged back by the audience of adults. He didn't rehearse this at all. It went down a storm, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
The people in my courses who are most amazed at improvisation tend to be those who impose most preconceptions and rules on what they should do and how. It isn't easy just to throw away one's rules - one often isn't aware of them, but exploring doing what one considers "stupid", "worthless" or "embarrassing" is a good start and is invariably hysterically funny and enjoyable! Such experiences can not only be liberating but reveal powerful tools for powerful telling/performance.
Of course there's always a time for stopping playing and working on refining, but it doesn't have to happen right at the beginning.
Hello all, I've been lurking for a little while and am totally impressed with the quality, content, and quantity of "action" on this list! Thanks.
I finally decided to post a message about practice. Hope you don't mind. See I'm not a "pure" type of story teller. I perform Balinese Shadow Play [Wayang Kulit] using a screen (lovely device which hides the face :-), shadow puppets, and episodes from the Mahabharata. So I hide behind a screen - have wonderful leather characters to manipulate, and if done in my favorite setting, a nice flame which breathes life into them...
My best practice comes from marathon bathing sessions (still saving up for the whirlpool). Somehow, soaking in hot bubbly water, I'm able to go though the story (in my head - all of my storyline practice happens inside) and get that ingrained into my brain. The great thing about Wayang (normally a two hour show) is that you have a skeleton - the episode (which for example might only be 2 pages from a translation like William Buck's) to follow and exactly what road you take depends on many things - especially what you get from the audience. In Bali or Indonesia, everyone knows the Mahabharata very well. In fact, some people there can guess which episode will be told by which puppets are put on screen for the sort (there are 175 puppets - so a sort is very necessary), and which one is taken off the screen last, before the actual story begins. Here, one needs to give some background information about general Mahabharata facts... Also common in Bali is the injection of current events, problems, themes into the world of these shadow characters. The bath gives me a wonderful opportunity to take different tangents. I write them down - (actually in performance I have a script of sorts) and sometimes they get used.
One difficult aspect of these plays is comedy - important - but it works best if improvised - or as a reaction to what the audience is giving. Balancing pre-programmed comedy (sometimes hard to keep fresh) with the openness or faith or guts needed to let the comedy "enter" during the performance is one of the biggest challenges. However that "enter" seems very important., not only for the comedy, but for the story. My best shows are those where I don't feel as if "I" did the show. Now, how does one practice to let something "enter" - not really sure. All I can really figure out is that the preparations that happen for the first 1/2 hour of the show (and some that happen thoughout the day of performance) are actually meant to hone the focus and concentration, so whatever it is can "enter". I was in Bali this summer and asked my teacher about it - he said that it happens to him and that it was good that it happens to me.
Without digressing too far from the Practice thread - Other favorite practice places: the car, while weeding in the garden, while filing all that nasty paperwork.
Well that's about as long as I would like my first post to be. Thanks for listening.
On April 1, 1996, <OSM1@aol.com> wrote:
I am concerned about this. I don't think this degree of nervousness is good either for yourself or for your work as a storyteller. I wonder if some of the exercises that you go through before telling may be contributing to your nervousness? Perhaps there is too much focus on the "performance"...on the "voices" or the "moves". What we have been referring to as "nervousness" (for Zach's benefit) is actually "Performance Anxiety" and it is the degree to which we feel that we are putting ourselves on display that raises the anxiety level. The focus on the performance is actually a form of morbid self-consciousness that can interfere with the transmission of the story.
