Consider your audience. You wouldn't recite nursery rhymes to your boss in a dull moment of a meeting, right? Okay, maybe some of you would it depends on your boss, and on your job. But the sentiment holds true-- you have to match your story and style to the person or people listening. Answer the questions for yourself: who is it? What do they want to hear? What do they need to hear? How will you tell it? Why are you telling it? Where are you?
Let's start with who is listening. When I tell a story to a single listener, like my son, I can suit everything to him: my tone of voice, my gestures, and my choice of words. If I am crafting the story in the moment, I can watch him for cues that things are too intense or scary, or that he is getting bored and needs more excitement. When telling a story for a group, I have to be open to contributions from each person in the way of feedback, experience, or interests. A live story is not a book or even an audio recording; the live story, like a play, relies on the audience for life. The storyteller must quickly assess what kind of response to expect from the group. Are they accustomed to calling out, to laughing out loud, or to weeping openly, or are they a group who will show almost no reaction, but will take the story in deeply and let it work on their hearts?
The age of audience members is an important consideration. When dealing with mixed-aged groups, I pitch my story to someone older than the youngest members, but younger than the elders. In times of doubt, I aim at the pre-teens, the eleven and twelve year-olds, unless there are mostly little ones and their parents. Parents will love a story that acknowledges them, but is aimed at their children. Simple, sweet stories with messages that ring true at any age are always welcome.
Know your environment and the mood you want to create. Are you in a classroom, a school assembly hall, a county fairgrounds, a dim living room before bed, or a busy restaurant? If you have to, change it up in the moment. You may have planned a raucous tale of pirates and treasure for your daughter's birthday party, and seeing the frenetic chaos of the after-cake activity, you might suddenly offer a story about a wise princess on a mysterious quest. Sometimes you want to match the mood; sometimes you'll want to meet the audience in that mood and lead them somewhere, perhaps into stillness or into joyful activity. You are the storyteller, and that makes you the weathermaker for just a moment.
Finally, what do they want to hear, and what do you want them to hear? This may be two very different things. Can you make both happen in one story? Of course you can! You can start with them, them bring them along to your own goal, or you can surprise them by coming around to where they are...
What stories are you telling, and for whom?
Sara lives in Minnesota with her wife, their son, and a lot of cats and turtles. She coaches waldorf moms and other sparkly unicorns, helping them find wonder, ease, and contentment. Sara writes about parenting, storytelling, and about living a life with stories.