In Search of Storytelling Excellence

August 11, 2010 at 10:28 am 10 comments

In Search of Storytelling Excellence
©Sue Black

We do it for movies, live theatre, and books. My family does it every 4th of July for lasagna. I even have a friend who does it for pie – fruit, not cream.  What’s everyone doing? They’re searching for excellence.

After they experience it, test it, sample it, ingest it, digest it, compare it, and think on it, then they review it.

  • “This one’s great – see it with your family.”
  • “Buy it and read it today.”
  • “Pull up to the table, tie on a bib, and cut yourself another slice.”
  • “Step away from the ticket counter.”
  • “Put down that fork and run for your life.”

And we expect this kind of review.  We are, after all, looking for that perfect – or maybe as perfect as you can get – experience. We read the reviewers we trust, who most often seem to agree with our own assessment. We appreciate knowing our money and time and calories will be well-spent.

So I’m wondering why we’re not doing the same thing for public storytelling performances. Why is it culturally opposed, forbidden, resisted, and/or disdained to review this art form? Why shouldn’t the public be encouraged to attend the next performance coming to a nearby venue because that storyteller is consistently fabulous, and warned against storytellers who are not yet ready for prime time?
Because: Echoing through the storytelling hallways you’ll hear: “Everyone’s a storyteller. This is a folk art, unjudged thru the ages; precedence prevails. We only say good stuff to one another so as not to discourage anyone from storytelling – all are welcome, the stories too important. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Who (gasp!) would/should do the reviewing? It wouldn’t be fair to choose just a few people (after all, they might not like my story). Egos might be bruised. Feelings might be hurt.”

Here’s what I’m going to suggest. Whether self-proclaimed professional or hobbyist, unless you really are sitting on a hay bale or your own front porch, we need to adhere to a minimum number of standards for storytelling excellence. If folks are walking thru the door – having paid a price for admission or not – they’re expecting to be entertained. It is, after all, performance art. And we storytellers need to step up our game and give them more than they were expecting.

Work Hard at your Craft
As storyteller Jackie Baldwin so eloquently states: “No one can tell a meaningful story that is carefully shaped and fulfills its purpose (no matter what that purpose is) without work, hard work… and knowledge and analysis and practice… getting feedback as the story grows to its full potential.”

So find a story that resonates for you and then, before you take the stage:

  • Research it. Bring cultural awareness and respect to your presentation of a folk tale. There’s so much to know, so much to transmit thru the telling, and so much to misrepresent if you don’t do some homework. If you choose not to do the hard work of making yourself culturally aware, if  you choose to mangle the old tale for your telling purposes, then please respect your audience and that culture by saying your telling is ‘based on’ an old tale. Don’t state that it ‘is’ the old tale.
  • Practice it. Respect your audience. Know that you will deliver the tale with grace, and that your presentation skills – eye contact, energy, use of voice and body, and dress – do not distract from the story.
  • Trust it. Let the story do the work. Energy, drama, comedy, and timing are all good– they keep you and your audience interested in the performance. Don’t feel the need to add melodrama to your telling. And while we’re on the subject, don’t feel the need to add a 10 minute introduction to your 5 minute story. And while we’re still on the subject, don’t feel the need to preach the moral before, during, or after your story. Let the story do the work. Trust it.
  • Tell it. Who is your test audience? Read their reactions.
  • Get it coached. Find someone whose work you admire and get their feedback.
  • Dig deep. Based on the above, refine your story. Re-craft it. Do all of the above over again.
  • Question. Don’t just get a few nice compliments and walk away. Ask listeners what worked best and then ask them what wasn’t working. Ask them how you could be more clear, more consistent, more well-crafted, more varied in emotional content, more engaging, more memorable in word choice and imagery, more to the point, more inclusive of the audience, more genuine, more skilled in the presentation ….. more.
  • Ask someone else. If your coaching buddy can’t give you this kind of feedback then find someone who can. If they say there is nothing more you can do to make it better, don’t believe them.
  • Leave your ego at the door. Leave the ‘look at me’, ‘aren’t I clever’ delivery at home. Remember, it is not all about you. When you take the stage it is absolutely all about your audience. What can you do for them? Stop thinking about how clever you are, how awesome they are going to find you, how much they ‘need’ to hear you tell this story, how pleased you are with yourself. It all shows from the stage. Start thinking about your audience and what story they will like, how you need to adapt your story or telling to the space, population, time of day/night so that they will be comfortable while being entertained. Communicate how much they matter. It all shows from the stage.
  • If you can’t take the feedback, step away from the microphone.

We’ll never move storytelling from folk art to fine art if we aren’t delivering fine performances. We’ll never move from tents in fields to concert halls if we don’t step up our game, seek excellence, find it, refine it, spread the word on what it looks like, work hard for it, and demand it from ourselves and one another.

How can we do that? We can embrace the concept of reviewing storytelling performances. We don’t have to be cruel in our reviews. I don’t see meanness in any of the reviews I read for books, movies, or live theatre. I do see honest assessment and comparisons to other fine work. When something is done well, it is celebrated. When something needs work, a good reviewer practices the fine art of delivering that message with skill.
Bill Harley, two-time Grammy award-winning artist, offers these categories for story performance review (see full text here:

  • Narrative form
  • Language
  • Voice and physical instrument
  • Performance skills
  • Relationship with the audience
  • Show structure
  • Aesthetic

Naturalist and storyteller Kevin Strauss suggests we review based upon these categories (contact Kevin for more details:

  • Engages audience imaginations
  • Encourages audience attention
  • Has emotional diversity
  • Has a point

Let’s talk about excellence in our art form – what it looks like, how to achieve it, and how to bring it to ever-expanding satisfied audiences. Let’s talk about who might review and where those reviews would be posted.

While I wait to hear from you, I’ll head out to the kitchen to work on my lasagna recipe. Two years ago I made it with Italian sausage, cream cheese, cottage cheese, mozzarella cheese and a special sauce. With great fanfare, my nephew relinquished his reign of best lasagna … to me. This year I had to give up the trophy … to him. Do I need a trophy to feel good about myself and my lasagna? No. Finding the lasagna pan empty at the end of the day pretty much tells me everything I need to know. They liked it. But a trophy, like sincere and resounding applause, brings huge personal satisfaction.
I know I’ve got to work on my lasagna if the family trophy is to come back home with me. Is it perfect every time I pull it out of the oven? No. But it is near-perfect most of the time because I’ve been working hard on it. I’ve taken the time to experience it, test it, sample it, ingest it, digest it, compare it, and, yes, review it. Having done all that, I savor it and then …… I try again.


Entry filed under: Just Do It -- Stories from the Field.

The True Story of Chicken Licken_trying a new version Working with Student Storytellers

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Laura Packer  |  August 11, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Excellent post, thank you! I blogged about storytelling excellence in a three-part series starting here based on Bill Harley’s Sharing the Fire keynote and addressed much the same set of topics.

    I really appreciate the questions you raise here. They are topics we need to discuss.

  • 2. Yvonne Healy  |  August 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Mine is definitely not perfect out of the oven – Ever! Can I get any points for remembering the story in 98 degree heat with rock bands blaring on both sides, and crowds of people, crying babies, and loud drunks thronging by? The music festival circuit is not for sissies. It’s been an interesting summer and I’ve reached a lot of people who don’t usually listen to stories. But it’s been an uphill battle.

  • 3. Jo Radner  |  August 11, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Thank you for raising your voice so eloquently, Sue! This has been a troubling block in our art form for a long time — not surprising in a small, close community, but important to get over. It’s really hard to take the criticism we need — and often harder to give it.
    My NSN keynote about some of this was published in the Storytelling, Self, Society journal, but I’d be glad to email anyone copies if it would add to the dialogue. Let’s be brave!

  • 4. Karen Chace  |  August 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm


    As you always do with every subject you have given this one deep thought. I sincerely appreciate your willingness to give voice to the silent concerns of many, myself included. And you did so with eloquence and elegance. Your post should be required reading for all storytellers.

