Ten Guidelines For Effective Storytelling

I. We Are All Storytellers

We are all telling stories all of the time. Not only do we constantly tell stories, but we also constantly ask for stories . . . thus inviting others to be storytellers, too. We ask our partners when they arrive home, "How was your day?" We ask a colleague at work, "What did you do on the weekend?" We ask a child arriving home from school, "What did you learn today?" In these ways we are seeking stories and expecting the other person to tell us a tale from their experience. Through such stories we share our emotions and experiences. We tell of our frustrations and achievements, our joy and our sadness, our pain and our pleasure. The events that have meaning to us, challenge us, or enrich our journey through life are the things that we want to, and do, share with others. For them, hearing our tales, and for us, hearing their stories, is a sharing of experiences that enhances everyday living for each of us.

As well as hearing and learning from others' stories, we also hear our own stories, and the more we tell them, the more they are likely to become a reality—both desirably and undesirably. Take, for example, the child who has a morning dental appointment. When he arrives late to school, it is in the middle ofa spelling lesson. Almost as soon as he enters, his teacher asks him to spell a certain word from a list that he was supposed to have memorized overnight. He is a reasonable scholar and to spell a word is not normally a problem, but the distractions of an uncomfortable dental visit, the late arrival in class, and the sudden shock of being put on the spot sees him stumbling over a relatively easy word. "What," exclaims his teacher, "has the dentist pulled out—your wisdom tooth?" The whole class laughs and the young boy shrinks in embarrassment. He later relives the late arrival, the teacher's words, and the laughter of his peers. Over and over he tells himself the same story, becoming more withdrawn and less inclined to put his hand up to answer questions in class. He tries to make himself look small and insignificant when the teacher is looking for volunteers. The story that he tells himself about making mistakes in public, about being put down, and about feeling embarrassed continues to be relived again and again in his mind. It is a story that told not only what had happened but began to determine what would happen in the future.

Conversely, let us take the example of a child with a particular skill in athletics. She wins most of her races at school and has received accolades from parents, teachers, and peers. The story that she tells herself of a particular win determines how she will approach the next school competition. Her story of past success is likely to enhance her feeling of confidence, and thus contribute to her future success.

As we are constantly telling stories to others and ourselves, as we are constantly hearing stories from others, so we are defining not only what the past has been but what the future will be. Our expectations when asking for a story from someone are not unrealistic, for we are requesting something the other person is capable of providing: We are all storytellers, and have been all our lives. We do not have to start from scratch when it comes to the art of storytelling because we are already in a position to enhance and refine this skill, and to use it effectively in therapy. It is not a question ofwhether we can tell a story so much as how well we do so. The guidelines in this section are designed to help hone some of those skills.

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