Back on March 6th, Fran Stallings wrote to Mary Grace, saying:
I agree. However, it is impossible to get that "disappearance" if you are so nervous that you bounce around in front of the listeners making "moves". It draws them back... out of the story... so that not only has the teller reappeared but he is doing everything to attract attention to himself. The listeners are robbed of the "disappearance" of the storyteller and the subsequent transport into the story. The "great" tellers who "just sit still and deliver a story calmly" can disappear by doing just that. It is the "Story" that they deliver not themselves. I feel, as many have heard me say before, that we can defeat performance anxiety by putting the story first and our "cleverness" last. One member of our Toronto community is a man named George Blake. George has had a varied life. Born in Jamaica, educated in England, psychotherapist, lived for Tibet as a Buddhist monk and now, a storyteller. He wrote a little book, "No-Self: Zen and the Art of Storytelling" where he applies his Zen teachings directly to the problem of performance anxiety or stage fright. (He is not on the Net but if any want to write to him for copies of this little book I will send you the address.) He brings forward the Zen concept of No-Self as an approach to this problem. "There is no teller... only the tale." In this way you disappear for yourself as well as for the listeners. And if you have disappeared then there is no one to be nervous for. Try this as an experiment. Find a book... a children's story, for example because they need not be too long, read it once or twice... and tell it... in front of people. (You may not want to do this for a paid session.) I do this every now and then as an exercise. I can tell at our Friday Night gatherings. There is no time to develop any extraneous gestures, voices, or rehearsals... all you have is the story and your own natural voice. (I did this last Friday myself. I bought the book... "Jumanji" [not the movie version but the Caldecott Medal version] read it over dinner for storyline and then once more for some detail and told it. The total span of my experience with the story was about two hours but I allowed the power of the story to come out. People said that it was a good telling and I enjoyed hearing too. I experienced the feeling of coming out of myself and joining the listeners. That is even more rare than just disappearing. There is power in the story itself and you must trust it. If you see yourself as the key player in the teller-story-listener equation no wonder you would be nervous. Everything depends on you! You feel you must give birth all alone and the life of this entity resides solely in you. But stories have been told for as long as babies have been born. The teller is not the mother but the midwife. Allow nature to do her work. Assist her where you can and if you must. Let the story come naturally and see the marvel that is born. And you didn't have to be nervous... [unless, of course you are Butterfly McQueen! :) ] For those who feel the need to "fiddle" with traditional tales with their "great" personal ideas about how to improve it I leave you with the words of our Alice Kane: "Remember! These stories are hundreds or thousands of years old... and you're not... and never will be!"
On 4/4/96 at 12:52 AM you wrote:
You know, it is amazing! I was just thinking about this very thing yesterday and here you are commenting on this very interesting topic. Based on what you say, I must be realllly odd, because I don't get nervous any more at all! I used to. Oh, how I used to! In high school my knees knocked, my thighs shook (muscles vibrated), my voice trembled, I got light headed. I was a wreck! (all this doing speech and drama performances, mind you, not in ordinary everyday life! Wouldn't that be a problem!) When I would get really nervous during my performances, the strangest thing would happen: I would have no memory or idea of what exactly I did! I would leave the stage and people would applaud, but I it was as if time went right by me. I couldn't tell you what I said, why they laughed, or repeat it exactly the same way the next night. I was running strictly on adrenaline, I guess.
When I first started sharing stories I got a "little" nervous. Not anything like the physical reactions I had as a kid. Mostly, I would "freak out" like in the past when telling to adults. Especially adults I knew and worked with. Oh, and telling stories or performing for family, yuck yuck yuck. No thankyousir.
Then, I started telling stories all the time. I mean all the time. Sometimes doing 10 shows a day. Probably averaged 20 programs a week for the past two years. And just yesterday, as I was walking into my program room, I realized, out of the blue, that I wasn't nervous anymore. Somewhere along the line it just disappeared.
Besides telling a lot and being older (two very important aspects to my change as an artist) I think the main difference between the two me's is that I do a ritual 15-30 minute warm up each and every day. I warm up my body and my voice, clear my thoughts and relax. Somehow this body work combined with voice work, I believe, has done the trick. And I didn't even start doing this ritual to alleviate nervousness. I warmed myself up so I could get through the day and still be standing and have a voice at the end of it. Getting rid of nervousness was just the side effect!
I would never trade back my current ease for nervousness. Nosireebob. For me, it only got in the way, confused my performances for me and made me very tired by the end of the day. Now I am very alert and focused during my programs, feel right smack dab in the moment, each and every moment, and enjoy myself and my telling much more. Now I can now think on my feet and am flexible (in both body and mind).
Lawrence Olivier was once reported to have said, even he was nervous before each and every show he ever did and anyone who says they are not nervous is either lying or don't care about the performance they are about to give.
Yeah, but look where he is now!
I wonder if you are not, in truth, denying your audience the energy of your story by suppressing your true inner feelings. Perhaps not being nervous can actually be a lack of focus on the performance and is actually a form of morbid self-consciousness that can interfere with the transmission of the story.
Some people live for the adrenaline rush, work it into their performances, and are successful at it. I know a lot of actors who feel as you do. It is not unusual at all. You are talented enough to know how to use it to your advantage instead of letting it get in your way! Congratulations! For me, I know that I am more focused now that I am not nervous. So, I really think this one depends on the person. It is proven, once again, that there is no one right way to tell a story or be a Storyteller. And certainly there is no equation to be made between FOCUSED=NERVOUS and LACK OF FOCUS=NOT NERVOUS, ok?
