The Art of Storytelling (Article)

The Art of the Storyteller

Aline G. Chan

The Leader, December 1987.

Storytelling is as old as speech. Once upon a time, everyone was a storyteller. To fight boredom and keep themselves company, these early storytellers chanted as they worked, telling the story of what they were doing. Then "I" stories became narratives involving other people and the elements, and storytellers told tales of heros, myths, and legends. The art of storytelling evolved naturally because some people preferred telling tales and other preferred listening to them.

As society developed, people wanted to keep a historical account of events. The storyteller occupied an honoured position and his role was very important. Tribes competed to see who could tell the best stories, which led to exaggerated imaginary tales of elaborate heroic feats. Gradually, some stories featured animals to satirize tribal events. By using animals, storytellers could make fun of kings and chieftans without fear of retribution.

The Egyptians were the first to write down their stories. The Romans were good at spreading stories, as were the gypsies whose nomadic life enabled them to carry tales far and wide. Royalty hired storytellers or troubadours who told tales of court scandals or heroic accomplishments, accompanying themselves on musical instruments. The troubadour gradually surrounded himself with a retinue of tumblers, pages and buffoons who helped him tell the story in an entertaining way. Troubadours were succeeded by minstrals and mummers who travelled from town to town making their livelihood by entertaining people with their storytelling performances.

Today, the art of storytelling continues as we tell stories to children to communicate with them, entertain them, and pass on information. Anyone can read a story but, when a story is told, children feel a bond between the teller and themselves. In a society where parents lead busy lives and children are entertained by the impersonal communication media of films and television, storytelling can be an invaluable part of your program. An experience shared between teller and listener, it helps children develop the skills of listening and encourages them to visualize the story in their imaginations - to relax and fantasize safely.

What kinds of stories to Beaver-aged boys like ? They don't care for instructional stories that sermonize. They do enjoy stories such as 'Chicken Little' or 'The Little Red Hen' in which animals or objects have feelings, even when they are "lesson" stories.

Children believe in magic. A kiss can transform the ugly frog into a handsome prince. They also recognize justice and injustice, crime and punishment. For young boys, it is important for stories to convey magic and fantasy. Like 'The Wizard of Oz' or 'Aladdin and his Magic Lamp', they can be as far-fetched as the imagination will take them, but they also need to have a sense of real life and fair play.

Tips for the Storyteller

There are certain steps that storytellers follow. They select a story appropriate to the occasion, interests, and age of the audience, commit it to memory, prepare the audience by sitting them in a circle, and begin the tale. Professional storytellers generally memorize seven stories a year and have a repertoire of about 20 stories handy at all times.

If you are an inexperienced storyteller, look for short stories with repetitive phrases. Choose tales that you like because Beavers can sense when you aren't keen on what you're telling. You want stories that build up suspence to a good climax, preferably tales where characters speak for themselves rather than straight narratives. Length is important - never more than 20 minutes for Beaver-aged boys. Leave them wanting more. Generally, children's magazines are not a good source of stories because the material is meant to be read by the child, not out loud.

When you've chosen the story, you need to memorize it. It will take a few hours spread over time. First, read it silently and try to see the story in your mind's eye by visualizing it as a series of pictures. Then learn it by reading it aloud repeatedly, enjoying the words and the sound of the phrases. Think about words that may be new or unfamiliar to your audience and incorporate their meanings into the story so that you won't need to interrupt it during the telling to explain.

Time yourself when you read the story aloud. After you have memorized it, time yourself again. If you use less time, you are either telling it too fast or skipping parts. If it takes much longer, you are telling the story too slowly. Tell your story to anyone who will listen. Before going to bed, read it aloud again. If you can, tape or videotape yourself telling the story.

Once you've memorized the story, you are ready to tell it. These points will help you do it more effectively. Smile and make eye contact with your listeners. Vary the pitch of your voice and use facial expressions and hand spirit of the story - unless you do, don't tell it. In choosing stories it is a good idea to select a theme for the hour, week, etc. (Honesty, courtesy, loyalty, safety).

