How I deal with disturbances during a storytelling session

By Limor Shiponi

This issue comes up occasionally, not only when discussing storytelling; ask guides, trainers, lecturers and co – we all meet disturbances and have to find a way to deal with them. Some disturbances reside with the teller. If you’re not prepared, if you want to hear only your own voice, if you are preoccupied with the belief listening is stillness – you might interpret any movement and sound around you as a disturbance.

What isn’t really a disturbance? Some examples:

  • When people exchange thoughts about the story while you tell
  • When they talk to you, ask, or make a remark about the story as you tell
  • When they move to a different place because they can’t see or hear well
  • When they move a little in their chairs, scratch or even fall asleep

These and many others are all natural behaviors, relevant to such an event. If they would be sitting upright stiff, you would like it even less. If you are intimidated by such behaviors, check yourself first. Letting them be or incorporating them into the activity as you go is a great and fun way to handle them.

What is a disturbance although people never intended to disturb? Some examples:

  • When someone is translating an entire session to a person next to him and sits in the middle of the crowd
  • When babies cry
  • When toddlers run about or come to you, minding their own initiative in parallel to yours
  • When people answer their cell phone during the session and embark on a detailed conversation although whispering

These and many others are all natural behaviors, clashing with the event. They are real disturbances since they create a competing event, and the audience needs someone to put things in order. Don’t wait – address the addressable and tell them – what’s happening, what you suggest, in a kind, non-apologetic way. Very often, they will thank you for telling them, before everybody else starts gossiping about them.

What is a real disturbance? Some examples:

  • When some people in the audience are having their own loud conversation, aka ‘private party’
  • When a student sitting in an audience makes loud, nasty remarks about his schoolmates and teachers
  • When someone in the audience is making intended wisecrack remarks about what you are telling
  • When someone from the examples in the second paragraph deliberately continues as in “I bought a ticket and you won’t tell me what to do and how to behave”

Obviously, in the last group of examples, there is a different agenda going on; we are just caught in mid fire. Therefore, we will have to handle the situation, not necessarily alone. This is what I do when the above happens, I’ll be happy to read other’s advice:

Private party

This usually happens when someone decides to invite you, unknowing others invited to the event might not necessarily approve with this kind of ‘entertainment’. If it does happen, you can be sure the organizer feels worse than you do. You can try to invite them in, change the stories, play a game, and move into something else that you have up your sleeve. In most cases, that will be enough.

If it does not work, they have a hidden agenda with the organizer. If their own people can’t make them stop, announce a break, go to the organizer, talk things up, tell them how you feel, listen to how they feel and take a decision together. This does not happen often at all. When it does, I find the best way to handle it is to recommend a nice short closure, give the organizer a symbolic discount on the spot, and depart as civilized people.

Student making loud, nasty remarks

This happened to me twice up until now. In both cases, it was the school’s chief troublemaker. The kid not everybody believes in anymore.

Case one: I walked across the stage, positioned myself in direct eye contact with the person, and said, “I see you are used to grabbing all the attention. Now there is someone else doing it and you feel unemployed, you don’t really know what to do. However, for the next 45 minutes I’m going to be center stage whether you like it or not. You need to make a decision and I will respect whatever you decide: you stay here under the rules of proper behavior when attending a performance, the rules are 1-2-3; or you walk out and stay out without disturbance. The thing is you need to decide now. Again, it’s your decision and it will be respected”. The boy was shocked. First, because someone said they actually noticed his existence. Second because everybody was looking. Third, because they were all silent, waiting to hear his decision. He decided to stay under the rules and managed to keep his word.

Case two: I stopped the performance, looked around at all the 500 people in the hall and after examining them very well said, “500 people, including teachers and you let one person bully you all? He needs you to notice him and stop him. The more you are silent the more he is afraid his powers of destruction are endless”. Silence. Heavy silence to be more precise. I waited another 15 seconds and then continued the session. After about 5 minutes the bully was back to business but this time one of the kids next to him looked him straight in the eye and said “shut up, I’m listening to the story”. The surprised bully was close to getting offensive when another kid said, “it won’t work anymore. Just listen if you can”. From there on it was quiet to the end of the session. I could even see the boy giving in to listening and his expression became soft, after realizing no one was watching anymore.

Intended wisecrack remarks about what you are telling

This, with no doubt, is intended behavior. It’s another form of bullying hidden under a disguise of ‘funny’. A person behaving like that doesn’t really give a damn about anyone else. My way of dealing with it is ‘direct fire’ – shooting back something much further down the road than the original remark (never about the person though); something the wisecrack does not have the guts to utter or cannot even think about.

“I bought a ticket and you won’t tell me what to do and how to behave”

I talk, I suggest, in many cases I’ll ask the organizer or parent (if kids are involved) to take charge, I offer a solution. You might have noticed I never use an ultimatum when dealing with these situations. That’s because in many cases, there is a power game going on in the background and I have no intention becoming part of it. If things get to the point someone is trying to force their ‘attitude’ on me and everybody else and they can’t be stopped, I stop the performance, tell people why I’m going to walk out, depart with a smile and walk away. No, I don’t return if they beg me to. They have some issues to deal with and those issues didn’t change to the better in five minutes.

Rain isn’t a disturbance either 🙂


3 thoughts on “How I deal with disturbances during a storytelling session”

  1. Some very good advice here, I’ve nothing concrete to add, but thought you might enjoy a memory this prompted…

    I was telling with my colleague Philippa Tipper, in a session we knew had been advertised for children. Our company policy is always to specify a recommended minimum age, and insist that promoters include this as part of their marketing. It doesn’t often work, but at least you have a point of reference in the (rare) event that you need one.

    This session, most of the kids were fine, but there was one demented toddler (someone else in the audience’s younger brother, as it turned out) who was completely un-reachable. He was very definitely used to being in a world of his own, and he wondered at will throughout the whole playing space….bad enough, but made far worse by the intermittent but piercing yells he uttered.

    Not an unfamiliar situation for many tellers, I’m sure.

    Also not unfamiliar may be the curious fact that very often the parents of such children seem blissfully unaware that their progeny are being complete pains.

    The reason I remember this so clearly is because of the way Philippa dealt with it.

    Her instinctive response to things like this is often to give the irritant something to do, get them involved in the action, which usually works well, but this little terror was clearly rather too young for this to work.

    The next time he wondered close enough she leant forward and gently (but firmly) grasped him by the shoulders. She managed to stop him in his tracks, but what to do with him?

    We were both of us sitting on armless chairs, and Phil was wearing trousers, and it just happened that the lad was almost exactly the same height as the seat of the chair (if you see what I mean), so she simply pulled him a little closer and placed one knee either side of his head – roughly at ear level – and…held him there, quiet as a lamb, until she’d finished the story.

    All of this whilst keeping the story going – she didn’t miss a beat !

    It was a beautiful thing to see, and I can only think that it was the simple, but firm, physical contact that calmed the kid down…the initial expression of astonishment on his face (an absolute picture!) quickly dissolved into something much calmer.

    Obviously I wouldn’t recommend taking such direct, physical action as a matter of course, but I’ll never forget how well it worked…on this , very rare, occasion when it was exactly the right thing to do.

    And yes, we did have words with the mother afterwords.

    p.s. Love the new design of the site, clean and simple!

    1. Ha! I love what she did! Sometimes they just need someone to approve their existence, sometimes it is just physical contact. The point is that in all these examples the person or kid disturbing get to keep their dignity.
      P.s. design complement goes to WordPress. It’s really well made. Thanks!

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