The craft of storytelling
These notes are designed to accompany the experience of a living
workshop in which participants try out various aspects of telling stories.
If you would like to take part is such a workshop please click on
TEACHER TRAINING on the opening frame.
What is a story?
Any description which contains an element of drama is a story. Drama
is essentially ‘responding to problems’. Stories include:
• real life descriptions and these might come from your life or
from the newspaper, etc.
• local legends
• traditional stories
• literature eg Roahl Dahl.
The power of stories
Stories are so important! Stories grip people! Stories offer a path to
walk along through a chaos of experience. Stories offer a living
context for language! Stories offer a mine of content which can set
teachers and students off on all kinds of ‘project’ journeys. Telling a
story well is therefore an important skill for a teacher. But how to do it?
Telling or reading stories?
Salt and pepper are both necessary for any cook. They are different.
Full drama with your body. Natural opportunity for eye contact.
Personal feeling of giving a story rather than reading somebody else’s
story from a book. Natural to use English which is comprehensible to
the learners and natural to repeat an idea in different words in order to
make sure it is understood. Natural to stop and comment on the story as
a person rather than a neutral narrator. Adapt easily and repeat sections
to help with meaning.
No remembering to do. English correct…no worries about that.
Styles of telling
There are as many ways of telling a story as there are individuals and
story telling contexts
Our way of telling is determined by:
The character of the teller and his or her relationship with the listeners
The telling style(s) of the time and culture (listeners commenting is
common in some cultures)
The immediate context of telling (a friend, a class, a noisy party)
The character of the teller (risk takers, outgoing sharers, more reserved)
The nature of the story (funny, moving, action or character)
Storytelling is art. In art we must be ourselves but more so.
If you are quiet and shy then be quiet and shy in your telling and
emphasize your quietness and shyness…and it will come over as
Think about how people you know tell you about what they have been
doing and what has been happening. Describe three such people and
their way of telling to a colleague. You might include people who do
not engage and sustain your interest.
This workshop session on the craft of telling
Nobody can tell anybody else how to tell a story. But we can share our
own experiences and can hope that some of them might be useful in
some way. In this workshop I will share some of my experience of
storytelling to children and adults during the last fifteen years.
Please note that this set of notes does not include extensive ideas related
to teaching a foreign language. For suggestions related to choosing,
adapting, presenting and using stories in foreign language teaching
please go to ARTICLES and the click on, Ways of Using Stories with
Some aims for a storyteller
The aim might include:
– speak clearly so that the listener can understand the words spoken but
also to organize ideas so that the listener can follow the story
– express the feelings and ideas behind the story
– create a vivid mental image of what is happening in the minds of the
Tell your neighbour in what sort of situations you tell stories or describe
experiences. And say whether these three aims are: relevant to you; can
be added to; ones you are OK at or not so good at.
Choosing a story
You must like or admire the story you choose or you will tell it without
conviction. Of course, you will try to choose a story the listeners will
like but you can never be sure about that.
What mood is coming from the listeners? If they are restless or
inattentive it might be good to grip them with a modern or an ancient
myth which contains strong emotional challenges and clear actions.
Will they understand all the language? I think the question should be,
Will they understand enough of the storytelling to enjoy it? You will be
using actions and perhaps pictures and you will be preparing them…and
you will tell the story several times. They don’t need to understand all
the language in the story.
You might choose a particular story because it is relevant in subject to a
topic which you have introduced already or want to introduce.
Modifying a story
Modifying the story in order to maximize the chance of the listeners
understanding the story and appreciating the feelings expressed:
– words and phrases
– sentence complexity
But don’t remove all the language roughage and produce a pap thin
story. And don’t remove all the unknown language and rob the listeners
of the development of real listening fluency which means being able to
deal with unknown elements.
Remembering and mastering the story
We all have different ways of remembering and ‘mastering’ a story and
we should make sure we use the way which is most suitable for us! The
proof of the pudding is in the eating!
I, personally, need to write down a gist version of the story in flow chart
I then need to try out the gist of the story without expression on a
friend…just to see if I can remember the basics.
After that I need to tell the story many times before I begin to feel on
top of it.
I never try to remember a story word for word. This is very difficult and
makes me terrified of forgetting a word and makes it harder to live out
the drama (unless you are a professionally trained actor).
I find it is important for me to see, in my minds eye, the story almost
like a film.
What sort of rememberer are you? Tell your neighbour how you have
remembered a number of different things you do know and can talk
Preparing the story
Deciding which key items will be made understandable before the story
and which during the story.
Deciding if you are going to chat about related subjects before beginning
the story in order to produce listening readiness.
Getting together any pictures or objects which I might need.
Preparing the listeners. Listening readiness.
However good a storyteller you are you can lose everybody if they
haven’t brought their readiness to listen with them. Here are some ways
I try to increase story readiness by signaling the time and place for a
story session but not calling out, ‘Quiet please! I am going to tell you a
story! Sit up and pay attention!’
1 Arranging the seating in a different way eg in a semi-circle.
2 Sitting in a place or on a chair or desk corner which they have come to
associate with stories.
