Though not a part of our official editorial guidelines or standard tips for telling at a Tenx9 event–which we ask all Tenx9ers to read carefully–we want to offer you some additional suggestions for how to craft good stories and how to inhabit the stage with a presence conducive to good storytelling. We often have storytellers ask for feedback on their stories, which we are happy to provide. But here are some extra tips for the front-end. We hope these are helpful. After all, they’re free of charge! Then again…all of Tenx9 is.
1. Use active voice and keep the narrative moving. Remember, stories tend to have plots.Something is happening, and someone is doing it. For this, active voice is ideal. Stay away from sentences where something is happening, but no one is doing it. Active voice makes for much more engaging writing. With stories, each sentence should either advance the plot or reveal a new character development. Any sentence that doesn’t, best to cut it. Many good stories have some conflict that needs resolving. There’s an exposition (background set-up), rising action, climax, and falling action. Whereas this is certainly not the only formula for storytelling, it tends to be a good default setting, especially for the storytelling newcomer.
2. Be descriptive. As much as you can, show us what something/someone sounds like, looks like, tastes like, feels like through delicious descriptors. As Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” If a pinnacle moment of your story, for instance, hinges on the unexpected awkward-looking appearance of your blind-date, then don’t just tell us, “…but he looked awkward”; show us by describing the color of his clothes, how much of his shirt he buttoned, the way his hair looked, and how thick his glasses were.
3. Have a strong opening. We mentioned this in our editorial guidelines, but it bears repeating. Use the opening line to bring the audience right into the story, maybe with a bit of anticipation. Use the opening to hook us. Make us want to know more. Thus, cut any theme-setting introductions. Really — if the folks listening aren’t asking “why did that happen?” or “I wonder what happened next” or “I wonder who that person is” by your second sentence, your story is not what it could or even should be. In fact, it may not even be a story!
4. Avoid telling us how to feel. Flannery O’Connor wrote stories in such a way that she trusted the emotional intelligence of those who read her stories to make up their own mind about how they felt or what conclusions they made. We like that. In other words, don’t wrap things up with “So the moral of the story is…” or “Here are the lessons I learned…” Tell us your story, tell us how you experienced it, how you felt about it, but let us hear it as we hear it. Stay away from being didactic.
5. Stick the landing. Again, we mentioned this earlier, but it’s important. A good ending is crucial. It helps you know where you’re going. In our experience, we’ve seen that after a great story with a poorly constructed ending, the audience seems to remember the bad ending. That isn’t to say endings need to be pleasant and uplifting. Not at all. We just think they should be well-crafted, whether with cheer or tragedy.
1. Practice. This is perhaps the most important tip for public storytelling. Prepare, rehearse, revise, re-rehearse, revise again, etc. Tenx9 Nashville averages about 80-100 people per night, and we suspect you’ll want to respect the time of these attentive crowds. So if you have asked to tell a story ahead of time, it’s best not to postpone preparatory thought until the night of. In other words, if possible, don’t “wing it.” Put in some time so you can tell the best story you can. While we love stories told well without text, we certainly do not require this. We tend to prefer a listen to well-crafted stories than just to watch well-performed ones. But it would be lovely for storytellers to take some time and craft their narrative into the best it can be—both in content and delivery.
2. In case of ad-libbing. Sometimes this happens. Maybe a scheduled storyteller doesn’t show and so we open up the slot to an audience member, and maybe you take us up on that, and you only have a few minutes minutes to put together a story in your head. No problem. We just ask you make sure you stick to telling an actual story. It’s a good idea to have ten points made out and speak for less than a minute on each point. Have a good opening sentence and a great final sentence! Some folks have strong openers but seem lost at the end. Be sure to wrap up well. In the mind of the listener, the story can suffer tremendously if the ending is weak.
3. Look at the audience — at least occasionally. Eye contact is crucial. It helps the audience feel engaged. This generally is not a problem for those who tell without notes, though sometimes such storytellers can look everywhere but actually out at the audience! Eye contact with the audience tends to be more difficult for those who read from their story-text. This is where practicing (above) comes in. Rehearse this enough so that you don’t have a codependent relationship to your text. The audience loves for you to look at them, and you need to for yourself as well—it helps you gauge the extent of their attentiveness and interest. Practice looking up from the notes often…perhaps even offering a few sentences without looking down.
4. Clear page transitions. If you’ve written your story, we suggest being sure every page finishes with the end of sentence. In other words, don’t have sentence-thoughts that carry over to the next page. Some readers have had the first half of a sentence at the end of one page, and the second half on the beginning of the next. The page turn in the middle of the thought can feel quite awkward. Be sure you have a clear break at each page-turn.
5. Feel the story. For those interested in the performance aspect of storytelling, try to feel what your characters are feeling (which in a personal story is hopefully somewhat easy, since you are a, or the, main character!). Show it on your face; show it in the sound of your voice. Don’t just tell us you were terrified; show us with your wavering voice and your wide eyes. Invite us into the story with a little bit of acting. If you don’t feel what you’re saying, it’s unlikely we will either.
6. Sync movement with content. If your story does not require a lot of movement to illustrate some action, then shy away from lots of quick motions and frantic pacing across stage. Constantly shuffling of the feet, or fidgeting with notes, or incessant pacing can distract listeners from the important content of your story. With the microphone right next to the stand, the rustling of pages especially can drown out your words. Some of us, though, are movers—like our organizer and co-host Michael. Whenever he speaks publicly, he seems to be in constant motion! If this is you, firstly, it might be worth practicing a bit more pause in your step. And second, keep your movements fluid and smooth. Don’t be rigid and jerky, unless your story calls for this. Move with your story. If you’re a mover, and you walk a bit across stage, sync your movements with the developments of the story. If there’s a sudden turn in the story, maybe do a sudden turn in your movement. If your story slows down with drama and weight, then slow and weigh yourself down. Get the idea? Audiences can tell the difference between panicky jitters and deliberate, confident story-motions.