Jan <Pillwillit@aol.com> wrote:
Jan, below is a technique I learned about in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics.
I used to regularly perform at an open-mike stage where both the audience and the musicians were professionals. Even with years of performing experience, this particular situation always scared the heck out of me, and I was always disappointed with my performance. I used this technique with considerable success in overcoming my stage fright associated with this particular context.
Several times a day, sitting in some quiet place, imagine that you are preparing to perform--your turn is almost up. Imagine as clearly as possible--employing all your senses--the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with these pre-performance moments. Be as specific and detailed in your imaging as possible. If there are stairs to walk up, get that into you mental image. Do likewise with the smell and feel of the microphone, the sound of the mc's voice--every detail you can think of. (I actually made a list of these details to help me with the imaging each time I did the exercise.) When you have placed yourself as fully as possible into the pre-performance context, imagine yourself feeling completely confident--fearless. Imagine how great it would be to feel that way, rather than scared.
Then continue on with the imagined performance: you present your material--solidly, and with confidence. Imagine the smoothness and grace with which you will make your presentation. Imagine your heart keeping a steady pace instead of racing. Imagine your breath deep and full, not shallow and shaky.
In other words, paint an accurate and detailed mental image of every step of the process--the way you've experienced it so many times before. The only thing different in this image is the grace and confidence you now embody.
With kids, it's important to remind them to keep the image realistic. The point is not to imagine a standing ovation and instant fame. The audience's reaction is completely irrelevant to this exercise.
Jan <Pillwillit@aol.com> wrote:
1) Make a physical space that differs from the normal space for the telling in order to help with the transition.
2) Before the telling have all tellers together and do some relaxation exercises that can also be used to remind about gestures and breathing and how to hold a smile without giggling - or how to make the giggle a part of the story. (Deep breathing with arm movements, leg swings with arm movements. Mirroring - eye contact, comfort with eye contact.)
3) Hang something for them to focus on or have someone at the back of the audience with whom the students feel comfortable so that they can make that person the first for eye contact.
4) Tape them before so they hear the difference between telling with focus and getting side-tracked with the sillies.
5) (Should have been first!) Remind them that you love them, believe in them and know the beauty of their stories.
I work with Grades 1-7. We have a wide range of sillies and non-sillies. Sometimes we just use the sillies until we figure out how to incorporate or get around them.
Oh, we also do some mime to explore movement articulation and to develop comfort in using gestures.
Congratulations to you for the stories of these students. I can't wait to hear how it goes!
I'm feeling nervous before my first big-auditorium performances this week and next -- 150 to 350 kids at a time. As I was preparing, I realized that I've never felt like a performance failed because of a story, or even improper memorization of a story. Things tend to go wrong mainly because of...nervousness. Not having the right energy available to reach out, to animate, to feel confident that the next words are already with me. So why is it that I continue to choose to be nervous before a performance, focusing on making sure I've got the story down instead of relaxing? I don't know. Do others have this problem of misdirection of energy?
Choosing to be nervous? I don't think you have any choice in the matter! It's the nerves that help to drive your energy. The energy that you're trying to feel is a fine line between super nervous and relaxed. I'm trying to remember if I do anything different from a small audience and a large audience. I don't think so. I just have the confidence that the story will be there, and that I will be able to handle 'glitches'. The only concern I have is volume - I haven't done enough mike work to handle it correctly.
About all I can add is that the more you do, the more you can do.
Feeling nervous is something that happens to me most times I am trying something new. A new group, a larger size, a new location, new round of stories -- you name it, my stomach starts hurting the night before. Most of the time though, it's only pre-performance jitters that disappear as soon as the first words come out of my mouth in front of the audience. But then again, I've haven't told that many times in a big-auditorium situation.
What I have for Greg are more questions. Why do you think you don't have 'the right energy available to reach out, to animate, to feel confident that the next words are already with me'? You also talk about memorizing. If you're concentrating so hard on making sure the story is perfect, then maybe you don't feel inside that you know that story well enough to pull off successfully what you're trying. Do you have other material you could use that works better or has this happened to you many times?
There are suggestions in The Storyteller's Guide, written by Bill Mooney and David Holt, that deal with stage fright and directing that energy towards the performance. I was surprised to read that many of the best face this same quandary before every gig. It's well worth looking up that chapter, if only for the moral support that you are not out there alone. Because you're not. Keep trying different things, see what works for you, and do it again.
