As a teacher of storytelling, I hear students' tales of prior teachers in drama, oral interpretation, and other art forms. Some of these tales indicate good teaching. But most reveal traditions of critiquing that leave students discouraged, with little idea how to improve. Even the word "critiquing" has become associated with teaching that finds only fault, but never helps to reveal & develop strengths.
Since the formal teaching of storytelling is so newly instituted in modern life, we storytellers have a unique opportunity: we can create a tradition of storytelling coaching that leaves students feeling:
with a new glimpse of their own potential.
I prefer the model of the coach to the model of the critic, because successful coaches must help players to succeed.
Learning to coach well can be crucial to the success of the storytelling revival, which depends in part on maintaining high standards for storytelling performance. My hope is that our movement, by avoiding destructive teaching practices, can accelerate the growth of storytellers. If we succeed, it will hasten both the flowering and the acceptance of our art form.
This article sets out a group of principles that appear to underlie the coaching of the best, most productive teachers. Perhaps others will add to this list!
The first principle: Respond uniquely to each storyteller
This is the most obvious principle, the most difficult to follow, and the easiest to forget.
Each of us has unique needs. Our needs for outside help change from month to month and even from hour to hour. The coach's job is to help each of us in the way we need to be helped right now.
At any moment, we may need help with the content of a story, with delivery, or with our relationship to our audience. We may need help understanding the overall shape of a story, or with sharpening one specific image. We may need confirmation that we are communicating the message of the story as we see it, or we may need help polishing a single facial expression. We may need information, personal reactions, or a chance to express the feelings that interfere with our storytelling.
Whatever kind of help we need at the moment we are coached, we should get it. The coach shouldn't aim to give her favorite advice; she should aim to help in some way that she's never given help before. After all, this particular storyteller has never been asking for her help at this particular moment before.
The coach should respond uniquely to each teller, even if this means ignoring all the other principles.
We all need to know what we are doing well.
Imagine that you have just cooked dinner for ten guests. As the first nine guests left, they said, in the most enthusiastic tone, "The roast beef was WONDERFUL!" As the tenth guest left, he said, in the most enthusiastic tone, "The roast beef was WONDERFUL-" but then added quietly, "The peas were a little burnt."
Now imagine lying in bed that night before going to sleep. Which comment will you be thinking of? If you are at all a typical product of our society, you will be ignoring the comments about the roast beef, and obsessing about the peas. As a result, most of us need to hear what we do well at least ten times as often as we hear what needs improvement, just to keep a realistic view.
To make matters worse, most praise comes as a prelude to criticism. Usually a comment starting, "I liked your story..." is given in a tone of voice that indicates it will continue with "but...." Praise in that form has almost no positive effect.
To restore the needed balance of roast beef and peas, I suggest separating "appreciations" from "suggestions for improvement." This way, the teller knows when to expect only appreciations, and can concentrate on letting them "sink in." When it's time for ideas about how to make a story better, the teller can listen with the more selective attitude that suggestions require.
Once we know that a coach understands our intent and appreciates our achievements, we can be more receptive to suggestions. Therefore, it makes sense in most cases for a coach to start with appreciations, move on to suggestions, and end with an appreciation or two--to remind the teller of the "roast beef."
The coach's goal is to empower the teller. Storytellers should leave a coaching session with a new awareness of their powers, not with a reinforced dependence on the coach's approval.
To help correct any tendencies a storyteller may have toward helplessness in the coaching session, I have cultivated little habits of putting the teller in charge. First, I ask each teller how she wants the room arranged. Second, I ask after the story, "Would you like to hear what people liked about your story?" Third, after appreciations, I ask, "Would you like to hear people's ideas about how your story could be made even better?" Fourth, I end the session only after asking, "Is there anything else you'd like from us?"
The fourth principle:Put the teller's values first
Most coaches will have many ideas about how a teller might handle a particular story. The coach's ability to generate these ideas is both an asset and a danger. The good coach shares only those ideas that respond to the teller's--not the coach's--needs and goals. Furthermore, when the coach and the teller interpret a story differently, the coach must bend to the teller's interpretation--to help the teller succeed how he wants to succeed, not how the coach wants him to.
Asking questions after hearing the teller's story is an excellent technique for attuning to the teller's needs and goals. Even when I feel confident that I know what the teller is trying to express, I usually start coaching with a question, such as "What do you love about that story?" The teller will be better able to answer such a question immediately after telling the story, and may, in fact, come immediately to a new understanding of her relationship to the story. Further, the teller's answer lets me know if my thoughts for coaching are on the right track.
When I'm on the right track
Sometimes the answer to a question confirms my approach, and gives me a way to express what I wanted to say. For example, I once heard a telling of the folktale, "The Girl Without Hands," which, I thought, over-emphasized the heroine's suffering but neglected her defiance and triumph. Of course, I could have just stated my opinion. By listening to the teller's response to the question, "What do you want to get across to your listeners with this story?" however, I was able to phrase my suggestion in a more sympathetic and effective form.
