The Accidental Storyteller
Welcome to The Accidental Storyteller
Telling Stories for Fun, Fact, and Fiction
Welcome to the first blog of “The Accidental Storyteller.” Why such a strange name? Because I never intended to be a storyteller. It just evolved…in spite of me.
There were several times during my formative years when things happened in school – things that convinced me I never wanted to stand in front of an audience or be the center of attention again. The first incident was in fourth grade. Our class was doing an art project and we all had little pointed tools that we were using to carve a pattern in a piece of rubberlike tile. The teacher stressed that when we were creating our designs, we should always have that little tool pointing away from us. I obviously did not pay attention. While I was engrossed in the project and pushing the etching tool around with my right hand, it slipped and made a large gash in the palm of my left hand. When the teacher saw it, she pulled my hand up in the air and, with blood running down my arm, showed everyone what happens when they don’t follow instructions. The other kids were staring at me and my hand in horror. I was too embarrassed to even feel the pain!
A few years later, during an English exercise, we were taking turns reading paragraphs from a book out loud. When it was my turn to read, I mispronounced a word. The teacher literally hollered out, “Who said that?” and promptly corrected me in front of the whole class. Once again, I was the center of attention in an embarrassing way.
Twice in high school I froze in front of an audience – once playing my accordion on stage in a talent contest, and another time leading a meeting of the Future Business Leaders of America, of which I had just been elected president. Both times I was distracted by what felt like a thousand eyes staring back at me. Graduating from high school was a release from all of that – I would never have to stand in front of an audience or be the center of attention again! If anyone would have told me that someday I would be in the middle of a spotlight on stage telling stories to an audience, I would have laughed and probably told them they were out of their ever-lovin’ minds! Uh, uh. Not going to happen! No way!
So here I am, a 20-year veteran storyteller, very comfortable on stage with a microphone and spotlight, in front of any size audience. What changed?
It was my perspective. What I failed to realize through those early years, but have since come to appreciate, is that none of those things that happened to me were about me. They were about the audience and what the audience needed or expected to hear, see, or learn. I had to put myself in their shoes. Now I can truthfully tell you that an audience WANTS you to do a good job! Whether you are talking, playing an instrument, singing, or whatever, people want you to do well. They want to hear what you have to say; to know what you know; to be entertained. So hopefully, by sharing what I have gleaned through experience and time, I may be of help to others who have stories to tell but don’t feel comfortable about being the center of attention. Or maybe you don’t feel that you have the expertise to put your stories in writing. It’s okay, because you are not alone. All you need are two things – confidence that comes from knowing what you are talking about, whether personal or learned (researched), and a genuine desire to share it for the benefit of others. Whether oral or written, stories don’t have to be historical or informative to be meaningful…they can be just plain entertaining – humorous or feel-good tales that touch hearts.
My personal journey of emerging from this self-conscious pit of dread started during my business life as an administrative assistant in a large corporation. It was a time of advancing new technology, progressing from electric typewriters to new machines with green screens called word processors and then to computers. It was a learning process for everyone, including members of management. Because I worked for management, I was often one of the first to be introduced to the new technologies and charged with instructing others. I became a quasi-teacher. It was satisfying to know I was helping others learn. The nugget that I took away from this time of my life was that there is no better way to learn something than to have to teach it. You have to do your homework, know what you are talking about, and be prepared to answer questions. That simple truism stays with me to this day.
After 28 years of working for the company I loved, they decided to downsize and offered eligible employees an early buy-out. I was eligible. It was a tough decision, but I found myself fully retired before age 50. Now what? I started my own company, of course – an office project management company. I was the only employee, but it made no difference; it was all mine. For the next few years, I had an enriching and enjoyable time signing on with numerous small and large companies to do one-time office projects that would have otherwise caused them to take their regular employees away from their work. I interfaced with people at all levels and was involved in meetings as a presenter as well as a listener.
It was also a time to finally think about moving away from The Northeast to a milder climate. We moved to Jonesborough, Tennessee, the state’s oldest town and the home of international storytelling. The word “storytelling” didn’t mean much to me then; it was just the name of an activity in the area. We kept busy for a year building a house but, being new and not knowing many people, it was lonely. The solution was obvious – get back to a real job and meet more people! I signed on as a tour guide and learned the facts and legends of Historic Jonesborough. My first solo tour was as a bus step-on guide for a group of visitors from New York on their way to do some gambling at southern casinos. I learned quickly how to keep my balance while talking on the intercom and standing on the top step of the stairwell as the bus was moving. As we wound our way through the streets and I pointed out places of interest, a couple people expressed surprise at my non-southern accent. They were anticipating a problem understanding a southern tour guide and whether or not I would be able to understand their northern accents if they had questions. It had not occurred to me that accents from different areas or even other countries would be an issue. This one wasn’t a problem because I was also a northerner, but it made me aware of the possibility and the importance of speaking clearly and perhaps slowly if necessary.
Being a tour guide in an historic town was fun! We dressed in costume much of the time, learned to be flexible if groups arrived early or late, tended to the needs of our visitors, and had “a good time.” A good time…those were key words stressed by the owner of our tour company. “Be yourself when you are conducting a tour,” she said. “If you are having a good time, our guests will also. No matter what happens, stay calm, be gracious, be yourself! ” Those were wise words of advice that I eventually carried to the stage.
So how did I get from the street to the stage? The tour company owner and a couple of her seasoned tour guides who were also storytellers said to me on several occasions, “You should be a storyteller!” They were encouragers for sure, but my old ingrained fears kept resurfacing with “no, no, I don’t want to do that.” As time went by, however, and I told the stories of Jonesborough to groups in restaurants, parking lots, under tents, and from the porch of the International Storytelling Center, being a storyteller started feeling natural – or at least less intimidating. It was enjoyable sharing what I knew with an audience who really wanted to hear what they came for – to be entertained and learn about Jonesborough. Our goal was to welcome people to our town, tell them our unique stories, and give them good memories to take back home. We did that. Even though my costumed image is probably in a lot of scrapbooks or on phones, none of it was about me.
After a little more prodding, I finally did go through the steps to become an official storyteller with the Jonesborough Storytellers Guild. The training included polishing one’s stage presence, the finer points of effective story delivery, and the importance of bringing a story back around for a wrap-up. I also learned that you never “arrive” at being a storyteller. It is not an ending to be attained, but rather a continuous journey…and there is always more to learn along the way.
In my next blog, I will talk about stage presence – what is important and what is not. I hope you will join me next time! If you have comments or questions, you can contact me through my website and I will answer within a few days. Just click on the “Contact” tab. Here is the link: