Donald Davis at the National Storytelling Festival

5 Ideas from the 2012 National Storytelling Festival

Build a better story

If you learn one thing, then it was worthwhile.

Dad told me that when I was a kid.

He was talking about reading books, but I've found his quote rings true for almost everything.

Sometimes you learn more than one thing. Last weekend at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, I learned five ideas that can help you build and tell better stories.

  1. Tell who you are
  2. Engage your audience
  3. Laugh at life & yourself
  4. Character(s) are the story
  5. What's your point?

Tell who you are

Jessica Honor Carleton and Robert Schleifer

Jessica Carleton has been telling stories since she was twelve. Jessica was not a featured teller at the festival, but she sang this song "... no microphone needed, just tell who you are ..."

Wow! Her voice was beautiful, but that refrain is worth pondering.

When you tell who YOU are, your stories become more like personal conversations. Help your listeners understand YOU. What drives you? What do you do well? What makes you different?

When you tell who you ARE, it goes deeper. Every teller is unique. Don't copy another teller's style or stories; find your own. Your "voice" as a storyteller is one-of-a-kind. Find it. Respect it. Embrace it.

Engage your audience

Paul "Che oke ten" Wagner

Paul "Che ole ten" Wagner is Native American, a wonderful storyteller, and an amazing flutist. Like Jessica, Paul was not a featured teller either, but he _moved_ his audience. Literally.

As Paul told the story of how the sky came to rise above the mountains, he had the whole audience lifting and waving their arms. His story became theirs.

You don't need to be a musician or a world-class orator to pull the audience into your story. If you have a crowd, have them speak ... or clap ... or gesture. Every teller at the festival had their audience participate.

Only you and one listener? Give them your FULL attention. Lock eyes. Lean in. A slight touch on the shoulder (if appropriate). Ask questions. Make the rest of world go away – it's only you, them, and the story.

Laugh at life & yourself

Kevin Kling storyteller

Kevin Kling inspires me.

We roared as he told simple, self-depricating stories about himself, his brother, and his dad. His dad's famous sayings: "That nut is tighter than ... the bark on a tree." (You had to be there to get it.) His brother's lecture as Kevin laid on the hockey rink, dazed after a hit to the head: "A vulcan would not cry so little brother." Kevin told simple, funny stories.

Finding good stories is like snorkeling. Lie still, float on the water, and more fish will appear than if you furiously flapped your flippers flying around the lagoon. Slow down. When you do, suddenly an endless supply of simple, great stories will begin to appear.

Want to find the best stories? Look for humor in everything: your situation, your life's work, yourself. It'll make you a better storyteller. It has for Kevin, he's one of the best tellers I've heard. By-the-way, did I mention Kevin can barely use both arms?

Character(s) are the story

Dr. Hannah Harvey, storyteller

Hannah Harvey had character. No, actually she had lots of character(s).

Like other tellers at the festival, Hannah told about her family. She traced their family linage back to her Revolutionary war patriot: from grandpa Ballard the philanderer, to Grandma Lucy her hero, to the prayer told by Reverend Samuel Doke to the Tennessee Volunteers.

A story is only a story because it has character(s). Even if you're telling about a product or service your company offers, your story needs character and characters. It needs both it's own personality and other personalities. Real people, real situations, real experiences.

Hannah made her characters come alive. How can you do the same? Give them a name, a face, a date, faults and strengths ... give them life.

What's your point?

Andy Offutt Irwin, storyteller

Andy Offutt Irwin can whistle pitch perfect for over a minute without seeming to take a breath. But I digress (Andy's favorite saying) ... what was his point?

"It's bad storytelling when you get preachy." Good storytellers don't tell the audience what to think.

Telling a story is like taking your listener on a journey. Don't wander aimlessly. Know where you're going and how you'll get there. And when you arrive, do like Jesus did when he told his parables.

Tell the story. The point will make itself.


  1. Michael Wayne on November 16, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Point 5: “It’s bad storytelling when you get preachy.”

    Great quote:

    People routinely stop listening to me because I ramble!

    • Doug Foster on November 18, 2012 at 3:09 pm

      You don’t ramble Mike, you just present some rather abstract ideas in rapid succession ;-).

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