The teller answered, "I love how she is so mistreated but goes on anyway." This answer gave me the teller's own way of expressing the two emotional halves of the story. Then I could coach her easily by appreciating her success in portraying the mistreatment, and asking her more about the part that was lacking.
When I'm on the wrong track
The technique of asking questions is even more valuable when the teller's answer surprises me. I once coached the teller of a Jewish folktale in which Elijah (a common supernatural helper in Jewish lore) entrusts riches to a couple. Returning after many years, Elijah sees that the couple have remained stingy; as a result, he causes them to become poor again. Judging that the teller's intent was to moralize about the need for charity, I had a vision of how she could achieve it more efficiently. But before I began describing the changes I had in mind, I routinely asked, "What draws you to this story?"
The response startled me. "It's how the couple lived--how sad it was."
Oh, oh. Change in plans. "Tell me about the sad part." She explained about the mental poverty of this prosperous couple. Then I said, "Can you put more of that sadness into the story?"
She began to tell, and immediately burst into tears. After she cried a while and talked more about the sadness of their stingy life, she was able to tell it again. Now the story was transformed from a moralistic parable into a sympathetic statement of human suffering. Had I not asked the question, I might never have known how wrong was my understanding of her vision.
When I disagree
At a summer workshop, a student of mine told a Jewish parable about a marksman travelling through a small village, who was amazed to see a wall covered with bull's eyes, each with a bullet hole in its very center. When the marksman asked who had done this amazing feat, he was told, "It's the village idiot. But he doesn't draw the bull's eyes and then shoot. Oh, no. First he shoots, then draws the circles around the bullet holes!"
Usually, this story is nested in a frame tale that explains it. The famous teller of parables, asked why he has a story for every subject, tells this story, and then explains, "You see, I just think of the story I want to tell, and then steer the conversation until the appropriate subject comes up. Then I tell my story!" But my student told it with a slightly different frame, and without the explanation. When I asked her, "What does this tale mean to you?" she said, "It shows how stories can be interpreted in many ways--you just tell the story, and then you find the interpretation."
I had two choices at this point. I could have told her right away about the conventional interpretation of the story. But I chose to help her explore her interpretation first, lest she lose it under the weight of my "authoritative" one. In a little while, she was able to find a consistent way to tell it that emphasized her interpretation. Only then did I risk telling her my interpretation.
If you view the glass as half empty and I view it as half full, our views won't affect how much we get to drink. In the case of coaching, however, the coach who views her students as "on the way to success" will get better results than the one who sees them as "not far from failure."
This coaching principle amounts to an entire philosophy of education, with many implications. Two corollaries for coaches are that we should model confidence, and that we should search for and remove the barriers to a teller's success.
Most tellers, especially beginners, have a large chorus of internal critical voices telling them that they can't tell stories, that people don't like them, that they're taking too much attention, that they aren't creative enough, etc. What they need is a clear confident voice from the outside saying, "I know you can do it. You've made headway already. Keep going."
Searching out the barriers
Once the coach assumes that a teller means well and is capable of succeeding, it follows that any lack of success is due to barriers that can be removed. In large measure, the role of the coach is to find what obstacles are preventing successful storytelling, and to help the teller overcome them.
The most common barriers, I find, are lack of information, misdirected efforts, and emotional blocks.
Lack of information.
This is the simplest barrier to overcome. Indeed, most teaching assumes that the major role of the teacher is to provide information. The difficulty, of course, is in recognizing what information is needed, and in not giving information that is superfluous or confusing.
A number of common storytelling problems can usually be solved by providing explanations. Tellers who are not communicating images clearly, for example, may need to know that their job is to imagine scenes, not words. They may need to know about outlining the structure of a story, rather than memorizing by brute force.
Tellers often need information about physicalizing characters, simulating interchanges between two or more characters, using the voice effectively, using appropriate eye contact, and many other details of the storytelling craft.
Less obviously, tellers may also need explanations about the range of possible storytelling styles, and about their freedom--even their obligation--to develop their unique style of telling.
A common barrier to success is the teller's idea that storytelling is more complicated, lofty, or unnatural than it really is. Although most people communicate well in daily life, tellers sometimes fail to use their daily communication skills when they tell a story, because they are trying to live up to their unspoken concept of storytelling.
An example is the use of the "well, children" voice--a sing-song, condescending tone that adults sometimes feel they should use to speak to children. No amount of suggestions will get a teller to stop using this tone, unless he can be made aware that he is, unconsciously, trying to speak that way.
If the barrier to a teller's success is not lack of information or misdirected efforts, it is very likely emotional in origin. Feelings can interfere with our functioning in two distinct ways.