I don't think nervousness is a choice, Greg. If it were, I certainly wouldn't choose it. For me, nervousness seems to rear its ugly head when I am performing with a 'grown-up' audience or among my peers. My mouth goes dry (which means I can't talk) and my hands get shaky. My material could be tried and true and The Willies will still appear.
I do several things to combat nervousness. I always make sure I warm up my voice. I wet my palate with not-too-cold water before I begin. I look at the audience and think of seeing the joy in their faces as they are enjoying my stories. I take a deep breath and try to relax.
Usually, once I begin the stories, the joy of storytelling takes over and I convert that nervous energy into positive energy.
I would like to hear other tellers' suggestions as to how they handle The Willies. Fear of public speaking rates higher than fear of death among Americans. I think those of us who do experience The Willies are in the majority. STORYTELL friends, what do you think?
Dianne sure hit the nail on the head when mentioning that telling to your peers is when 'The Willies' are most likely. The best you can do is keep on doing it. Papa Joe said it best 'To be a storyteller, tell stories; to be a better storyteller, tell more stories.'
Re. telling to your peers is when "The Willies" are most likely...
I feel most relaxed telling to storytellers. Yes, I know, they'll be picking up every mistake I make. But most, if not all of them, will be rooting for me especially if I seem nervous.
I tend not to suffer from nervousness these days, partly because of many years of yoga training , partly because I've done enough storytelling now to know that if things go wrong it's because I am a human being and things do go wrong for us mere mortals, partly because my " comfort zone" has expanded to the point where I haven't had to cross the line for a while.
Firstly I think I certain amount of nervousness in a new situation is probably just a normal reaction to moving out of your comfort zone. Thinking of it as a challenge could direct it positively. Patting yourself on your back and saying things like 'Wow, I'm taking a step forward. Good on me! Let's see how well I can handle it.'
The only suggestions I can offer are as follows:
1: Preparation! Be sure you know the stories well. That is, know the sequence of the story and be prepared to present the words intuitively on the day, rather than from memorising. Use stories you are confident with from previous tellings for a first time situation. The knowledge that you are well prepared helps diminish nervousness.
2: Expectation! Imagine some of the things which might go wrong and know the strategies you will use to deal with the problem. Remember that most of the things which are not right will probably only be noticed by you. If things do go wrong, that's great, because it's an opportunity to learn.
3. Responsibility! Make your focus the responsibility to your audience and your story rather than focusing on yourself.
4: Breathing! Prior to the telling or whenever your heart thumps loud do equal breathing exercises. That is, breathe in for a count of 4 or 6 (if comfortable) and breathe out for the same count. Do ten rounds of this from time to time. Don't over do it though. Slowing down the breathing will help to control nervousness.
5: Remember your positive storytelling experiences.
PS: I grew up in the bush. The first time I had to talk on the telephone I was so nervous my heart nearly leaped into my throat. When I heard a voice coming from the hand-piece I dropped the phone and ran!
June, I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to take some your wonderful suggestions and rearrange them a little.
Make this item #1. If you must focus on yourself, then focus on your breath.
Yes, public speaking is the US's number one fear and one of the world's top fears. But breathing is the most important thing for life. If you are nervous, if you are scared, if you feel like crying, or feel anyway you don't want to feel, then think about your breath and control it. Deep breaths - in through your nose - out through your mouth. You need air to do anything. Everything else can wait. Once you have your breath under control, you can do anything.
This is not limited to storytelling. It's for living. If you're not breathing, you're dying. If you're not breathing well, your brain isn't getting the thing it constantly needs to have replenished.
"I tend not to suffer from nervousness these days, ... partly because my 'comfort zone' has expanded to the point where I haven't had to cross the line for a while."
"Firstly I think I certain amount of nervousness in a new situation is probably just a normal reaction to moving out of your comfort zone. Thinking of it as a challenge could direct it positively. Patting yourself on your back and saying things like 'Wow, I'm taking a step forward. Good on me! Let's see how well I can handle it.'"
I think you have it nailed down here. Good on you! Directing emotions to positive paths. Not an easy thing to do, but the more you do it the easier it gets.
"3. Responsibility! Make your focus the responsibility to your audience and your story rather than focusing on yourself."
I'd say forget about the story too. Let's take a step back. Way before the show. Before you start getting into the telling mode. Take care of yourself. Set yourself up to be the way you want to be. You need to be comfortable with yourself before you see the audience. Don't get your hair done the day of a program unless you know you'll be comfortable with it. Don't try out new clothing. I'm not saying don't try new things, just get used to them first, then forget about them.
Forget about telling the story well. What does that mean anyway? Telling a story well. If you tell a story from your heart, if you tell a story for your listeners, it will be well. It will be more than well. They will love it. And they'll love you for sharing it with them.
Okay. Maybe you want to make sure you know certain words. Maybe you want to get this part right, but folks, that's your wants, not the listeners. They want you to share with them. What you share is not that important. It's the process, not the content. Which gets us to another item on the list of story elements: environment.
Before it's time to tell, check out the space. If there is something that needs to be set up or changed, something to be planned (like where folks will sit to keep the sun out of their eyes). Do it early, before you tell. Deal with everything you need to deal with before you need to deal with the listeners, then forget about those things. When you get up to tell (or when you call out your 'Cric'), it's time to concentrate on the listeners.
Don't have them. They get in the way. Find the joy of sharing and stay with it. If you are still nervous, then take some time to connect to the audience. Everyone is different. There is no general advice to cover even most situations, but you can try to remember that you don't need to start telling stories first.
Storytelling on stage is not a natural venue. Remember where it starts. Some folks get together. They chat. Then one of them says, "Oh! That reminds me of..." Or the child calls out, "Tell us the story of..." Or or or...
Bring telling back to its roots. Build the intimacy first. Let go of yourself and think about the people you are telling for. Pay attention to them and you won't be thinking of yourself and you won't be nervous. Ask questions, make faces, play with them. It doesn't matter what you do as long as you are paying attention to them. And while I'm here, don't think of them as a group. They are each a separate person. Try making contract with the individuals. You have 350 kids? Start early!
Still nervous? Take a deep breath and go meet your listeners. Then you'll have 'positive storytelling experiences' to remember.
All of the suggestions I've read impress me as helpful and solidly grounded in the experience of wise and practiced storytellers. Among the useful features of this exchange is the acknowledgement by so many that even the venerable among us may still feel anxious while performing.
My own storytelling is mainly within the context of teaching social psychology to university students, but perhaps my experience is of some relevance to those of you who tell stories in other settings. I do a good bit of what others have advocated -- breathe deeply, be well prepared whenever possible, and so on. What helps me most, however, is to remind myself that I am in partnership with my listeners. I do not perform alone, but in co-operation with attentive, imagination people with whom I share the goal of advancing knowledge and understanding. I am most emphatically not in competition with my listeners and although I do expect them to evaluate me, I expect that evaluation to be sympathetic because they know that it's a shared enterprise. A basic aspect of this partnership with my listeners is that what I communicate does not come only from me, but from a current of truth and insight into reality that flows through me thanks to my participation in a spirit that potentially unites all of us.
It helps me also to remember that when I stand before my students, I am in the very good company of generations of social psychologists, teachers, and storytellers from whom I have learned and whose legacy I now pass on to the teachers and storytellers of the future.
If all of this fails to ease my apprehensions, it sometimes helps to recognize that despite appearances lots of the students aren't paying attention anyway!
I hope this is of some value to you. - Jamie
I can still remember how terrified I used to get before telling when I first started out a few years back, and I would agree with Diana's comment that telling to a peer-group is the worst of all (especially if they're all storytellers themselves).
Over time, however, my attitude has changed a bit. This started to happen when I realised that I have been 'performing' almost my whole working life - I do a lot of workshops with people (in schools etc.) and, in a sense, this is a performance as well. I don't mean, incidentally, mean to imply by this that there is somehow something false about it.
Once I'd realised this, I was able to recognise that I already had a skills base to draw on - over a decade of knowing how to capture and hold people's attention. If you can find something similar in your own experience, I'm sure that this will help. Play to what you know are your strengths, in other words.
These days, I find that I worry slightly if I'm not nervous before a session or workshop. Those times when I've been unsatisfied with my performance have almost always been due to inattention and overconfidence.
If you can learn to harness your nerves (and I agree with all of the excellent advice already posted on this subject), you can make them work for you. That adrenalin rush can help you to focus, stay sharp, and really respond to the audience. I've come to the belief that to tell well you need to be as fully 'present' as possible, seeking a balance between the moment-to-moment three way interchange between yourself, the story and the audience and a slight detachment that allows you to monitor and adjust your responses. A great deal easier said than done, I'm the first to admit, and I can count on the fingers of one foot the number of times when I feel that I've really got it right....but the buzz is tremendous, for both you and the audience.
