Storyteller Jay O'Callahan - Home Page

1. Begin with a short tale that you love.

 

If you are moved by a story, then you will be able to affect others with it.

 

2. Identify your strengths.

 

Listen to yourself tell a story. Be sensitive to the sound of your own voice. It may be quiet and calming, dramatic, mysterious or rather ordinary. Know what you can do with your voice. Try changing the tone for different characters and discover what your range is. Pay attention to how you move your arms and hands and notice your presence and posture

 

3. Think about the setting of the story.

 

All human activity is related to place and the storyteller must bring the sense of place alive. What does the place feel like to you? What tone will bring that feeling alive? Sketch it and see what it looks like on paper. Mentally examine the place, wander about and see what else is there. Be familiar with the physical and emotional geography of the story so you can bring it alive for yourself and for those who are listening to you.

 

4. Be aware of the colors in the story.

 

Is the tale bright, dark or greatly varied? Are the colors soft or intense? (I always ask students and teachers to draw a scene of a story they are going to tell to get insights that they might not have been aware of.) For example, Snow White has a stark, extraordinary beginning framed by three colors: the window frame is black as ebony; the snow, pure white; the three drips of blood, a vivid red. The living blood falls on the cold still snow and we see the scene through the black window frame. Snow White is a story of violent contrasts and the intensity of the beginning is sustained and described through color. If you are aware of the power of color in a story you will bring it out as a teller.

 

5. Establish the "music" for the tale.

 

If the tale were to be played by a symphony what would it be like? Light, happy and playful like "The Little Tailor" or dark and wild like "Snow White?" Think musically to find a pace and a tone for the story. Decide what might be appropriate music for scenes and characters. Remember you are a musician of sorts, working with the words, the notes of storytelling.

 

6. "Tell" your story silently.

 

Run the words through your mind. As you do, watch your gestures. Are they complementary or obtrusive? If you use your right hand effectively to point out something in the tale, don't overuse the same hand so the gesture bores instead of interests. A silent telling will show you what you are doing with your gestures. Once you're aware of your gestures, you can sharpen them to your liking.

 

7. Use mirrors.

 

Three kinds of mirrors - real mirrors, human mirrors, recordings - can help you polish your narrative. Using a real mirror allows you to try out expressions and gestures. Exaggerate, experimenting with varied expressions. A human mirror is anyone who will listen to your tale and tell you what he or she observes. Such a mirror can say, "You told the story awfully fast." Or, "It was wonderful but Ijay@o didn't get all the names straight." Or, "I wish you had paused before the end." Another mirror is a recording of your story. This gives you the opportunity to sit and make notes about your presentation. You may decide the characters blur because you didn't vary your voice. Or, you may see the need for more pauses or silences.

 

8. Be brave enough to use silence.

 

The most effective moment in a story can be the moment of silence. It takes daring to pause but it creates intensity and allows the listener a chance to breathe. I find using silence very difficult but I am aware of its effectiveness. Pause and count silently to three or five, depending on the scene.

 

9. Tell your story over and over until you are comfortable with it.

 

Tell the story to yourself. Tell it to children, family and friends. Sometimes I tell a story to a friend on the telephone. With the retelling comes confidence and insight. It's like replaying a piece of the piano. If the piece is rich and moving, a pianist may play it a thousand times in a lifetime and not tire of it.

 

10. Respect your audience.

 

Give them the story as a gift. Try to sense their mood to help you begin the story. Never, never, never speak down to the audience.

 

11. Make sure the listeners are comfortable.

 

With a young audience it's nice to sit on a rug and have everyone gather round. In fact, that's good for the not-so-young too. Think about the lighting in the room and the place you are telling about. Be sure the room is quiet, intimate and pleasant.

 

12. Don't rush into the story.

 

Pause a moment to collect yourself. there is no theater curtain so you must prepare and still the audience by the way you stand and act. Your first gesture draws the curtain back. The words "Once upon a time. . ." can have a wonderful rhythm and a calming effect, inviting the listener to make the journey with you.

 

13. Trust your tale.

 

If you've chosen a story you love and one that has moved you, it will move others. Trust the power of the tale. As you concentrate on it, your nervousness will lessen and the tale itself will grow. If someone isn't listening, go on with the tale. The nonlisteners may well become absorbed as the story unfolds.

 

14. Compliment yourself.

 

Be willing to pat yourself on the back. "Nicely done. I certainly told that well." Reflect on the parts that went smoothly. Be aware that you changed your voice for certain characters, that you moved easily and varied the tone of your voice so much that you were completely engrossed in the story.

 

When things don't go well, try to be objective rather than blaming. I told one of my happiest stories to a group of 100 sixth graders who sat like mushrooms, only to discover later that they had put on a huge play the night before. They were emotionally exhausted and in no mood for laughter.

 

15. After you finish the story ask the students what parts they liked.

 

Again, you may get insights into the story you hadn't had before. Your listeners may be fascinated by a name or a place that hadn't caught your imagination. They may point out a detail that didn't seem important. Also, they may show you how well you've told the story by the number and kinds of questions they ask.

 

16. Be alert for stories of all kinds.

 

When my own children were young they would ask me at dinner to "tell when you were bad, Daddy." Recalling small things that happened to me as a boy allowed them to have fun but also to see that I, too, was small and worried and hurt and naughty. Suddenly, I was no longer just "Daddy" but a friend sharing a world they knew.

 

When my son was a third grader, he used to come home each day telling ordinary stories about his teacher. "Mr. McCurdy is making Portuguese bread again tonight. It's an egg bread and sticky. He had to answer the phone last night just when both hands were covered with a sticky mess. . ." Or, "Mr. McCurdy doesn't like New York City. His wife has to hold on to him on the sidewalk there 'cause he gets terribly dizzy."

 

We are all human - and stories remind us of our humanity, our sense of fun and wonder and struggle. The stories you begin to collect can be personal, folk, adventure, mystery. It depends on you, your students, your interests and theirs. But tell them, tell them, tell them.

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