Be sure to read the story out loud first because some are better read than told. Don't be afraid to use high and low tones to impersonate characters.

Be sure of your sequence of events; then practise out loud, in front of a mirror if possible, until you are used to the sound of your own voice and gestures. These gestures should be very simple - if used at all.

Be sure your facial expression interprets the mood of the story. Your eyes are most important - use them.

Atmosphere can make or break a storytelling period. Be sure it is quiet, secluded, and that there will be no interruptions once the story begins.

Try some of the tricks used by experienced storytellers - a "story hat", which goes on when the story begins and comes off when it ends, or a mascot such as a teddy bear, doll or hand puppet to tell the story to or take the part of a character. This is a simple device for taking your mind off the listening audience if you are a little shy.

And the opening sentence! Don't always say "Once upon a time..." Why not try:

Telling the Story


  • Have a definite place
  • Have sufficient time
  • Have listeners seated comfortably in front of you (semi-circle)
  • Don't allow questions or interruptions during the story
  • Look directly at the children as you tell the story
  • Voice

  • Speak simply, quietly and directly
  • Use sufficient volume to be heard easily
  • Be careful with enunciation
  • Use low, pleasing tone quality
  • Expression

  • Know what you want to say
  • Express what you feel
  • Think what you mean
  • Be natural
  • Timing

  • Pause
  • Change the speed
  • Change the pitch
  • Vary the emphasis
  • Build up to the climax
  • Ending the Story

  • Do not detract from the climax
  • Make sure not to suggest another story.
  • Do not point up a moral
  • End the story quickly
  • Then STOP!
  • Some Further Helpful Hints

    Remember: short stories for little people; longer stories for bigger ones. If it's funny, laugh with them!

    How to Tell Stories

    These are general guidelines to try. It will take some trial and error to find what works for you. I've seen things work great for someone, but I have been unable to make them work. I have been able to adapt them and make them work.


    The following suggestions are from Blair Madore.


    You can write your own story, use one that's written or modify a story that's written. But, the final story needs to fit both you and your audience. As the workbook The Entertaining Speaker from Toastmasters International says,

    "It should suit your personal style and outlook on life. If you aren't comfortable with a story or a set of funny lines, your material won't go over well as part of an entertaining speech."

    If you are writing an entertaining story, your personal experiences are a good starting point, but you don't have to stick to the facts. You can stretch the facts, combine different events or even modify a joke to fit. Also, a story doesn't have to funny to be entertaining; the ghost stories and the "Winter Cub Story" are entertaining by being dramatic.

    If you are using an existing story, the workbook "Storytelling" from Toastmasters International offers the following points to consider.

    Generally, younger children enjoy stories with plot and action. Older children and adults like stories with more humor and interplay with characters. All ages enjoy rhythm and movement of event in stories. Stories should be well paced, with few slow and no dull spots.

    You also need to consider how your story will fit with other events. For example, if the story will be used at the beginning of a campfire, it should have a lot of excitement and energy. If the story will be used near the end, it should be quieter and more thoughtful.


    Stories are usually better told than acted out. If you act them out they become more of a skit. I had the instructor at Pow Wow (a Cub Scout leader training session) tell us that it's better to just stand than incorporate any movement. My experience tends not to agree with that; gestures-if the are natural-add to the story.

    The gestures also depend on the audience. A friend of mine, who is a seminary student, said he was taught that elementary school age children like more gestures and movement. That agrees with the following statement from Gestures: Your Body Speaks from Toastmasters International.

    You may, on occasion, have to adapt your gestures to fit the size and nature of your audience. The larger the audience, the broader and slower your gestures should be. Young audiences are usually attracted to a speaker who uses vigorous gestures, but older, more conservative groups may feel irritated or threatened by a speaker whose physical actions are too powerful.