In his book, The Art of Storytelling, John Walsh presents storytelling as an artistic skill. In order to excel in any art form, one must master certain fundamental skill sets. For a musician, notes must be learned. For a painter, the different brushes must be used again and again. For a storyteller, Walsh gives seven steps which are fundamental in the presentation of an unforgettable story. In this essay, we will summarize and discuss all seven steps, noting where I agree or disagree with Walsh.
To begin with, Walsh gives the first step of imagination. Imagination is where the story is infused with creativity. Walsh suggests imagination as the first step in great storytelling because, “to properly tell a story, you must see it in your mind (Walsh 88). For some Christian storytellers this is a hard step because they have been taught that creativity is inherently sinful. Fortunately, this is not the case and people can be very creative and honor God at the same time.
The second step is facial expressions. Certain things are best communicated with an expression, sometimes even without words. Walsh points out that many beginning story tellers feel like they are overdoing their facial expressions, but that is exactly the feeling one has when using facial expressions effectively (97). Also, the storyteller’s clothing choices can make a positive or negative contribution to the audience’s experience of the story.
Walsh’s third step is body movements. Intentional and purposeful body actions will compliment a story, making it even more effective. On the other hand, body movements can include nervous habits that greatly distract from anything the storyteller is trying to communicate. In order to maximize hand actions, Walsh recommends keeping hands generally between the waist and the shoulders (99).
Step four is the use of voice. Voice use includes tempo, quality and volume. The voice is the primary instrument of the storyteller and should be cared for accordingly. Before speaking, it is appropriate to warm up and not strain one’s voice so as to avoid permanently affecting one’s ability to speak. Many times, a simple tone, pitch or other voice change be be used very effectively to denote changes in character in a story. Voice changes can even be used to denote sections of stories so that the audience unconsciously knows when moving from one chapter to another. Walsh also includes word choice in this section.
The fifth step is the pause. Although many beginner storytellers avoid silence at all costs, the pause is a priceless tool for a great story. By pausing, the storyteller allows the audience mental space to create images in minds and builds anticipation for what may be coming up next. The pause allows the audience to use their imaginations and when listeners use their imaginations they begin to be able to see the stories in their minds.
Walsh’s sixth step is the nervousness of the speaker. Walsh proposes that nervousness actually helps the storyteller to prepare better. Nervousness also can help to energize the storyteller as they cannot know for sure what will happen once the story begins. Even when a master storyteller gets in front of an audience, a certain amount of nervousness should be present if they are putting their whole selves into the story.
Finally, the seventh step in creating an unforgettable story is confidence. Even though confidence seems to be the opposite of nervousness, a storyteller can have both. Confidence, according to Walsh, comes from practice and nervousness is a primary motivator to practice. So a nervous storyteller can have confidence in their story if they have practiced enough to feel secure.
I really appreciate that Walsh began the steps with the imagination. Imagination brings so many stories to life in personal ways for people. Even Jesus told stories from the imagination to best communicate truth with those listening around Him. From a biblical stand point there is always the challenge of being faithful to the text while filling in details with one’s imagination. This is possible, however, by following sound hermeneutical principles and not drawing attention away from the overall story of the biblical narrative.
The second step about facial expressions is also a valid step for me. Many times a speaker can communicate well but lacks the facial expressions to make the communication believable. Expression is the best advantage of speaking over writing. When we read Jesus’ teachings in the gospel accounts, we get very little direction as far as what His facial expressions were. When telling stories, facial expressions give the speaker a huge advantage over the written word.
Body movement is the next step that Walsh gives to create an unforgettable story. I fully agree with Walsh that body language can communicate louder than words. Many times I have seen speakers who have distracting mannerisms and audiences who end up fixated on the nervous habit instead of what is being communicated. I would even propose rehearsing intentional hand actions and positioning in order to look more natural when performing. Perhaps a story could even include a bit of pantomime, using imaginary objects, or pretending to walk in a particular way to further draw the audience in. Furthermore, positioning on stage can also be a means of communicating, by delivering chapters or points from different sides of the stage.
The fourth step in Walsh’s suggested story toolbox deals with the use of voice. Walsh is accurate in describing the voice as the instrument of the storyteller. It must be taken care of very well in order to be maintained and developed. Voice variations are an easy way for speakers to create creativity within the story. I whole heartedly agree with Walsh when he writes, “unless you are willing to put the effort into it, you should leave accents alone (107). He follows this guideline with a great piece of advice to change voices only slightly for different characters to maximize the effectiveness of the overall story.
Walsh’s fifth step is the use of the pause. When a speaker pauses it causes a strong change in what is happening to the listener. If the listener has lost focus a pause will be a sharp enough contrast to snap them back to the story. Other times the pause is an excellent way to create and keep tension between the storyteller and the audience. In a very real way the storyteller holds the entire story inside themselves and they are giving it over to the audience. If the audience is fully engaged and hooked into the story, then they will beg for the pause to end. An audience that is fully into the story can be fully controlled with an effective pause. This is an excellent tool for Walsh to highlight. At the same time, when the pause is used poorly it can be horrible. Speakers who pause too frequently give their audience open mental space that will be filled with whatever random thoughts pop into the listener’s mind, usually a hope that the story will soon be over. The pause must be used intentionally and not be the result of any nervousness in order to make sure it is as effective as possible.
This brings up the sixth step in Walsh’s progression, nervousness. Walsh is absolutely right on in his estimation of the effects of nervousness on a storyteller. The deep thrill of live speaking is the risk that accompanies getting up in front of a group of people. Inside every storyteller there is a little voice of fear that can think of hundreds of ways that this whole performance could go extremely bad. The best part of Walsh’s treatment of nervousness is the ways that he suggests the speaker turn nervousness into a positive for the performance. He goes so far as to say that nervousness is a gift from God that causes focus and an increased desire to prepare (114). One of the best things that Walsh provides in the chapter on nervousness is some practical direction for dealing with nervousness (116-117). Without a plan to deal with nervousness, a storyteller may be surprised if it gets the best of him, so having some strategies for emotional control in place is an excellent suggestion.
The final step for creating an unforgettable story is confidence. Without confidence a speaker can quickly end up lost and ineffective as a storyteller. An audience always comes into the performance with a certain amount of nervousness also, since they don’t know if it’s going to be enjoyable or not, and the best way to quickly put them at ease is for the speaker to display confidence. Unfortunately, confidence when speaking in front of groups of people seems to forever elude some people. Walsh recommends plenty of practice to beginners, but I am not sure that will work in every case.
Overall, the seven steps that Walsh suggests to create and unforgettable story are great tools in the hand of an effective storyteller. In order to become a master of the craft, beginners can put them into practice and see improvements in their performances right away.