Storytelling performance indicators | Two feedback questions that help us realize what we can improve on

storytelling performance indicators | Limor Shiponi

By Limor Shiponi

Storytellers often shy away from giving feedback to each other in public. Between “spellbinding” and “moving” we’re not helping each other too much. This becomes a real problem if you’re at the beginning of the journey. The absence of knowledge about storytelling performance indicators makes it difficult to evaluate skill. Even before that, it makes it difficult knowing what to evaluate. “Maybe you should try a different kind of voice” doesn’t help anyone move forward.

Finding good feedback questions

I’ve been trying various feedback eliciting techniques for years. What I’ve been looking for lately are simple feedback questions, suitable for beginners. I’m trying to help develop critical evaluation skills. After some experimentation, I find the next two questions effective in revealing storytelling performance indicators:

Do you feel the storyteller has a good grip on the steering wheel? Is she or he navigating the storytelling event ship or not?

Whatever the answer, what is doing that in your opinion?

These questions train storytellers to be present; pay attention to our sensory impressions. They also train storytellers to check performance from the impact end. The first question frames the feedback process to a performance indicator: the level of grip a storyteller has during a storytelling event. It seems a simple question and it is. At the same time it contains many other possible questions about performance indicators. What are they? That’s what the second question is for.

Revealing storytelling performance indicators

The second question helps explore storytelling performance indicators. A good way to go is encourage students to find indicators on their own. Try not to provide them with a prepared list. Ask both questions several times, looking at different parts of the event: the entire telling, a section, a paragraph, a sentence, a prologue, an epilogue, a link section. The more rounds you take, the more performance indicators you find. The list accumulates in front of the students’ eyes. It will receive more attention and trust than a pre-dictated list.

After exploring and revealing performance indicators, it’s easier to understand how to evaluate your work. It’s also easier to evaluate others’ work, what they need to improve on and to what degree. We can plan our progress, set objectives and milestones, and seek the help we need on various skills.

“Spellbinding” is nice, better is to know the mix of ingredients that make up fairy-dust.

“folktales are really clever…”

By Limor Shiponi

Our current storytelling beginners’ course is a wagon full of marvels. Last time it was the guy in marketing who came up with a profound insight, this time it’s a lady about my age with a brilliant spin-off that left us all in awe.

One of the exercises I use in training, leads participants through a process that transforms a personal story into a folktale. During the various phases of this exercise participants are requested to shift partners, so eventually no one knows who the original story-owner was, what it sounded like or what it was about. An hour later, we have a room full of new-born folktales…

In a small village in Romania, lived a woman who had an only child – a beautiful, loving young girl. The mother and her daughter had very little by means of property and finance, but they had one another. The mother took close care – to tell her child the most beautiful stories, sing songs with her, dance, walked in nature, and visit friends as often as possible. The mother wanted to give her daughter a life of beauty and joy, of wisdom and friendship. They were happy with each other and with what they had for many years.

One day, a distant relative came to visit. She was from a far-away land over the great oceans. This woman was very elegant and she had a lovely smell of perfume. The girl thought to herself, “She looks like a queen”; the girl was very curious about that woman and the things she brought with her.

A day after, the guest said to the girl, “I have a present for you”. She opened a special-looking box, gently pulled out a round, shiny object, and offered it to the girl. “What is it?” asked the girl. “It’s a crystal ball,” answered the guest, “and it’s only for you to use. If you look into it you will see the most beautiful, exciting and interesting things. If you look through it at anything, you’ll learn very fast what’s worth looking at and what isn’t. Take it, keep it and enjoy.”

The girl took the ball and ran outside to look into it and all around. She was fascinated by the sights and sounds in the ball. She was excited to look at things around her through the ball. Some of them looked nice and interesting, some were plain and boring, so she decided not to look at them anymore. She was happy with the beautiful, exciting and interesting things in the ball; They were endless, and every day there were new things in the ball to explore. Gradually she looked more into the ball than around here, spellbound by the magnificent, out of this world sights.