To move towards this ideal, I think, demands a huge amount of concentration, and also a high level of relaxation - if you can transform the energy produced by 'the willies', it can help power this dynamic balance.
Of course, this could all just be to do with personal style, as well. I like to live on the edge when I'm telling...
Greg, I agree with Batsy about your insistence on memorization. One of the really freeing things about storytelling, as opposed to acting, is abandoning memorization. Storytelling requires a knowledge of the structure of the story. (Hey, sometimes I've gotten caught up in another facet of the performance & left something out only to slip it in later. With storytelling you can do it; with memorization you'll get egg on your face.) Then come the characters & the setting. If you know those, you can create the story anew each time. Now I'll admit not everybody relishes improvisation, but with the structure, characters & setting, you can take a detour or pratfall & still get to a successful conclusion.
If memorizing chants, songs or other recurrent phrases give you problems, avoid that type of story. I have a terrrrrrrible memory, so I think long & hard about the amount of that sort of story element before choosing a tale. (I'll never do 'Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep' for that very reason, even though I love the story.)
A book that I've been recommending, even though I have some major quibbles with its ending, is Feel the Fear & Do It Anyway. It does a great job of helping you feel confident you can handle anything that comes up. It also points out that even the most seasoned pro feels nervous whenever they try something new.
You worry about your energy level. Speaking as somebody who tends to have overpowering energy, producing it is never a problem for me. If you have difficulties having enough energy, I wouldn't have a clue about how to get more. On the other hand (& I usually try to involve both my hands, feet, mouth & body. . . the trick is to keep the feet out of the mouth!), if you are feeling nervous & agitated, there are some things you can do.
Warm up your body (I find T'ai Chi helps me because of both its movement and its breathing) & your voice as if you were a singer (especially if you will be doing various voices & involving a lot of variety in pitch) . . . don't worry about how it would sound to a singer, just be sure to work thoroughly at all pitches, also work on articulation, too. If there's no time to warm up your body, you can still do your vocal exercises while travelling to a performance. Now you're there. Get to know the performing area, but even more importantly study (& talk with) your audience. Remember Max in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are? His magic trick that tamed all the Wild Things was staring 'into all their yellow eyes without blinking once!' Make that audience contact. Don't get overwhelmed by the size of the group. Each audience member is still an individual there for the program. While you're watching them, & right before you see them, remind yourself that they're there to have a good time & you're going to see that they get it. Actually the larger the group, the more response they can give you. That can really boost your energy while you're riding it. (Later you may feel drained, but shouldn't while telling unless you have 'flopsweat' or are really straining in some unnatural way.) Performance begins; concentrate on your story elements; & go with the flow of whatever happens. Your audience is rooting for you, so don't worry if something doesn't go the way you want it. Direct your nervousness, just as a karate chop is directed.
If this still feels impossible, perhaps you need further training. I'd recommend improvisational theatre rather than regular acting. Some movement & vocal training might help, too. Some on the List swear by the Alexander Technique for helping eliminate strain. Remember when you were a teenager & thought everybody noticed every tiny flaw in your appearance? They didn't pay attention to half of what you worried about. Your audience will be so involved with the stories that they probably won't notice your brief verbal stumble unless you call it to their attention. On the other hand, if it's a doozie of a mistake, it shows you're human & they can be very sympathetic. P.S. Be careful not to compare yourself to other performers.
I still get nervous about programs when I have had a long break from telling. Always when telling in front of my peers. And sometimes when the situations and surroundings are unknown to me. It also makes me feel unsettled when I am not really sure who will be at a performance and have to have several stories to switch around just in case, which is quite often.
One thing that has helped me enormously is a workshop I took last year with Laura Simms. Laura talked about feeling the space, looking around and taking in every thing you see. I think it helps to ground you. Once you know the space you own it. It becomes homeful and you can use its energy.
As far as knowing who's going to be there, you can't always. I try to remind myself to play with the audience, have fun doing what I love and that the folks in the audience want to hear the stories. There's nothing worse than feeling as if you're the intruder. Anyway, hope this helps a little.
I use a mantram (a sacred word or phrase hallowed by years of use by many). I use it as often (repeated silently in the mind over and over) as possible and it has become a great friend in all kinds of situations: when I am getting angry and want to give someone a piece of my mind (knowing full well that I won't be able to live with what little is left after I give away the piece!), when I am frightened, losing patience, can't sleep, and of course, before a performance. There is a wonderful book called The Unstruck Bell by Eknath Easwaran that describes the whys and wherefores.
