Why Learn Storytelling: A Guest Post by Brett Dillingham

As a group, writers are generally a lot more comfortable in front of a keyboard than they are before an audience.  But in today’s competitive market, authors must often perform – at readings, at book talks, at school visits, and at other author events.  To help bridge the gap between the written word and live performance, 49 Writers was thrilled to be able to catch respected story-teller and author Brett Dillingham on his way through Anchorage next month; on his stopover, he’ll be teaching a three-hour storytelling course. 

I’m going to have the opportunity and honor to teach a storytelling class for 49 Writers this coming January 9th. We’re going to pack quite a bit into this three-hour class – everything from a simple and powerful way to create a story to how to tell that story in such a way that your audience will be pleased and satisfied. The workshop is the culmination of over twenty years of work as a storyteller on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.  Master storytellers, elders, wide-eyed children, felons, reading specialists, jaw-dropping international acclaimed storytellers, my Grandma Una – many have contributed to my understanding of how to teach people to write and tell stories. For those who attend, I will do my best to pass on what I’ve learned and honed working with all ages, colors and stripes of people. I’ll teach a process for creating stories and how to tell them to a real audience.

Why learn Storytelling?

Storytelling is much less common in classrooms, homes and libraries than reading books out loud, but most people prefer oral stories to reading. Reading a story and telling a story are not the same. A story remains fixed on the page, a one-to-one correspondence between speech and print. The language of text is more formal than speech. While the reader may embellish the text with vocal inflection and tone, the creative repertoire for enhancing meaning is limited. Because the reader holds the book in her hands, there is much less body movement and eye contact. A reader may enhance the text with illustrations and pause for discussion and clarification, but the experience of being read a story is less active and often less enjoyable than being told a story.

In contrast, telling a story often involves improvisation and audience participation. A storyteller is more likely to embellish a story with facial gestures, body movements,  and props. Storytelling is multi-sensory, stirring the emotions and stimulating the imagination. The content and style of delivery are easily modified to meet the needs of the audience. The same story can be told very differently to a class of bright-eyed, eager four-year-olds than to a group of academically advanced fifth graders or college students or community audience.

The audience in storytelling helps create the story. Storytelling is open, fluid, and sensitive to the moment. The storyteller draws upon her/his experience and culture in telling the story. Storytelling is intimate and the storyteller is an active participant with the audience, while the author of a read story is more distant and cannot respond to the listener as easily as a storyteller.

Storytelling grabs the attention of the listener quickly, with the focus on the unfolding external action. Time is more concentrated in storytelling with much happening in a short time. An event described in print might take several paragraphs to convey, whereas in storytelling a sentence, with the aid of gestures, may convey the same meaning. A picture is worth a thousand words, so perhaps a storytelling performance is worth ten thousand words. Storytelling can offer more ideas, provide richer communication, address difficult content, and survey cultures more efficiently than reading aloud. It’s a wonderful and powerful skill for teachers, librarians, writers, parents… really, for anybody who wishes to communicate.

Juneau resident Brett Dillingham has performed live storytelling on National Public Radio, the Calgary International Children’s Festival, the National American Reads conference, the Reading Association of Ireland, the National Migrant Education conference, the World Congress on Reading and the International Reading Association. In his workshops, Brett teaches storytelling and poetry as performance literacy. Brett is also the author of the children’s book Raven Day (McGraw Hill, 2001) and the textbook Performance Literacy Through Storytelling (Maupin House, 2009). Past president of the Alaska State Literacy Association, he is a sought-after educator and speaker and is frequently invited to present keynote addresses at conferences in the U.S. and Europe. Register today for Brett’s Storytelling Creation, Craft, and Performance on Sunday, Jan. 9 from 4-7 p.m.; $29 for members and $35 for non-members. 

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