Exercises

Exercises for Storytelling

Text Exercise:
Here’s a story someone actually told during a conversation. Does it have all six parts required for a successful story?
I remember, what was it? the first year of my MFA, it was the Spring and I sort of made it through my first year, and birds were chirping, and I was walkin’ down the street, really happy, and I ran into someone who just defended their thesis, um, their Master’s thesis, um, and actually they did it like a day earlier, and you know, so I said, “oh how did it go?” and they said it was amazing, I did this thing, I don’t know how it went, but afterwards, I went to a coffee shop and I sat down and I started writing this new, you know, piece (I think, I think he was a poet), um, started writing this new poem, and it just kind of all came out, having, you know, been unfettered from my previous project, it was this new thing and it’s this total breakthrough. And I thought, “That’s the real value of doin’ this, because at some point, you can take that thorn out of your paw, um, and then you’re free to do whatever the hell you want. And even if it’s the, you know, sort of, another ghost chapter that would fit into it, that’s cool, … yeah. Phew (sigh).

Answer

This is clearly an unscripted, unrehearsed, unpolished story — but it does contain all of the necessary ingredients for a successful story:

I remember, what was it? [Introduction — he clearly intends to tell a story.]  the first year of my MFA, it was the Spring and I sort of made it through my first year, and birds were chirping, and I was walkin’ down the street, really happy, [Orientation: the who, when, where details] and I ran into someone who just defended their thesis, um, their Master’s thesis, um, and actually they did it like a day earlier, and you know, so I said, “oh, how did it go?” and they said it was amazing, I did this thing, I don’t know how it went, but afterwards, I went to a coffee shop and I sat down and I started writing this new, you know, piece (I think, I think he was a poet), um, started writing this new poem, [Complicating Action — what happened then] and it just kind of all came out, having, you know, been unfettered from my previous project, it was this new thing and it’s this total breakthrough. [Resolution — the kicker]  And I thought, “That’s the real value of doin’ this, because at some point, you can take that thorn out of your paw, and then you’re free to do whatever the hell you want. And even if it’s the, you know, sort of, another ghost chapter that would fit into it, that’s cool, [Evaluation — makes the point of the story clear]  … .yeah, phew (sigh) [Coda — makes it clear that the story is over]

Video Exercise:
Watch the video in which the storyteller told the story. Was this a successful storytelling event? (Was the listener interested?) How can you tell?

Answer

It’s always a bit hard to tell if a student is really interested in a story told by a professor! Certainly, she practices active listening, maintaining eye contact and a social smile, nodding often.  The giveaway that she actually was interested here, is that she beat him to the evaluation! She doesn’t just echo his words, she says “whatever” before he does, showing that she was paying close attention to the story, got the point, and agrees with the point. She then repeats it twice (“Whatever…. it’s all whatever you wanna do”) and adds “yeah.”

Video Exercise:

This time, the same storyteller is telling a different story (to a different student), and we get to see his face on camera as he speaks. You can see where the student is (even though he’s not on camera), so you can tell when the storyteller is making eye contact and when he’s not. Paying close attention to the storyteller’s gaze. When does he make fleeting eye contact? When does he make more extended eye contact? Why do you think the eye contact happened in this way?

Answers

Here is a transcription of the story, with eye contact shown via bolding and underlining.   Note that there is very brief moment of eye contact at the start of the story, as the storyteller verifies that he has the listener’s attention (i.e., that he has permission to tell the story). After this, there is NO eye contact whatsoever until he reaches the resolution of the story! (That is, there is no eye contact at all during the remainder of the introduction, the orientation and the complicating action.) Then, he looks away again until he gets to the evaluation — but he holds eye contact throughout the evaluation, making sure that the listener understands that this was the point of the story, the take-home message.  He looks away again for the coda.

I used to teach, for some reason in graduate school, I got an eight o’clock class, and I told the, um, it was the sort of department um administrative assistant that set the schedule, and I told her how much I loved it, and that meant I got it every year, ’cause no one wanted it. It was great! I’d go teach that class, it’d be sort of fun, it felt like gettin’ up and goin’ to work, and then you’d come home, take a quick nap, and it’s like a whole new day. Phew!

Follow-up Exercise: A Retold Story
In less than half a minute, he retells a story that one of his students had told to him. Does the fact that he’s retelling someone else’s story change our expectations for the structure of the story? Can he get in all six parts of the story in less than 30 seconds? As before, watch the student’s reaction(s). Can you tell if she’s interested and/or if she gets the point of the story?

Answers

The  introduction to a story reveals that this is really Leia’s story, and he’s just retelling it here — which he reminds us again, right before the resolution. There is orientation to the who, what, where.  The resolution is (as usual) short and sweet. The evaluation is the longest part — making sure the student gets the point of the story. And finally, quite a bit of coda, transitioning out of the story, back to the ongoing conversation.  Did you notice the gap?  This is a “story” in which nothing actually happens — there is no complicating action.

Like, I know that Leia mentioned Alabama brought people to campus, students that they accepted, to you know sort of check out the program, and I think there were twelve of them that came to campus, and she said her and somebody else, there were only two students that it was their first go-round of applications. So just like the, you know, the batting average there is such, such, craziness. But it’s totally you know worth perseverance and sticking with it. Um, cool. All right, so…. 

The student keeps her gaze locked firmly on the speaker, so it’s clear that she’s paying attention. She nods once when he says “you know.” (He seemed to be seeking confirmation, so she confirms that she does know what he’s talking about.) It isn’t until he completes the resolution of the story that her expression is anything but neutral.  At this point, she moves her head, gives minimal responses, nods some more, and does some social smiling.  When he begins to segue back to the ongoing conversation with “so….,” she has a facial expression of uncertainty.  This may be  a natural reflection of her feeling uncertain about the process of applying to graduate school — but coupled with the lack of expression during most of the story, the lack of sincere smiles, and the lack of verbal response (she doesn’t build on what he says, doesn’t tell a story in turn or comment on the story that he told), it seems likely that he was “preaching to the choir,” telling her an unnecessary story to support a point she already knew and understood, and she just wanted to move on.

Exercise:

Script out a story that you might want to tell people (something funny or sad or unexpected that happened to you). Make sure it has all six parts of the story. Practice telling it once or twice (to yourself), and time your performance. If the story lasts more than two minutes, see if there are unnecessary details you can cut and have the story still make sense.Then tell the story to a confederate (who has not read it ahead of time or heard you practice), remembering to get permission to tell the story before you begin. Be sure to tell the story, not to read it!Did your confederate provide you with active listening cues throughout, or were there moments when they seemed less interested? (Most people can maintain their interest as long as the story appears to be progressing – they know the structure, so they know the end is coming, and don’t get too impatient.) Did they give you any of the other signs that you had told a successful story?Ask your confederate specifically about the orientation details: did you give the right amount of information (everything your confederate didn’t already know but needed to know so the story would make sense, and nothing else)?

Try not to feel too awkward about scripting out the story and practicing it ahead of time. You might be surprised how many excellent storytellers do just that. Even those who “wing it” the first time tend to retell their successful stories often enough that they eventually become fixed, practiced performances.

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