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How To Once Upon A Time and Live Happily Ever After (Story Telling Tips)

Story Telling or Story Reading...

A story can be beautifully read or beautifully told, but both experiences will be very different. 

Reading a story from an illustrated book presents children with written and spoken language and provides them with visual pictures of the story - but telling a story without a book can be a magical experience.

When a story is told without a book, the Teller and Listeners set off on a journey together. Participants often experience a sense of being in another time and place. The teller can convey the words and feelings of the story, but the listener must create those images. There are no pictures to rely on and no remote control to push if you miss a bit. Both teller and listener need to be engaged for a story to work and each time it is told, the experience will be different.

Part of the appeal of Story Telling is because it is a very human and personal experience. Tellers and Listeners look each other in the eye and share the story. There is also a question of trust. The Teller, the Listener and the Story need to work together to make this enchanting experience… and usually it is!

Both Story Telling and Story Reading will be suitable at different times and for different audiences, and will often depend on the story you have chosen.

Choosing a Story to Tell

Of course whether a story is being told or read, it is important that it is age appropriate - but please don't get too caught up in making sure that every single child will understand every single word of every single event.

Children will enjoy and appreciate the story at a level that suits them just by hearing it. It might be the rhythm, or language that appeals. Too much "intellectualising" or explaining can shift the story from being a heart-felt experience to being a reason-with-your-head experience. How many adults know what a "runcible spoon" is? But not knowing doesn't detract from the magic of The Owl and The Pussycat!

If there are key concepts or words that children really need to know, ease into explanations before the story starts. Use those explanations as part of your introduction - so you won't interrupt the flow of the story at a later stage with a detailed dissection, language, science or history lesson!

When choosing a story it is important to move from the known to the unknown. If you can relate the story to something that is real or relevant in the child's life you will increase the heart-connection to the story. Folktales and Fairy Tales are ideal places to start looking for stories to tell.

Most folktales were created through telling, and the language and structure will assist you.

Poems, or stories with a repetitive phrase or event are also good stories to tell - they give the teller clues to remember the next part of the story, and they give the audience an opportunity to participate. The rhythm of both these stories also help carry teller and listener away on their journey.

If you find a story you love, but you think it might be too long or scary to tell the group you are working with, try adapting it to suit. You know the group you are working with, and after all, who's telling this story anyway?…. You Are!

Preparing Your Story

You've already learnt to tell stories from people who have told you stories in the past. Build on this experience and see as many other good story tellers as you can. Not only will you discover different styles and techniques but you will also discover a whole new treasure trove of stories.

Learning the stories is not as daunting as it might sound. We have no trouble remembering the stories we tell our friends about what happened last week because we experienced the events. Do the same with any story you want to tell and really feel and absorb the story first.

Different Storytellers remember stories in different ways:
  • Some read or listen to a story over and over
  • Some read it a couple of times and then remember it like a movie, finding an image that dominates the story
  • Some type or write out the story
  • Some draw charts
  • Some meditate on it
  • Some draw stick-figure action cards of the story with a few key words as reminder
  • Some use props, and
  • Some begin telling the story at once… and make it up as they go along!
You might memorise word-for-word some parts of the story - particularly if it is a beautiful phrase, a traditional beginning or ending or important dialog. But Beware! Trying to memorise the entire story may put you under so much pressure that you could be instantly distanced from your listeners.

Naturally the best way to tell a story is to tell it as often as possible, and with as much enjoyment as you can.

When you are confident that your story is ready to tell, it is important that you are also ready. You might want a little warm up time for yourself before you begin. Stretching, big loud sighs, Tongue Twisters and energising movements will make sure that you and your story are both ready to give it all it's got!

Getting Attention

Bottoms, tummies and other body bits are just as important as ears in listening to a story. Make sure your listeners are comfortable and settled - it's nearly impossible to get lost in a story if you really need to go to the toilet or have something to eat or drink.

The storytelling space should be comfortable and free of distractions. There should be enough room between you and your listeners so that everyone can see clearly - but you also need to be close enough to ensure that the experience is friendly. Check the space ahead of time, so you can spot problems and arrange for any special needs including a stool and a glass of water.

A Routine Story Time can also help instantly settle children, but of course stories can be told at anytime, and sometimes the best stories are those that are made up on the spot while sitting under a tree, watching ants go by. However, there is also something enchanting about moving into an area that has been created especially for a story. If you don't have a special area, maybe you could have a special stool, or a special tinkly-bell that signals story time.