3 Adopting a body position which they have come to associate with your
telling of stories.
4 Quietly making sure they are comfortable, not hidden from you, have
nothing on their knees which they might drop.
5 Cueing their expectations with: a story corner, a story carpet, a story
bag or coat or scarf or box or puppet which they have come to associate
with your telling of stories.
6 Music: perhaps the same music every time you are going to tell a
7 Intriguing them with a story box or other object.
8 Insisting quietly on total silence and stillness.
9 Intriguing them and focusing their minds on relevant content and
language eg through chatting and asking questions. Has anybody got a
cat at home? Yes, well I am going to tell you a story about a cat.
1 Tell your neighbour which of these nine things you do, or what things
you do anyway or which of the things in the list you would feel
1 Content which is interesting to them eg cats.
2 Dramatic elements: how is he going to try to overcome the
problem…will he succeed?
4 Rich language
5 The richness of the use of the voice and body. (see below)
6 Characterfulness and vividness of people, places and objects, etc. you
create in their imaginations.
7 Managing to link the listeners directly with the story, perhaps by a
passing comment on an experience the listeners have with an experience
in the story.
8 Active, explicit participation of the listeners: miming, making
background noises, chanting, repeating key lines, inviting the listeners to
guess what is going to happen next or to say how the protagonist feels,
asking the listeners to listen out for the answer to a particular problem.
However hard one tries to carry out the ideas suggested above listeners
can have a strong personal agenda which does not coincide with your
own. Some listeners need to fiddle around, others need to whisper to
their friends or to poke them or pass them notes or to grin for no obvious
reason at someone opposite to them.
I find it disastrous ever to shout in a story session or ever to show
serious disapproval. I feel that story telling is story giving and that
warm concern must be the overriding atmosphere.
My way of dealing with behaviour which might distract other listeners
and pull them out of the story is:
1 Increase the dramatic edge in the story in content and manner of
2 Tell the story directly to the deviant, making strong eye contact.
3 Stand near the deviant and tell him/her the story but loud enough for
the class to hear, of course.
4 Momentarily putting my finger to my lips and looking the deviant in
the eyes but without interrupting the story.
5 Stopping and saying something like: Is he your friend? I am not
surprised he looks a nice boy. And of course you want to talk to him
and be close to him but during the storytelling please don’t! Save it up
until later. When people like a story they go into it and forget the
classroom and the story becomes real. But it is real, like a beautiful
soap bubble is real and the story can be broken and disappear as easily as
a soap bubble if you bring us back into the room by doing things like
talking and poking. So please don’t bring us back into the classroom.
6 Moving the deviant.
But all the other things described in earlier sections are all contributing
to making deviancy unlikely!
How to begin
Various ways to begin:
You might stride into the room and strongly deliver the line, ‘Once upon
a time there were three little pigs!’
You might say the same line only once you have settled everyone and
yourself in the ways described above.
You might begin with a richness of language and a strong piece of
description of character but you might begin with a question or a
You might begin by seeming not to have begun a story at all.
You mustn’t begin apologetically or with hesitation unless that is a key
part of your story.
Using your voice
The sound of the voice and the sight of body movement are the first
levels of reality…like the quality of oil paint in a Vermeer…like the
quality of instrumental sound in a flute…like the quality of marble in a
Michelangelo. The voice and the body have been the source of our
communication with each other from the beginnings of our time 4
million years ago.
The human voice can be used in a greater variety of ways than those of
Monotone. Quiet/loud. Fast/slow. High/low. Hard/soft. .
Formal/informal. RP/dialect. Urgent/relaxed. Happily/sadly. Etc.
Many people, when sustaining oral description, make use of a near
identical intonational pattern for every sentence, no matter what its
content and potential feeling. I have heard many students giving
presentations who use the intonational pattern most appropriate for
reading out a shopping list…monotone with a rise at the end of the
sentence…for every sentence!
Of course, we can use variety in our voice just to sound interesting and
that is better than sounding boring! On the other hand, much better is to
make use of the various characteristics of the voice and delivery in order
to make things clear and to express explicit and implicit meanings.
You will do this according to your personality; some people work within
a narrow range and others a broader range but not to do it at all or to use
a very limited and repeated manner whatever the content
1 Try to say Hello in all the ways given above. Try to imagine what the
circumstances might be for saying the word in each of these ways. Do
this with your neighbour. After a few minutes do some of your ‘best’
ones again for another pair of neighbours.
2 Using several of the above features say the following sentence as if it
is the start of an amazing story: ‘This morning I woke up, got out of bed
and opened the curtains.’
3 Directors and actors study the story and the text and build up a clear
character for the protagonists and a clear set of relationships between
them, for example, some are dominant and some subservient. Spend a
few minutes discussing the character of Beauty and her sisters and her
father and their relationship and then study the texts below, from the
story of Beauty and the Beast and work out how the texts should be
spoken in order to convey the character, concerns and relationships of
the protagonists. Then try it out and take it in turns to be ‘director’ and
‘Now father!’ her sisters said, ‘Make sure you bring us some beautiful
clothes and hats and shoes! All in the latest fashion, of course!’
