Speaking Tips: The Art and Craft of Oral Storytelling Part Three

Building a Storytelling Vocabulary

Sharpen the tools of the mind – your word usage.

One way to do this is to buy yourself a book of Synonyms and Antonyms. No, don’t rely on a computer program on your PC. These words must be affixed in your memory banks not your computer’s. They need be words that you have practiced in some way to make them your own. You may have done this by writing them into a sentence or three, so that you have actually used them before.

Why Synonyms? Most people need to expand their vocabulary so that it goes from a certain coarseness to one of smoother grain, one of subtlety. Take a look at these words.

Gleam, glisten glint, glow, shine, shimmer. All refer to the way an object might be perceived by the eye but there are subtle differences. Learn them. Practice using them all.

Another word with an enormous amount of synonyms is big. We have large, enormous, gigantic, huge, massive, gargantuan, colossal, immense – and great -which is generally done to death. So use all of them instead of just big or great.

One could also generalize and say that the word ‘great’ is a lazy person’s word, used for multiple purposes. It’s over use really does detract.

Variety is ‘the spice of life’ when it comes to listening.

In a presentation, if the same adjective is used over and over again it starts to ring in the listener’s ear. The thought occurs: “Is this the only word the speaker knows to describe this?” and once such a thought arises, being absorbed is lost. The story goes out the window. I cannot emphasize enough that as speakers and storytellers ‘words are our tools of trade.’ The more we’ve got in our tool boxes, the more adaptable we will be.

Short words produce more power!

Additionally, the shorter the words the more power they convey. A generalization, perhaps, but it is true in most instances. The Greek, Latin, and French words might have a certain ‘pizzas.’ They might indicate an intellectual or highly educated man or woman. They don’t do much for story. Take an example from the famous writer, Ernest Hemingway who, in his story, The Old Man and the Sea, uses sentence after sentence of single-syllable words. This is power!

The Anglo-Saxon and Norse words are the English words you want to add to your vocabulary: Leg, cut, hit, dab, stab, club, ran, fled, plot, plod, clod, plop, clot, clash clank, cliff, cleft, hew.

Build your oral-working vocabulary with short words.

Most of these words are familiar to you – do you use them? Learn as many short, single syllable words as you comfortably can. Three letter words. Then four letter words – no, they’re not all swear words. Yes, most of those are Anglo-Saxon. And haven’t you noticed how so many long words are deliberately shortened nowadays? Information becomes info, policeman, cop, and psychiatrist, shrink. We like short words!

Devise a system to learn short words. Don’t overdo it and say, “I’m going to learn fifty a week.” Learn two or three in a week. After a year or to you will have many more colorful and useful words to draw on. And as the years go by you’ll add more. One thing about Public Speaking or Storytelling, generally the older we get the better we get. Like Creative Writing it is probably one of the few fields of endeavor where we never get ‘beyond it.’ Discounting medical conditions such as senility and Alzheimer’s of course. We are better at eighty than we were at forty. So give yourself time to become that Master Storyteller you are perhaps envisioning now.

So how can we develop our preparedness? How can we ready ourselves so that what is held within will ignite into a spark, then a flame, then a conflagration? By having plenty of highly combustible fuel. And what is this fuel? It is plenty of useful knowledge that can be mixed, molded, blended and fabricated within in minds. It was not without a great deal of forethought that the famous Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlisle pronounced,

“The man is most original who can adapt from the greatest number of resources.”

What Carlisle was getting at is that the more widely versed we are the greater our chances of coming up with new ideas. He was inferring that we should study widely rather than specialize in narrow fields of endeavor. If you look at the great inventions of the world you will see that many of them were discovered or invented by people who were not within the particular field to which that invention might apply. Alexander Graham Bell was a Vocal Physiologist not a technician or engineer. Samuel Morse was primarily an artist, a painter. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were bicycle mechanics.

If you have studied, say, Anthropology, Economics, Psychology, Engineering and Zoology you’ll probably have a much wider data bank for your subconscious to work on than if you spent your entire life studying Medicine. Chances are you’d be the one to come up with the medical breakthroughs (even if it did upset The Establishment) rather than the medical specialist.

Now you may not be an intellectual or a ‘boffin,’ but you do have the opportunity to study widely throughout your life, if only by reading widely. And it is this reading widely that will provide the fuel that will be ignited by the spark of intent. With the knowledge there, you’re only awaiting intuition to tell you when the time is right.

The right sort of reading will help you as a storyteller.