Before you start your story use some sort of introductory "attention getter". To engage the ears, try also engaging the other senses - the smell or touch or taste of something that is going to be in the story can be a great introduction.

A visual prop, the rose Cinderella wore in her hair to the ball, bubbles, or a simple feather all take on fascinating proportions when they are about to be included in a story.

Introducing the story by talking about the people who wrote the story (or drew the pictures) can also be of interest to children and some children will even start recognising a favourite author or illustrators work.

Your introduction will do more that start the story. It will gain attention, set the scene and tell something about the story or you. Just be careful not to give away the plot!

Keeping Attention

A confident storyteller is going to command attention… but how do you gain confidence?
Practice,
Know your material and
Bluff!  (Even if you don't feel confident, you can look and sound confident)

A big, clear voice to reach the back row is crucial. Fill the room with your story. You can sit or stand, whatever is most comfortable for your children or you, but make sure you are facing your audience squarely. Fidgeting, hands in pockets, shifting from foot to foot, "umming" and "ahhing" will distract from the story if you let it and you will end up with people counting how many times you scratch your eyebrow, rather than listening to the words.

To project and sustain your voice, deep breathing is essential. Just make sure they are proper deep breaths, filling your lungs down low so your stomach expands - not just gulping air into your upper chest. A straight back will also help you expand your lungs fully.

Maintain eye contact with as many listeners as possible - even if you can't see them all, looking in their direction might convince them that you can! You will naturally focus on listeners who are paying attention but make sure you bring those who might wander gently back into the story with eye contact.

Slow down and really take your time - your listeners need time too, to see and feel and laugh and reflect and wonder about the story you tell. Consciously build in "slow down" points in the story or you may find yourself speeding up and leaving your audience behind.

Your story will change depending on your audience - some children with squeal with delight at a bit that you might be encouraged to expand - other children might not be so keen on that part and you might want to shrink it down and concentrate on something else. Remember that story telling is a two-way process. Your listeners will respond to you and you need to respond to them.

There are six magic words to remember in keeping attention. After "Once upon a time there was….", the next most magic words are "participation, participation, participation" and "repetition, repetition, repetition".

Participation can be in the form of listening, or joining in with a phrase or action, or guessing next events or providing suggestions for actions or characters.

Repetition is a constant in most folk tales or told stories with events or phrases often repeating themselves in sets of three. It is a magic number, and even in joke telling we establish the story in events of three so we know where we are going.

However while the story is allowed to be repetitive - you can't be! If you continue to use the same tone, pitch, speed, rhythm and volume you will put your listeners to sleep. Use LOUD (but only sometimes) or use silences. Variety can catch attention, and help you to hold it.

It is important that your voice isn't pushed too hard or strained. Relax your throat and jaw muscles, and the rest of your body as well.

Your gestures also need to vary, but make sure they suit the story. Too many gestures can be distracting. Actions are best used to mime an event or to accentuate a point.

In Story Telling, your characters often make the story. You don't have pictures to rely on so you need to bring those characters to life with face, voice, gesture, or body posture. By changing those elements you will also help your audience differentiate who is talking when. But be careful, if you have a Scottish, and Irish and a Norwegian character you might get yourself very tongue tied if you are going to give each one an accent! Give them "character" instead. Feel what sort of people they are and bring that into your story.

If your characters are having a conversation, try not to break the story with "he said… then she said… then he said…" instead try "cross-focusing" so that each character faces a different 45 degree angle when he or she is speaking.

And last but not least… and this doesn't happen very often… but if it's not working - bail out! There is nothing worse than struggling through something when everyone is falling asleep and no one can remember what was happening or who the characters were. Look for the short cut through the wood, and take the fast-ending option to the story… and they will still live happily ever after!

And That's The End Of The Story... or is it?


Endings should be clear, and the story should "feel" like it is finished. No missing bits or unclear resolutions. The storyteller can help the story end by slowing down and adding emphasis. Many stories also use a convention that children love to join in with; "happily ever after," "and that was the end of that," or "they never saw him again" can bring us slowly out of the story and back to the world.

Allow for a little silence after a story, where the children can just sit and absorb. Think about how you feel after a particularly touching movie. You don't want anyone to rush you to start talking or doing things - you just want a few moments just to let it settle.

Remember, story telling is a heart-felt experience and the brain may forget; but the heart remembers.May your story telling be full of magical moments…

and may you live Happily Ever After!

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