    Warm wishes,
    Karen Chace

  • 5. Hope Baugh  |  August 11, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Hi, Sue! Great article! I have been reviewing live storytelling performances along with live theatre in the Indianapolis, Indiana area since January 2008. Your article and the people you cite give me good food for thought on how I can review more effectively. Thanks!

    Hope Baugh
    Indy Theatre Habit

  • 6. Debra Morningstar  |  August 11, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    You NAILED IT, Sistaaaaaaaaah!!

    I for one, will fast as I can to SIGN UP!!

    And, just a *side note*–I APPRECIATE your input on cultural integrity.
    Well put, Relative.
    hugs…and “light”–

    Debra xoxoxox

  • 7. David Kimball  |  August 12, 2010 at 6:00 am

    We should realize that those of us in the storytelling world will confuse storytelling with performance or platform storytelling. When we say that “everyone is a storyteller” we really mean that everyone is (or should be) involved in story sharing. But not everyone is a performance storyteller. And so these skills which are requisite for excellence really apply to performance storytellers – not necessarily everyone involved in story sharing.

  • 8. Limor  |  August 12, 2010 at 7:46 am

    Hi Sue,
    Every post stirring up this issue is welcome. My opinion is known and it is harsher than what I read here but all the same – we need to move for more reasons than we can imagine towards creating standards – not for performance but for training. Jo’s talk about this subject was brave and on time for NSN and it’s context, yet it seems to me that although highly appreciated, not much has been done by enough storytellers to push this issue forward.

    As you say, storytellers say nice things to each other.but if they are not the truth, no body is gaining much, especially not the art.


  • 9. Tim Sheppard  |  August 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    In 1995 Ben Haggarty gave a talk to the Folklore Society saying much the same thing, and the Society for Storytelling published a booklet with a version of it the next year, called “Seek Out the Voice of the Critic”. It may still be available from their website.

    His polemic calling for higher standards and for critics to review storytelling did cause some controversy and debate. But fifteen years later nothing has changed. It’s worth asking why.

    I can suggest a few reasons. Firstly critics have to be relatively removed socially from the people they are reviewing, if there is to be any objective critique – it doesn’t feel comfortable to publish comments about the need for improvement of people you know. And storytelling is a small world where people do know each other, and storytellers tend to be kind and generous people – not a great trait for even a positive critic. But also people who love storytelling are often at least amateur storytellers themselves. This isn’t the case with, say, theatre.

    Then there’s the issue of who needs to read reviews of storytelling. It’s not a mainstream performance art where the public have to choose which storytelling performances to go to this week. So they don’t demand reviews to help them decide. And therefore there aren’t the spaces to have them published, except in storytelling magazines, which are for and by storytellers – which comes back to the problem of friends not wanting to commit anything less than unabashed praise to a published form.

    There are few venues where there are regular storytelling events, let alone venues especially for storytelling. Until that starts to change, and there’s enough of a general public for such regular events, who aren’t storytellers themselves, I can’t see a culture of critical reviews being possible.

    Having said this, the one way things have changed is that there are now story slams, which incorporate a competitive element that encourages the audience to pick their favourite teller/story from a evening of competing performers. Competition is a pretty unfamiliar idea to most storytellers, and a very unwelcome atmosphere to many. But it does appeal to younger adult audiences, and it does provide instant feedback about how crowd-pleasing your storytelling was – which is at least a starting point for self-improvement.

  • 10. Lainie  |  August 13, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    So here’s what I love so much about this post.
    1. You have engaged me in thinking more deeply about the art and craft of what we do.
    2. You have stirred up a lot of good dust. I’ve been lurking around on Storytell to read all of the points and counterpoints. Sue, you’ve got people talking about your writing. I hope that you’re sitting back and at least enjoying that part of it. Because that’s part of why we do what we do.
    3. I love your honest take on things – real, honest, and always professional.

    For the record, I have several “lasagna” type quests. My latest refinement: the chocolate chip cookie. I’ll bring ya some over festival weekend…


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