First, we may be hampered by general feelings about what we're doing or who we are. Standing up and talking in front of a group can be exhilarating beyond belief, embarrassing, or terrifying. The very process of being coached can bring up fear of criticism, anger against authority, etc. No one in the throes of such feelings has maximum attention for crafting a story.
Second, feelings specific to a particular story may hinder our ability to enter into it emotionally. For example, until the woman who told the Elijah story could cry about the stingy couple's sad way of life, she couldn't fully imagine it.
Often, we choose stories that have a healing message for us. The very feelings that attract us to the story may be the ones we are blocking out--unless someone on the outside can notice what we're unwittingly shying away from.
Using the first five principles, the coach will be able to assist most storytellers. What happens when none of it works? What happens when the coach is stuck?
Listening and reacting
I have two last-ditch techniques. First, I listen. If there's a group, I ask them for appreciations and suggestions. If I'm in a one-to-one session, I ask questions of the teller.
Second, if listening hasn't helped me think well about what the teller needs, I state my reaction. For example, I might say, "I'm left with these three images in my mind...." After telling what I got from the story, I might ask what else the teller hoped I would get.
Sometimes, my response is all that's needed. After hearing a fine story from a student recently, I thought I should give some brilliant, helpful suggestion--but I couldn't think of one. I said, "That story had no obvious flaws. I don't know what to say to help you." I expected a dialogue to ensue that would lead to some insight on my part, but the teller simply said, "Thank you. That was the best thing I could hear."
Avoiding the invulnerability trap
When the coach is really stuck, the coach should say so.
This is not a trivial issue. If a new tradition of coaching is to be launched, it must not perpetuate the idea that "the teacher has all the answers." Sometimes, the most helpful thing a coach can do is to model matter-of-fact fallibility. If it's okay not to know everything, the prospect of becoming an effective coach becomes less frightening.
These six principles are meant to call attention to an extraordinary opportunity facing the storytelling revival: we can define storytelling coaching in any way we choose. Not only are we reviving and renewing an ancient art form, we are able to use the natural strengths of that art form to break through limits that have been placed on artists and on students of all kinds.
What would the future be like if everyone who learned about storytelling learned also that anyone can succeed at it? What would happen if children and adults associated storytelling with concrete experiences of their own success, through the work of a skilled, positive, confident, empowering coach? What would be the implications for our movement if we thoughtfully developed our use of these and other principles to help each other succeed? Would arts or education ever be the same?
We can move toward this future as individuals and as a movement. As individuals, we can develop coaching relationships to strengthen our skills. As a movement, we can make excellent teaching the norm.
Developing Coaching Relationships
As a child, I somehow got the idea that "real work" was like homework: you did it alone, you shouldn't bother people by asking for help with it, and if you didn't get around to it you were personally deficient. As an adult, I have learned that getting help with work is as reasonable as eating food that someone else grew. If I find myself procrastinating about something, I take it as a sign that I need someone to help me with it.
Most of the help I get working on stories takes the form of "rehearsal buddy" sessions. I can't work on a new story alone? No problem: I get a colleague to listen to me think aloud about it for an hour. In return, I coach the colleague for the same amount of time. Because the appointment is on my calendar, I make myself stop everything else and go to it. Because there's another person there, it's easier to think. Best of all, because I use some rehearsal buddies regularly, we get better and better at helping each other.
Coaching relationships can take many forms. They can be built around ten minutes a month, around four hours a week--or even around the dinner table.
Developing these coaching relationships is also one part of a larger goal: to, support grass-roots development of good coaching.
Like storytelling, coaching is a skill
that anyone can learn,
that takes time to perfect, and
that benefits from clear thinking and supportive help.
Each prospective coach who gets enough experience, information and support will become a living example of what is possible, a helpful resource for others, and an advocate for excellent coaching.
Building on the Nature of Storytelling
Effective, supportive coaching nurtured by mutual coaching relationships is nothing more than an extension of the nature of storytelling itself--which is cooperative, and is enhanced by individual differences in telling.
Like storytelling, the simple structure of appreciations followed by suggestions is powerful enough to use with the most advanced tellers, while simple enough to use with first graders.
Further, the current storytelling revival has its origins, not in a centrally mandated curriculum or in imitation of a single super-star storyteller, but in a grass-roots reaction to a set of needs in our society--including the needs for exercise of the imagination, for personal art forms, and for community.
Our movement, non-competitive by nature, is still at a stage when propagating is a higher priority than pruning. Therefore, a doctrine-free type of coaching based on inclusive principles should be acceptable to many in the movement.
For all of these reasons, we have a rare opportunity to make a revolution in teaching and in art. The essence of storytelling lies in using the imagination to let every listener grow in her own way.
Through storytelling coaching, we can add the dimension of using the process of learning storytelling to nurture the growth of each storyteller.