How to Tell a Story Well

Tips on storytelling and how to become a good storyteller.

| October/November 1991

I make my living by knowing how to tell a story well and am an author of books celebrating the oral tradition. The questions I'm most often asked are: "How did you get started in storytelling?" and "Who taught you how to tell a story?"

I have never been able to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions basically because I didn't "learn" to tell a story any more than I "learned" how to crawl or walk or run. But I did have a lot of examples of good storytelling techniques around me while I was growing up in rural Pennsylvania during the 1950s. My family, neighbors and friends were always telling stories. Of course they didn't call it that. To them it was just talk. From this "talk" I developed an active imagination and a love of language. I guess you could say they gave me the gift of gab.

I realize that not everyone was as fortunate as I was. I have been astonished to find that there are a lot of people who grew up without stories or storytelling. But whether you have storytelling in your background or not, I think just about anyone can be a good storyteller.

Here are a few simple tips on storytelling that will help you create and tell a story. I'll use "The Cherry Tree Buck" as an example. I first read this story in a book, but you can develop any story that interests you, regardless of its source. It's easier to start with stories from books or other people; then, once you have the hang of it, you can develop stories from your own imagination or personal memory.

Step one. The story lives in pictures, not words. You may have noticed that while you were reading the cherry story, you not only read the words but saw pictures in your imagination. It was almost as if you had a movie screen in your mind and you were watching the events unfold on the screen. This is storylistening.

To be a storyteller, you have to convert the story into images. To do this, I simply close my eyes and "daydream" my way through the story. As I do, my mind is making a movie of the story, which I can later draw on in telling my tale. When you have completed your "movie," place it in memory and open your eyes.

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