The mantram, according to Easwaran, needs to be a sacred phrase, not simply one you make up yourself. The original mantram (and every spiritual tradition I know about has one) has the resonance of thousands of voices having used it through the centuries and so, when you use it, it holds the potential of all those other voices.
I find that the mantram calms me very quickly and helps me focus on what's really important; my desire to be a conduit, not a 'clever' conveyor, between the story and its listeners. Hope this helps.
I never worry about the story. This is a challenge that keeps me on my toes and keeps stories fresh. I have to remember the ways to make u-turns in the story to pick up lost information which has bounced out of the cart before delivery. Each story has little side roads you can travel to go back and put things right- these are fun trips, a bit of a challenge but far easier than any form of memorization. I find making stories part of my life experience a help. Learn them as if you lived them and they become more than dreams which are so easily forgotten.
I used to have terrific, gut-sickening, cold-sweat, shaking hands stage-fright. Frankly, I'm not sure how my storytelling friends put up with me, I was such a pain in the ass (not to put too fine a point on it) but they did, and I am forever in their debt.
So what helped? Making sure I was prepared - rehearsing is key and critical. Sara Cone Bryant (one of those tough-cookie librarian storytellers) used to say that the key to self-confidence is preparation and practice. That way, even if you are too nervous to consciously pay attention to what you're doing, you can open your mouth and the story will fall out.
And it's the story that's important - you have to trust it to do what it can do. I'm not saying that you as the storyteller don't help it along, but that a story decently told (i.e. rehearsed and known) can do a pretty good job all by itself.
Tell stories; get up over and over again no matter how nervous you are and do it. Eventually, you get used to the feeling - and you know what they say: once a state of crisis goes on long enough it becomes normal. No, really, after a few dozen, or few hundred times in front of a group, you start to get a little more control over the situation.
Breathe. No kidding - I used to forget to. Now, when I'm nervous (and I still have my moments) I take a deep breath and try and clear out all the junk that I am placing in my own way - that clears a nice smooth path for the story to find its way from me to my listeners. And don't forget to smile, it's the only way they know you like them
I have belonged to a storytelling group for ten years and worked out my 'willies' there. While sitting in the audience I learned that the audience is your friend. I never looked for mistakes so that I could say 'ah, you blew it' and I realized that no one else was either. When one of the experienced tellers stepped up, I sat back in anticipation of a good time. When a new teller stepped up, inside I was learning forward, urging the teller on, holding my breath for him/her. And I realized that everyone around me was doing the same. Once I learned that standing in front a group of people was not a live or die situation, I relaxed. My least stressful time is in front of storytellers, just for that reason. They are rooting for me, and I use that energy.
One of the performance books that I have read has seven steps to engage the audience. One of them is to enter the audience space. That is hard to do on stage with an auditorium, but easy to do with a casual group. So, as I start a performance, I walk as close to the group as I can. I look at faces, say hello, introduce myself and my partner, make a comment on the day, the group, whatever (like, 'well, it looks like you folks are expecting something to happen,' or, 'Looks like something's going on - what is it? Us? You're waiting for us? Well, then, we should do something then, shouldn't we'). We usually tell to kids, and this can help them realize that they can respond to us. That invokes another rule, get the audience to say something positive, give them a voice. Stepping towards the group or even into it helps you be aware of your environment. You can determine just how close you can get as you move around, and how far away you can move.
As for losing a little bit of your story and having to blend it in later, One of the consistent bits of advice I have passed along is, THE AUDIENCE DOESN'T KNOW WHAT YOU WERE GOING TO SAY, SO IT DOESN'T KNOW WHAT YOU LEFT OUT! Now you can stop worrying.
If you do leave out something very important, and you get to the part of the story where the audience needs that info, put it in. The last resort can be: 'now something you don't know is...', or 'and what I haven't told you yet is...' - and then on you go. How are they to know that you just rewrote the story?
On that vein, I was telling a story about the golden goose. The hero was standing in front of the king after curing the princess of not laughing. The king and queen had already been set up as kind folks who did not kill those who had failed. The king faced the lad and said in a stern voice, 'Just what are you doing here?' and then I couldn't go on! There was no place for the story to go from there! The king had the wrong attitude. My next line was, 'Oops, wrong king, this king said, "My lad, thank you . . ."' and then I could finish the story for I was headed in the right direction.
So go forth, have fun, get to the end, and enjoy the applause. You've earned it.