After some time, she came into the tiny house where her mother was working in the kitchen. “Hey mom!” she called, “look at my present!” The girl lifted up the ball to show it to her mother, but as she did, she saw her mother through it and thought, “My mother looks empty. She isn’t very interesting.”

From that day on, the girl drifted away from her mother and clutched to the crystal ball. Her mother tried to call her – to eat together, to tell stories, to walk outside – but nothing would bring her child back. Although she had a lovely daughter whom she loved dearly, she was very much alone.

As the woman telling the story spoke this last sentence, another woman in the class clutched her head between her hands. It seemed she was about to break into tears. The teller fell into silence looking at her. “That’s my story,” said the distressed listener, “it’s about me, my daughter and what happened after she received an iPhone as a present”. “How is it, to hear your story told as a folktale?” I asked. “It’s even more distressful than I thought reality is, but it is truly how I feel.” “Would you like to hear the rest of it?” I asked. “Yes” was the answer. The teller continued with a glint in her eye and brought the story to a surprising twist and conclusion. It was surprising because her story had a solution for the distressed mother in it.

The story-owner smiled, “I like that and I’m going to follow the story’s advice”. Then she added, “folktales are really clever” which made us all break into laughter.

At the end of the lesson she asked the teller, “how did you come up with such a great solution and folk version for my story?” which upon the other student replied, “well, I have three daughters with iPhones. I know what it feels like…”

Working with feedback

By Limor Shiponi

After another week of practice and telling people his broader version of ‘David’s lament’, including an introduction and a wrap-up, G came back with some useful feedback. I’m posting it with my remarks about how the feedback is useful:

I loved the introduction. It helped built-up context. With every additional phrase, the vision became clear and meaningful. Finally, I realize the circumstances. I would like more of it.

Listeners stand witness to what we tell. If they can’t realize the context and circumstances, we are practically taking away from them an important chunk of their role. Give them what they need so they can stand witness and participate in the storytelling partnership between story, storyteller, and listener. Some need more, some need less, and G will have to adjust as he goes.

Oh, this is great. I’ll tell the person in charge of the annual memorial service she needs to bring you in to tell the lament.

Although G’s performance of the lament is very different from what people here have been accustomed to, they still refer to the already known context. Don’t fight it – tell it where they want you to, and tell it where you want too.

I loved the Hebrew. G gets into the story, it touches him, and therefore it touches me. The introduction is important but we know the story. What it does even more than giving context, is make one realize where the real pain is. It’s not with whom died; it’s with whom stayed behind. G, I saw you suddenly as very theatrical, you’re a poet! However, it is not you. It’s not how you tell your stories.

The last comment was made by one of G’s very close friends; a person who knows him for many years; they’ve been through a lot together. Notice how deeply he could feel what G was feeling. Nevertheless, he was also able to discern and tell G what was wrong, without hesitation. G didn’t like the “theatrical” part in his friend’s comment but that was exactly what he needed to look at. something about his telling of the lament was not authentic enough, yet. He couldn’t see it by himself yet, mainly because of all the work – defragmentation can make you stop listening. I suggested we record his telling so he can hear himself from ‘the outside’. It did the job. G realized what the friend was talking about. From here on it’s just a matter of listening inside as he practices more. “Am I truly there? Can I see and feel what I’m talking about? I’m I relating to the story and responding to it or am I just telling the text?”

The more honest the feedback the greater service it is to the storyteller. Being ‘nice’ is nice but if you have more to say – don’t leave it out of the conversation. Many people are afraid to ‘offend’, which is understandable; not telling the truth about what YOU feel in front of a peer’s telling – if they asked for feedback – isn’t very helpful. Above that – many storytellers make it impossible to tell them something.

My advice: always ask the person before you give feedback. If they approve, tell them what you see, what you feel and think, be very specific vs. speaking ‘in general’. What you don’t want to tell them is “if I would tell that story, I’d…” don’t tell them what to do; just what the telling made you see/feel/think.

The truth is – most storytellers know very well that something is wrong or great when it is. If they ask for feedback and you have some you’re not telling them about, a little elephant will grow in between you.