‘I’ll do my best!’ he said, ‘And Beauty, what would you like me to bring
‘Just yourself, dear father. Have a good and safe journey!’
‘Then bring me a rose, father!’
Using your body
The body can be used to communicate:
– physical appearance
– expression of feelings
– expression of abstract concepts
The body may only be used to communicate utter uninvolvement…but
that IS a communication even if it is not the one you want!
General suggestion about using your body
1 Telling a story is art and is heightened life:
– emphasise it (if you raise your hand and open out your fingers to show
surprise…raise it further and open your fingers more)
– do it more slowly than you would in normal life giving time for your
story listener to see and feel what you are doing
– and, if possible, sequence your actions so that you only do one thing at
a time rather than several bits at the same time.
How you move your body is thus natural but more so! Doing it slowly
and emphasizing it gives people time to see and to perceive and to
2 Usually, I think I make my action precede the words which relate to it.
In this way the listener sees, has time to reflect and then (hopefully) has
it confirmed by the words spoken. In this way the listener feels he or
she has supplied the meaning and the words merely confirm it…so in
this way the listener feels it is his or her story.
Physical appearance: examples of using your body
I am bald but I can show thick long hair hanging over my face by using
both my hands with my fingers open, starting in front of my forehead
and then hanging down over my face by slowly lowering my hands.
I can show a deformed, tense man by lifting one shoulder and elbow and
by letting my head droop forward and my mouth hang open.
I am an ageing man but I can show a smart young woman by lifting my
head and turning my chin, half closing my eyes, lifting one shoulder a
little and pushing out my chest and slowly moving my hips.
I can show a dog by drooping my shoulders, drooping my eyelids,
leaving my mouth open and panting.
1 Try each of these activities in pairs.
2 Think of a type of person physically, write it down, mime it and ask
your partner to guess what it is that you are miming.
Relationships: examples of using your body
I can show a dominant person by raising my chin and looking down and
slightly sideways as if I don’t even need to bother looking directly at the
other person and raising one eyebrow. I have a slight sneer on my face.
I gesture with one hand, beckoning with my forefinger.
A moment later I switch to the subservient person by rounding my back,
looking up and slightly sideways and raising my eyebrows and drooping
I can show a person loving another person and asking him or her to,
‘Come to me’. Dipping my head on one side, softening my face and
smiling and raising and opening out my hands and at the same time
moving my upper body forwards.
1 Try each of these activities in pairs.
2 Think of a type of moment of a relationship, physically, write it down,
mime it and ask your partner to guess what it is that you are miming.
Combining voice, words and body
‘Beauty’s father knocked on the door.’ (leaning forwards, head turned as
if to listen more carefully, eyebrows raised as if not knowing what to
expect, and then raising the hand, with the knuckles of the second finger
crooked to knock on the door. )
‘He turned the handle of the door and pressed it open, slowly and looked
into the lobby.’ (Fingers slightly bent, finger ends vertical pushing open
the door, head cranes forwards to look into the lobby, eyes turn as far as
possible to the left and then to the right, at a slightly higher angle.)
1 Try this activity in pairs.
2 Think of a type an action and plan it with your partner. Act it out for
Expression of feelings: combing voice, words and body
‘Beauty’s father went into the lobby. Everything seemed to be so
normal but there was noone there and nobody came when he called.’ (If
you are sitting then move your feet forward, slowly, cautiously, lean
your body forwards, turn your head stiffly, precede a turn of your head to
the right by turning your eyes first, keeping your eyes wide to show
anxiety, even fear.)
1 Try this activity in pairs.
2 Think of a type an action where the feelings are strong and plan it with
your partner. Act it out for another pair.
Expression of abstract concepts: combining voice, words and body
(The narrator is sitting even when the protagonist stands up)
‘He sat in front of the roaring fire (rubbing hands in the heat of the fire),
waiting for someone to come to him but nobody came (looking over his
right shoulder towards the door). The supper lay on the table untouched
(looking over his left shoulder). At last he stood up (slowly leaning
forwards as if to stand up), went to the table (remaining seated but
looking left and pointing with the right hand towards the table),
hesitated for a moment (raised right hand held for a moment) and then
reached into the bread basket and took a piece of bread (taking the bread
and laying it on a plate), then he picked up a knife and cut a sliver of
cheese.’ (picking up a knife and cutting a piece of cheese and lifting it
and placing it on the bread.)
1 Try this activity in pairs.
2 Think of an abstract concept and plan it with your partner. Act it out
for another pair. (Love./ So small…so big!/Beautiful and precious and
Using interaction by the listeners
In order to…show understanding, express feelings and ideas and show
understanding and personal response.
– provide background sound effects
– join in with repeated phrases
– be asked what they think will happen next.
– be asked what they would do in the same situation.
Are you interested in developing your ability to tell stories?
Consider coming to one of my ‘craft of storytelling workshop weeks’, in
Hungary where I live.
Go to the opening frame and click on TEACHER TRAINING.
Copyright or Copy Wright?
If you would like to publish this text or to reproduce it for your students
then simply email me and tell me what you want to do. I am almost
certain to give you permission to go ahead.