Someone, I'm not sure who now, wrote about focusing on the audience and the story rather than yourself. I always use a storytelling stick which I pick up when I tell and hand to others when they tell. It helps to connect me to those legions over the centuries who have told stories (and used walking sticks as they walked from castle to castle or village to village).
It reminds me that I am telling a story and that I have an ancient responsibility to audience and story. This carries me well beyond the awareness of nervousness. The nervousness is still there but now it is harnessed to bringing out the life in that story.
When I first joined Storytell, almost three years ago now, someone wrote that there is no such thing as an audience of three hundred people, just one hundred groupings of three. You pick a group in each area of the auditorium and make eye contact with them,then expand it to more groups and gradually you'll feel like you're talking personally to everybody there. I found it wonderful advice and with great pleasure pass it back again via Storytell.
I've been telling stories in front of large groups since 1975 and I sometimes still get nervous! If I feel a nervous energy come over me, distracting me from the pleasure of telling, I 'reinterpret' it. I long ago noticed that I have similar 'butterflies' in my stomach, pounding heart, shorter breath, when I am excited. I'll actually say to myself, 'Heather, you're not nervous, you're excited.' I remember that I am a talebearer. I choose my stories carefully because I want to share them with others. I close my eyes, take a breath and try to get out of the way of the story so that the story can be the center of attention. Truly, if the magic works, the listener is focused on the tale not the teller. There is a delicate balance here. If the listeners come away from the experience remembering the storyteller but not the tale, then the balance is off...the storyteller got in the way.
'Nervousness' and 'excitement' is just adrenalin...you can use it to flame the passion of telling.
Thanks for all the responses! Actually, after posting The Willies, I relaxed. It helped immensely to know that whatever happened at the performance, I would learn from both the Storytell List and the experience of telling... What did happen was that it went great! It's true, the bigger audience did make the response that much more powerful and fun. Next week I'll be telling to a school twice as large, and I'm actually looking forward to trying it!
The choice to be nervous that I mentioned is this: even when I know a story, as the time to perform it approaches I will focus on it, practising it, memorizing parts of it, filling my head with it. I will do this at the expense of other, non-story preparations: ironing my shirt, making sure I have the directions and my sound system ready, breathing... Then when I am actually facing the audience, just before I start, it is still the story that is in my head, I have difficulty seeing the individuals in the audience. Instead it is as if they are a storm, and the story a floating spar, and I cling to it.
This time, after I posted the message, I chose to calmly do all my other preparations and ignore the story. Then as I was introduced, I kept my mind clear of the stories and even of the thought 'I need to make sure I know what my first line is.' I just looked and saw who was in front of me, and I opened my mouth, and when I talked to them... the stories came out fine.
So it seems like there has been, for me, a misdirection of energy, a choice I have made compulsively - the wrong sort of preparation. I thought safety was in the stories I could reliably produce; now I'm learning that safety is in the act of reaching out to real people. As many of you who responded pointed out. Thanks for all the great support!
This document was compiled from just one of the many simultaneous conversations on Storytell, the internet email list. Storytellers from many countries are constantly sharing their expertise, encouragement, stories and resources.
We form the only international forum where professional storytellers discuss issues that affect them - philosophical, emotional, ethical, technical etc. Any resulting consensus is truly valuable, since it cuts across cultural boundaries, and is representative of the views of scores or hundreds of professionals, amateurs and interested parties, having been exposed to the rigours of public debate. As with most storytelling activities, these debates tend to be friendly, generous and passionate.
Some of these nuggets of wisdom and experience are summarised into the Storytelling Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) - a continuously updated document, maintained by Tim Sheppard, and available online at www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/faq.html or in printed form.
Storytell is much loved by its five hundred members, who all agree it is a genuine and strong community, an unrivalled resource, an unfailing source of inspiration, encouragement, information and stimulation. It is also a protection against isolation for tellers struggling to forge a career in what is still an unusual profession. Many members end up eventually meeting each other in the flesh, already old friends, disproving the suspicion many other tellers have that computers are cold, inhuman, and for 'nerds' only. It's a great way to travel and get gigs.
Since the USA has a high computer ownership, many members are American, but the balance is being redressed by ever growing numbers from Britain, Scandinavia, Ireland, Europe, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Argentina, Australasia and more. We heartily welcome anyone with any interest in storytelling, whether observer, beginner or experienced, especially from the less represented countries, in the hope that the oral tradition will grow ever more strongly and globally as a force for community and understanding.
Tim Sheppard <email@example.com>
Home of the Storytelling FAQ