EMOTIONAL AUTHENTICITY FOR STORYTELLERS
(Twelve Skills of the Storyteller, Part 4)
The prior four articles in this series described:
"Preface": The dangers of focusing on storytelling skills;
Part 1: Imagination skills;
Part 2: Oral language skills;
Part 3: The skills of relating to your listeners.
In this article, added here with Doug Lipman's permission, he takes up the skills of emotional
The first of these skills is to imagine and communicate
the emotions essential to a story; the second is to make it
safe for your listeners to experience those same emotions.
***Skill 8: Allow Emotions To Flow Through You***
The best tellers imagine all the emotions felt by each character in a story, as well as the likely reactions of their listeners. Emotions, after all, are a significant part of human experience.
But here's the rub: you're a human, too.
You have lots of emotions inside you. Some of these emotions are fully processed and easily available to you, but some aren't.
Telling a story that requires only fully processed emotions isn't hard. It's like a pleasant review of a well organized photo album. You "open" the feeling, tell about it, then "put it back" where it was. In this case, imagining how your character felt is not too different from imagining the color of your character's eyes.Storytelling coach Doug Lipman is the creator of the acclaimed Storytelling Workshop in a Box - a comprehensive storytelling workshop that comes to you! I did the first ten lessons from it, great!
Other emotions, though, aren't just memories; they are
more like unfinished tasks. Letting these unprocessed
emotions flow through you while you try to guide your
listeners isn't so easy.
***Your Emotional Closet***
Telling a story that brings up unprocessed emotions is not
like paging through a photo album. Instead, it's like
opening the door to a closet crammed with a thousand loose
First of all, you've probably learned to avoid anything in
that closet, because you know what a big project it would
be to get the photos back inside if you were to open the
door even a little.
Second, you can't just go straight to the photo you want;
you'll have to at least paw through the ones on top of it,
tear off the ones stuck to it, and look at each photo
closely to decide if it's really the one you want.
Third, some of the photos will have unfinished tasks
associated with them, like sending the copies you promised
to Aunt Nancy or deciding whether to order more copies of
your publicity shots.
In other words, the fully processed photos in an album
don't require much of your attention; you can go straight
to them and easily close the album when you're done. But
the photos piled in the closet represent a backlog of
demands on your attention.
***Telling About a Dog***
If your dog died last week, telling a story about Jack's
dog might remind you of your unprocessed grief. It may well
bring tears to your eyes, tears that desperately need to be shed.
In this case, you'll be torn between your need to serve as
a guide for your listeners and your need to clean up your
own emotional closet.
Please note: the issue here isn't that you might cry while
you tell. If you can clearly indicate that you're okay
while you cry, you may be able to guide your listeners
through your tears. Rather, the danger is that the pull of
the unprocessed emotion can compromise your ability to
fully attend to your job as your listeners' guide - or that
your listeners might perceive your abilities to be
"Unsorted" feelings need to be processed emotionally. You
need to cry the uncried tears, laugh away the unprocessed
backlog of humiliation or light fears, face the accumulated
Interestingly, the fully processed emotions also seem to
get "albumized" along the way. That is, they get stored
mentally in a way that allows you easy access to them -
with little mental overhead.
Now you can appreciate what Skill 8 really demands. It
demands that you have cleaned out your emotional closets
(or at least the ones relevant to a given story).
When you have done so, you can imagine the emotions in a
story fully and relaxedly. You won't need to keep the
closet door rigidly shut or else let out the whole mess;
you'll be able to open it exactly as much as makes sense
for your audience's optimal experience.
***The Hollow Reed***
Here's another way of describing this skill. Think of
yourself as a hollow reed. Images and emotions come in one
end of the reed and flow out the other to your listeners.
Everything in the story flows easily through you.
The key here is to let the reed be hollow. You want to
clean it out before you tell, so that feelings don't get
stuck on obstructions in your reed. You also need to hold
the reed gently; if you hold it in a death grip, it will
narrow and stop the flow.
In advance of telling, clean out the reed. At the moment
of telling, though, remain relaxed and delighted with the
emotions flowing easily through it.
***Skill 9: Create Emotional Safety***
When you have hollowed your reed (or cleaned out your
emotional closets), you have made it possible to feel your
emotions freely. Congratulations! You are halfway there.
What's the other half of your job? You need to make it
safe for your listeners to feel the story's emotions, too.
Keep in mind that we humans are designed to respond to
unspoken attitudes. That's a survival skill, allowing us to
distinguish between would-be allies and enemies. This means
that your listeners respond to your attitudes about your
telling, not just to what you say or do.
I have learned over the years that I can say highly
controversial things without producing a backlash, as long
as I say them relaxedly. But whatever I'm nervous about
saying, no matter how innocuous, is likely to be challenged.
Here's an extreme example. Suppose I said, "The sky is
falling," in a pleasant, relaxed tone. People would likely
show mild interest but no concern.
On the other hand, if I make the perfectly uncontroversial
statement, "The sky is blue," but say it with a concerned
tone, people may leave their seats immediately to check out
whatever danger might be descending on them.
One part of creating emotional safety for your listeners,
then, is to wrap your whole performance in a relaxed
attitude. The second part is to lead the way emotionally.
***Joy and Horror***
Back in 2005, a man named Bud Welch gave an unforgettable
keynote address at the National Storytelling Conference in
Bud's daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Knowing that, I almost didn't attend. I didn't want to hear
about horror and loss. In the end, I went but sat in back
in case I decided not to stay.
To my amazement, Bud spent the first half of his time
talking about the joys of raising his daughter. He told,
with real enjoyment, how his daughter Julie was born
premature with a 10% chance of survival, but lived to
become Bud's best friend and constant companion.
He told how, in the seventh grade, Julie met a girl from
Mexico who didn't speak English. Yet the girl quickly
became bilingual, inspiring Julie to want to do the same.
By the time she entered college, she had mastered four
languages and spent a year living in Spain.
Bud, raised on a farm and the owner of his own service
station, said that the day he took Julie to college in
Wisconsin, "I didn't have a shirt that would fit me,
because my chest was swelled so big with pride."
Bud told about Julie with such joy and love that I opened
myself to him. To this day, I feel that I, too, love his
daughter Julie, who I never met.
Julie's love of reaching out across language boundaries
led her to take a job at the federal building in Oklahoma
City, assisting immigrants and the disadvantaged. That's
why she was one of the 168 people killed by the bomb set
there by Timothy McVeigh.
If Bud had been angry and tense at the beginning of his
talk, I would have discounted him. If he had been
completely unemotional, I would have remained uninvolved.
But he shared his feelings about Julie for nearly 30
minutes, relaxedly and unabashedly. He was clearly
experiencing feelings of pleasure.
In other words, he walked through the gates of joy and
invited me to follow. Once we were there together, I could
go with him through the gates of horror and rage, too.
By leading the way, he made it safe for me to feel things
I had been reluctant to feel only an hour before. I have
been grateful to him ever since.
***Still More Skills to Come***
And also of two books I read and re read again and again, one of which is the Storytelling Coach, the other the above in the picture.
If you liked the above, you'll love this step-by-step course, guaranteed to be the most complete and
enjoyable guide to meaningful, commanding storytelling. Read more and hear an audio sample at
Doug also offers free articles and other resources to help you master storytelling, become a transformative artist, and integrate storytelling into your work life - including how to market your telling by creating a supportive community around you. Learn more now at
In future articles, I'll describe three skills in these
two additional categories:
- Being and showing yourself.
- Flexibility in performance
All six categories of storytelling skills are important.
Yet the skills of emotional authenticity have a privileged
place among them. With these two hard-won skills, you will
have a key for connecting more deeply with your listeners -
and for opening your listeners to a more profound
experience of your stories and perhaps of the world.