For reference, it might interest you to look at a list of components important for a storyteller. The list was accumulated via a survey I’ve conducted during 2004 among a group of experiences storytellers. Through the same survey, I found out something important about feedback too: storytellers refer to self-feedback as the most valuable. Second is feedback from family members, close friends, and peers they trust for honesty concerning this matter.

Next How to handle descriptions in a literary story you want to tell orally


Core emotion, core movement

By Limor Shiponi

G is past ‘David’s lament’ full text analysis. He has performance decisions and he’s ready to practice them. The thing is, storytelling is not only about what the storyteller wants or needs. Storytelling is a dynamic partnership, and it shifts from performance to performance. What G sees as fixed decisions right now, will not always work. What will work, is carrying an essence about the story, which some people call – point of view. The essence for G will not necessarily be the essence for all his listeners. The fact he has an essence connected to this particular text, is what’s important.

This also helps the storyteller keep an emotional core, that influences his style of telling a specific story. If he’s missing that core, most of his stories will sound the same.

Finding the emotional core of a text

This is one way, there are others. Here, I’m describing the exercise I did with G. Please notice: the trainer has to be both a sensitive facilitator and a well developed storyteller, that can authentically shift her emotional charging. If you don’t have one around, you can substitute her part by bringing in several storytellers to perform – each one in their own style – and decide who is going to facilitate. So this exercise can also be interesting for a workshops.

Setting the stage (what I said to G):

  • Stories move along time – in the story, in the telling or both.
  • You will stand still on a starting point and if you need to move forward, move as much as you need.
  • I will stand very close behind you and perform the text. You will listen, let my voice and words go inside.
  • If you feel my words make you want to move, gesture, make faces – anything that has to do with movement – do it.
  • If you need to say something – stop me, turn around and say it.

That’s what we did. The first round, I performed from an emotional core I’d call ‘Heroism’. After several sentences G stopped me and said, “I don’t like this. I’m driven to illustrate the words, I feel ridiculous”. So we started again. This time I performed from a ‘Legacy’ core. G was doing his best not to giggle but rather feel what kind of inner movement it elicited. “It makes me want to impress and move in a disconnected way. It’s a very artificial feeling”.

Then we tried again and this time I was performing from ‘Power yet sorrow’. “I don’t have the need to move here, but my chest feels heavy”. Then we started another version, where I was using the intention ‘Love”. “It’s taking over. I can’t feel all the text, only the more descriptive parts”.

After trying these four versions, I wanted to know which version G sees as the one that created the deepest movement inside him. He chose the third – power yet sorrow.

What on earth do I do with my hands?!

That was G’s next question. Before going forward we spoke a little about storytellers and movement. What we particularly looked at was the possibility of internalizing movement. I’m reminding you that during the intake phase, G mentioned he is too busy with gestures, which makes him tired. Finding the emotional core helps finding the movement core.

I asked G to look at an imaginary audience-member sitting on a couch in front of him. My request was “with a single movement, no words or sound, how would you transfer the entire story to this person, if your choice is the third choice?” Students here know speaking seriously to thin air is part of my training style… G gave it a try. “What do you say, did you make it?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Well, how can you know?” … silence. “Look in that person’s eyes. What do you see coming back at you?” “Hmmm… they are waiting for a point. In any case, I can’t see my intention there.” G tried again, looked at the imaginary eyes for feedback, his body was searching and so were his facial expression and hands. The third attempt led to a “click”. There it was, clear and accurate, the storyteller managed to make the person in the audience “nod” as if saying “I see what you mean. Yes.”

“Now look at your body, your face, the movement, what do you see?” G’s body was standing upright, his eyes looking directly forward with a soft expression and one of his hands was burdening his chest.

Next: The power of a spoken word

G made this sketch at the end of the lesson when I asked him to draw the drama the way he sees it. He started at the left hand side, moving up shraply and then continued adding horisontal ‘plots’ for ‘lack of space’ (which he solved very well in other places in this sketch…) eventually a tree extracted it self – look at the movement.