If you want to become a really good storyteller but have been stuck, or are stuck, in what you consider a rather boring, humdrum life, read widely. Escape into story. Most of us escape into the visual stories presented on popular television every day. Change just a little of this by escaping into written story. That way you are in a far more active state. You are creating from the stories you read with pictures in your mind. As I said, you’ll be in an active rather than the passive state of watching television.

I believe it to be no accident that those who were born before the advent of popular television in the home are much more imaginative and enjoying of oral storytelling than our younger generations. Older people were brought up on a diet of radio plays and variety shows where voices and sound effects came over the airwaves for them to create the pictures in their own minds. However, we all realize that we will not be returning to those days. Yet it is possible to get stories that can be read or heard, rather than viewed. Go for them! Grab CDs in which they feature. Put ’em on your iPod.

How to Practice Delivery.

Once again it gets around to the written word and reading. Here, you practice reading out aloud. You read in such a way that your words are clear. You read in such a way that the pauses are apt. You read in such a way that the meaning of the story rather than just the information is conveyed. You tape it. You play it back. You time it. You tape it again. You play it back. You time it.

If you want to go a bit further and develop the voice you’d like to have to deliver stories, you practice voice exercises to extend the range of your voice. If you’ve been blessed with a beautiful voice, then use it to effect. If you feel you’d like to improve, then get to work with those voice exercises. There are lots of books out there which will tell you how to do this.

Telling the story.

Once you have commenced the story do not stop until it is finished. No asides that will take your audience away from the continuity; no explanations about why this particular part is as it is. The audience doesn’t want a description of how you put the yarn together, or where you picked up a particular piece of information. If you stop the continuity it spoils it for your listener. As you speak he or she is gradually building up a picture of events. They could well be creating the ‘personality and character’ of the story’s hero in their minds by the words you are saying.

Remember, these are their creations, and if the audience comprises a hundred people there will be a hundred slightly different heroes in those minds. It’s a matter of semantics. Is the ‘dog’ a Kelpie, a German Shepherd, a Border Collie or Jack Russell Terrier. They’re still working on that as you proceed.

Audience participation.

That said, if the aside does not in any way detract but rather enhances the comprehension of the listener by all means use it. For example, in my story about a pilotless aero plane over Sydney, The Runaway Auster, I stop and ask if anyone here has noticed that when they have a car accident how the tow trucks arrive almost as if by magic. This is not only humorous but allows the story to jump to how the News Media find out about the situation without me going into a long rigmarole.

What if you’re telling a series of stories?

In my own repertoire of stories I have yarns which go for anything from five to fifty minutes. On some occasions, particularly when one has to do some quick adjusting because my time slot has been reduced, I might switch to a shorter story (provided they haven’t heard it before) or a number of short stories. If I do this, I take the advice of the professional comedians. I use three, or five – an odd number. More often than not, three. The shortest one often goes in the middle. I present my second best story first, the weakest second, my best last.

Best? What’s this best?

It depends upon the audience. I determine in which order I think the audience will warm to the stories I tell. For example, if the audience is made up of both men and women, I tell a story which would appeal to both sexes first. The second might be aimed at the men in the audience, the final one at the women.

I generally tend to tell a story that is well practiced first up. It is very important to win the audience early. The stories that might be less familiar to me, maybe a little controversial, and have more of a message rather than entertainment value might be placed in the middle. The last story is generally one aimed at their heartstrings. Not always, of course. But this is a general practice. You are, in a way, putting on a show.

If you have stories which have religious connotations don’t present one of them first. The audience could well decide that you’ve come along to preach. By all means use these stories if you have them, but use them sparingly and after your audience have ‘sassed you out’ and warmed to you. This does not apply, of course, if you are speaking to a Church Group. They’ll probably love those stories with a religious flavor.

You forget something in your story

Don’t worry about it. Unless it is essential to the plot nobody will ever know. It’s your story after all Just carry on. Don’t apologize and then try to include it. That will make for awkwardness and a feeling of it being contrived.

It is essential to the plot?

Then work it back into the story in way with a phrase such. “But what had happened earlier,” or “As it happened at that time a… ” or some such. I’ve done that before today. However, you need to be so familiar with the story that you can do this and no one will ever notice that ‘you went back to put in something essential.’

You get an interruption.

The microphone fails. An alarm goes off in the building. Once again, if you know your repertoire of stories backward, so to speak, as soon as the fault is rectified you go back a sentence or two from where the interruption occurred and carry on. Don’t leave the story half-way through and start a new one. Finish the story.