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The art of storytelling

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By Rona Barbourprofessional storyteller

Rona Barbour shares a few tricks of the trade to help you bring stories to life

People have been telling stories to pass on values and information, and to make sense of life, as long as we have had language. Storytelling is effective in relaying information because it engages our imagination, hearts and minds. There is something in a storytelling experience for everyone.


Dry data is boring, and delivering a set of facts and figures using this method means it is likely to be forgotten as quickly as it is absorbed. Because story engages us on so many levels, we easily retain it in our memory to use it as needed. The natural form of story makes sense to human beings. It contains all that we care about: people, problems and solutions. A story is really just a mass of information organised in the form of a situation with characters who we can relate to; settings we can envisage; problems we want to know the answer to; and resolutions that give us hope. Stories are food for thought. They help us to discern right from wrong, and give us the heroes and heroines we wish to model ourselves on.

A well-developed and presented story can hold the interest of an entire audience, and it will reach out and touch them at any age. Knowing and applying the few simple basics of storytelling will help strengthen your stories.

The storytelling persona

The most successful storytellers will tell you that they have a totally separate persona which they adopt when working. Many will also tell you that it was something they only realised later, and developed over time. In other words, they were not initially aware they needed this separate identity, but that it came with experience. So, with this valuable experience now shared, remember before you begin to tell a story to take on your storytelling persona.

  • Choose your persona and act it out right from the start. For example, you could be the ‘storytelling fairy’ or the ‘old woman of the woods’.
  • Whatever you choose as your persona, think of yourself as that person, and act and dress accordingly – your storytelling performance will be better for it.
  • If you wish, you can have more than one storytelling persona.

The confident storyteller

Confidence is something that grows with experience, so do not expect to be perfect first time. Keep in the forefront of your mind that the audience do not know what to expect, and you are in control. Do not worry about mistakes – they are part of storytelling. Even the most experienced storytellers make mistakes or omissions, but the audience do not realise because they do not know what you were going to say… so don’t tell them!

  • Confidence comes with experience, so practise whenever you can.
  • Be well organised. Know which story you are going to tell and rehearse it.
  • Prepare well in advance, until you are completely confident that you can tell the story on demand.
  • Do not worry about telling the story word for word. Tell the story how you remember it and this will make it different every time.

Finding stories

There are many kinds of stories you can work with. Try starting with simple fairy tales or folk tales that you know, for example, choose your favourite Grimm’s fairy tale, and then, as your experience grows, you can explore various different types and branch out.

With time, you will probably find many kinds of tales that will interest you personally. There are all sorts to choose from, including folk tales from other countries and cultures; humorous tales; traditional fairy tales in numerous versions; wish tales; trickster tales; scary tales; tall tales; myths and legends; and Bible stories. The list is endless, but do not let that put you off.

It is far best to work with traditional folklore or tales in public domain, than to plagiarise a living author or storyteller without their permission. With experience, you may want to try a variety of stories, and perhaps even go on to tell your own personal stories.

Prepare and practise

Once you decide on a story, spend plenty of time with it. For some people it may take some time and a number of ‘tellings’ before a new story becomes their own. Others are naturals and can pick up a story and run with it almost immediately. However, this does not necessarily make them any better in the long run.


  • Read the story several times, first for pleasure, then with concentration.
  • Analyse the story’s appeal – the word pictures you want your listeners to see, and the mood you wish to create.
  • Live with your story until the characters and setting become as real to you as the people and places you know in real life.
  • Visualise the story. Imagine the sounds, tastes, smells and colours. Only when you see the story vividly yourself, will you be able to paint the ‘word pictures’ to enable your audience to see it.

Delivery techniques

  • Use your voice to good effect when you are telling the story in a calm and relaxed way.
  • If you are telling the story to very young children, maintain their attention by keeping it quite short (approximately ten minutes).
  • Show enthusiasm and use hand and eye gestures to convey meaning – younger children love this.
  • Demonstrate sincerity and whole heartedness – be earnest.
  • Express animation and variety in your storytelling to make the story seem more interesting.


  • Practise in front of a mirror, or a friend, and ask for their honest feedback.
  • Remember that the words are only part of the package that includes body language, clothing, tone and other components.
  • Unless you are an accomplished musician who is used to talking while you play, do not use music as it will take away from the storytelling performance. Instead, use props, such as small hand bells or pipes, to indicate certain noises.
  • Use various puppets if you feel confident about doing this and talking at the same time.

Story setting

Storytelling is best carried out in a relaxed atmosphere that is free from distractions. The audience should be comfortable and sitting close together. Make sure that the room is quiet, and empty except for your audience.

Ensure that all toilet trips are carried out beforehand and, in the case of adults, all mobile phones are switched off or put on silent. Give careful attention to the setting beforehand, and be prepared to rearrange the room to bring the listeners closer, or use a backdrop or hanging to create the correct atmosphere, especially in early years settings.

Remember to give credit to sources, but above all, enjoy telling stories!

Read Rona’s exclusive short story Wishing on a Star. A perfect chance for you to practise your new-found skills!