Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

The Power of the Verbal Delete Button

During a kindergarten residency at a school recently, we visited individual classrooms many times. On one visit, we noticed an injured child. It was hard NOT to notice. Laced with lacerations, one side of his face was every shade of the red spectrum, from pink to purple. Greeting us, he cocked his head to show us the palette of pain that marked his cheek.

“Did you fall on the playground?” we asked.

He shook his head.

Then his teacher approached us and gently set a hand on his shoulder.

“He was bitten by a dog,” she explained.

The boy nodded sadly.

We said something soothing and then headed over to the story corner where all of his classmates were sitting in a cozy semi-circle on the alphabet rug. Finding his place at the letter Q, he joined them and we began the session.

Our presentation carried everyone away from the plastic, primary colors of the classroom into the lush, tropical fruit colors of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. One of our stories was crafted specifically for the residency. Not only was it age appropriate, it fit our curricular goals, and it represented the culture of one of the minority students in the class. For all those reasons, it was important to tell that tale that day.

As we were telling it, we came to the moment when an old woman is threatened by a snarling, sharp-toothed wolf. We thought immediately about the injured, little boy. This was not the sort of image he needed. But there was no way around it. The woman had to be threatened by the animal or the story would no longer make sense.

Such a dilemma is exactly when in-person, live storytelling has one of its many moments of glory.

Because live storytelling is not hardcore and scripted, storytellers have freedom. Because live storytelling has improvisational aspects, it is possible to make shifts in text and image on the fly. So we changed the way we described the threat to the old woman. Instead of telling the story as we usually do (by focusing on a kindergarten-appropriate scary description of the wolf’s teeth), we dropped it completely. By “deleting” all references to the animal’s mouth, we pulled the teeth out of the image, so to speak. We kept the story integrity intact and also preserved our integrity as caring people.

While deleting phrases may sound insignificant, it is not. It is what live storytelling is all about.

Storytellers often change their work in response to their audience. It is part of the magic and allure of live performance art – it is also its brand. Instead of stiffly adhering to a script and leaving the boy with a reminder of a dark memory, we left him laughing and happy like the other kids.

Live storytelling can bring the needs of audience members into sharp focus. Take your eyes off the text and put them on those who might listen to you. You can learn a lot by watching them. Parents, teachers, and therapists are lucky because they know their audiences intimately. But even if you don’t know yours, you can ask about them before you perform. And whether you know them beforehand or not, watch them.

Could the old woman be a role model for the boy, showing him that it is possible to overcome a scary canine? Quite possibly. At the very least, we avoided salting a wound in the service of a script by invoking the verbal delete button.

If you heed your audience, you honor them. And maybe, you will offer the balm of blissful forgetting graced with healing.

Do you have moments where the power of your writing or speaking is amplified by what you don’t utter or write? Let’s have a conversation -if you comment I will respond and visit you back!


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15 thoughts on “The Power of the Verbal Delete Button

  1. Ed Hotaling on said:

    Wonderful insights as always. It is true that I will tell a story differently for a kindergarten class than I will for middle school. I don’t think live stories are told the exact same way twice. That is the difference between a storyteller and a griot.

    • Yes, shifts in audience totally change what we do. I have something about that coming in the future I think… and yes, it is a storytelling skill that makes our art really special. A friend commented on the The Storycrafters FB page, not here. He mentioned that stand-up comedy is the same. The audience response drives the boat, basically (my inelegant phrasing, not his). And doesn’t that work for us, the way we learn from what audiences find funny? A feel another post coming on sometime… 🙂

  2. wow. I don’t think I have had a live story told me like that.

    • Well you probably have and didn’t think about it. We all tell stories in conversation. That’s one aspect of it. But formal (platform) storytelling is a performance art – like slam poetry, stand up comedy – in fact, it is a kind of cross between the two. Content and style varies widely from storyteller to storyteller. There are storytelling performances all over the place – in all kinds of venues. And there are groups here and there who get together monthly, say, to practice and share stories. If you have trouble locating any, tell me where you live (if you’d rather, message me privately) and I can help you get connected.

      • I don’t telling stories to a friend and telling one the way you do is the same at all!

      • Good point. I guess what I didn’t say well enough is that you have experienced the hearing of a story….. And yet, although it doesn’t sound it, the roots of what makes something storytelling are the same. True, not everyone who tells an anecdote in conversation is skilled such that they would do it on a stage and engage a large crowd, but the basics operating system is there. And you are right, performance storytelling is an art unto itself. I really hope you get to experience it sometime!!

      • I will look for a place. I’m sure there is one near by.

      • There’s bound to be. If you are in America, check this out: It has a list of organizations, maybe you are near one of them. If not, they could connect you to something, even a library may know… 🙂

      • There are a couple places nearby. Thanks!

  3. I really like your choice of Challenge theme and the concept of live storytelling having the flexibility to engage with particular audiences and the mood of said audiences at any given time. Am now following and will read back through the remaining Challenge posts. Also love this idea of an epilogue rounding out the series. Nice to close the loop.

    • Thanks for stopping by and following! I think I’ll do a reflection and then the epilogue…I loved your theme choice for the challenge very much and will be reading through all of your posts. Very much looking forward to it!

  4. I sometimes change words of a song for the same reason … or even leave a song out of my set …. for example if someone has just been through the death of a loved one, emotions can be very close to the surface.
    The interaction of audience is what makes live performance so special – allowing us to move as needed, otherwise we’re just like a jukebox, in my case, or a tape recording.
    Lovely post …I find storytellers fascinating and have and the privilege of singing at a few storytelling festivals – great fun 🙂
    Fil’s Place – Old songs and Memories

    • Not a jukebox or recording, love that. Yes, we go into shows changing the plan all the time. We always have much more at the ready to accommodate what we meet in the audience. Thanks for taking the time to comment, I’m so glad you liked the post. And I bet we know some of the same people Fil… 🙂

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